03/01/2013 01:15 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Why Don Lemon Is My Hero and Should Be a Hero for All Young, Gay Black Males

Those of us who have gone through the coming-out process have shared our truth with friends and family members in difficult, inspirational or even creative ways. Some of us never had a choice but to come out, because the fact that we are gay was obvious to everyone since not long after we were born. But some of us knew that being gay was essentially forbidden for black men. This is my coming-out story, the one that has taken me two years to write, and I'm sharing it to thank Don Lemon, whose own coming out inspired me to do the same. And when better to show my thanks than on his birthday, March 1?

On Sunday, May 15, 2011, on my first night in New York City, right before I started my internship at NBC News/, the news broke that Lemon had come out after years of rumors. That night, before bed, after reading the inspirational news, I decided to finally come out too. This was something I had thought about on and off. I felt the same anxiety and fear of coming out that most gay people experience, but everyone has to come out on his or her own terms.

Lemon opened up about his sexuality in his 2011 book Transparent. Although he had been out to his co-workers at CNN, he had never publicly disclosed the fact that he is gay until he shared his story in his book. He revealed that before coming out, he feared what just about every gay black male fears: being condemned by the black community. He affirmed that being gay is not a choice and that when you are born gay and black, you are just as gay as you are black. Explaining why he decided to come out, he told Joy Behar, "If I had had someone like me who had chosen to live their lives out and proud, there would be no need for the Tyler Clementis of the world," referring to the gay Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man.

Lemon taught me that there is too much life to experience to remain trapped in the closet or, worse, to hurt oneself. It was a relief to relate to someone's struggle, and it inspired me to do the right thing. I didn't want to be 40-something and still debating whether to come out. (On a side note, I was shocked when I found out Lemon's age; I'd assumed he was in his early 30s!) I needed a push, and he gave it to me.

I planned to start off by coming out to friends and then working my way through family. I told my loved ones in different, sometimes clever ways. First I told one of my closest friends in New York. As we walked past a gentleman's club, she jokingly asked, "Do you want to go in?" and I said, "I would if I liked women." My mother's reaction was the toughest, but I hope she's come to terms with it, because our relationship is still the same. I'll leave it at that.

Since coming out, I'm more comfortable in my own skin. I'm not afraid to talk about guys I'm interested in. I don't have a filter when it comes to talking about gay sex -- even with straight friends. I actually have more close friends who are straight men than I had before coming out. Although I'm occasionally asked ignorant questions like "how do you know you don't like girls if you've never been with one?" and although I occasionally have to glare at some dumb guy who says "no homo," ultimately my straight male and female friends love me for me: gay and black (and regardless of either).

Like Lemon, I feel free. He understands that it's important to have gay black men as public figures and role models. Although I don't believe in holding public figures or celebrities accountable to any responsibility, Lemon is the first of his kind to be a role model for me, and it helps that I'd long respected his work at CNN. To all the young black males (and young males of any color, for that matter) who are struggling with their sexuality, living dishonest, cowardly lives on the down low, thinking about harming themselves or even considering coming out: Know that it's OK to find an idol and allow him or her to inspire you. As the saying goes, "it gets better." For me, that role model is Don Lemon, and because he's black, gay and brave, he should be yours too.

Thank you so much, and happy birthday, Mr. Lemon.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-866-488-7386 for the Trevor Lifeline, or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.