“Everybody’s journey is individual. If you fall in love with a boy, you fall in love with a boy. The fact that many Americans consider it a disease says more about them than it does about homosexuality.”
— American author James Baldwin (1924-1987)
Excuse me, but what century are we living in? What continent is this? Are we still in North America? Are you sure we’re not in Uganda?
I did a double take this week when I read this Associated Press (AP) headline: “In his book, CNN anchorman Don Lemon comes out as a gay man, even as he acknowledges the risk.”
Lemon, 45, has been at CNN for eight years, and is a primetime host and correspondent.
The AP story quoted him as saying he struggled with his sexuality “because of how the black community perceives a gay person.”
“An African-American male is taught that he has to be masculine,” he said. “And our community is steeped in religion, with the church preaching against homosexuality.”
Now, aside from the fact that I quibble with the notion that being gay and being masculine are mutually exclusive, I can understand why he might have experienced inner turmoil. It’s hard to acknowledge you are in some way different than many of the people around you. Life’s easier if you blend into the majority.
And it’s not uncommon for people to come out of the closet years and years into adulthood; not everyone is ready or even sure of their sexual orientation at 13.
What I can’t understand is why he should have to brace himself for any kind of fallout. There should be no professional risk for someone disclosing their homosexuality in 21st-century North America.
“Few national television news anchors have publicly acknowledged being gay,” the article notes.
Why is that, exactly? Are we going to switch channels rather than see a gay man deliver the news?
A news anchor in a gorilla costume? That’d be distracting. A man in a suit reading the news? The question of sexual orientation wouldn’t even enter my mind.
It’s a sad commentary when, in 2011 America, a man has to fear for his job because he’s gay. And yet there are other parts of the world where gays and lesbians have to fear for their lives, courtesy of their own governments.
Currently, Uganda is planning to introduce a “Kill the Gays” bill; that’s horror enough to wrap your mind around, let alone in light of the lessons I thought we’d learned about persecution during the Holocaust.
Perhaps given the influence American ultra-conservative evangelicals have had in Uganda, Lemon’s uneasiness is somewhat easier to understand.
Nsenga Burton of TheRoot.com, an offshoot of The Washington Post, reported Tuesday that “the legislation would make homosexuality (already a crime in Uganda) punishable by a life sentence or death, along with prison sentences for anyone knowingly associating with a gay person.”
The mere suggestion of the bill has sparked increased anti-gay protests and violence.
Such regressive and hateful legislation is tough to fathom. Unfortunately, Uganda is not alone.
On Monday, Zambianwatchdog.com reported that Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika recently “delivered a blistering attack on homosexuals, describing them as ‘worse than dogs,’ and the act abhorrent.”
According to Judith Moyo of the Nyasa Times, Mutharika told his supporters via state radio: “You will never see dogs marry each other. These people want us to behave worse than dogs. I cannot allow it.”
The criminalization of homosexuality in those countries — and others — has drawn harsh criticism from many circles, and has resulted in demands for improved human rights and threats of a withdrawal or a diminishment of humanitarian aid.
The uproar is warranted.
Yet I wish we’d protest a little more loudly here in North America in support of gay rights so that people like CNN’s Don Lemon did not have to spend years grappling with whether or not he should disclose his sexual identity for fear of professional reprisals.
And Lemon has plenty of high-profile company.
Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelly wrote on Monday about a National Basketball Association executive’s recent decision to come out. Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts, 58, acknowledged his homosexuality in an online piece by The New York Times.
“Male professional team sports still are behind the curve when it comes to issues of homosexuality,” Kelly explained. “Welts risked his professional life telling this story.”
Welts’ story has ended happily, so far. He’s received an outpouring of public support since the Times article appeared.
Hopefully Don Lemon’s memoir will elicit a similar reaction.
Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that you can legislate tolerance or totally wipe out homophobia, but you can legislate against intolerance. And the days of workplace discrimination against gay people should be ancient history.
Surely the top guns at CNN and the NBA wouldn’t bend to pressure to fire or demote someone because of their sexual orientation. Surely the American public is not so intolerant as to call for that.
I’m with the Seattle Times’ Steve Kelly. “I can’t believe this is an issue we still have to talk about, but it is …,” he wrote in his column.
“Someday, this won’t be a story.”
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.