Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Don Lemon, Coming Out and Success in Black America: by Maurice Jamal

Don Lemon, Coming Out and Success in Black America: By Maurice Jamal

May 17, 2011
Hollywood, CA
Op-Ed: Don Lemon, Coming Out and Success in Black America
By Maurice Jamal
Like many gay youth do, I always felt that I was a little strange as a kid. My range of interests tended to be different than the guys who were raised on the same block as me. And while many of them counted NBA athletes and hip-hop artists as their inspirations, my heroes were always the African-American news anchors. It may seem weird to some, but the black men I saw on TV, both locally and nationally were smart, respected and trusted. Their faces delivered important information to homes all across this diverse nation. They moved past traditional stereotypes of what we were supposed to be and presented an image of what we could be. They represented a level of acceptance that I longed for. So when I got the call on Sunday that CNN’s Don Lemon had come out publicly, I was excited by the possibilities that it brings.
While Lemon wasn’t exactly closeted (he was out with management and co-workers) his decision to come out to the masses is an important milestone in the intersection between race and orientation.
The reality is that we are quickly reaching a critical tipping point in the Black community in regards to LGBT issues. Over the past several years, we have seen a line drawn between the old school Black establishment and the LGBT community (and our progressive allies). One only needs to look at the urban websites, blogs and accompanying comments discussing marriage equality, the debate over “no homo” and even the Bishop Eddie Long scandal, to see the divide between “mainstream” Black America and the Black LGBT community.
And stuck between this gulf, are countless young people who are struggling with their identity. Lemon notes that his decision to come out was influenced by the suicides of Tyler Clementi and the other gay youth that seemingly swept across this country last year. And for every Tyler Clementi and high profile case, there are countless young people whose stories we never hear, whose cries go unheard and whose pain is swept under the rug. And Black queer youth are far more likely to be isolated from the people and organizations that can support their journey.
So who speaks for the young people in our community that are suffering is silence?
In coming out, Lemon becomes one of the few high profile African-Americans in mainstream media/entertainment to do so. And it makes a difference. Just like the Black TV newscasters that inspired me as a kid, Don is a symbol of the best of Black America. Each day, he was in our living rooms helping us to understand some of the most important events of our time. Don Lemon is educated, respected and trusted. And now we all know he’s gay. And the impact of his coming out can’t be understated.
There are countless kids who have heard about his coming out, and they can see themselves in him. For those dealing shame, disgrace or confusion, they begin to see the possibilities of living life authentically and proudly.
I am one of the few openly gay Black filmmaker and actors in the mainstream industry, and I’m proud to have found success within both the Black LGBT community and mainstream Black America. But even for me, the path isn’t always easy. There are biases, prejudices and obstacles that I must overcome everyday. Yet, I consider the greatest measure of my success to be the countless emails and messages I receive from young people across this country, who’ve found support, solace and encouragement in the work I’ve done and how I live my life. While most of these messages have been from LGBT youth, I also receive numerous emails from their family members and friends who sat down, watched one of my films and were able to find common ground.
Coming out in mainstream entertainment is indeed an important step in changing the attitudes in this country. The entertainment industry has a significant influence on culture in America, in particular with communities of color. And the success of openly gay artists and celebrities also demonstrates their economic viability and our LGBT buying power.

And coming out is also a very personal decision, and individuals have to decide what is best for them, their family and community. But we can’t deny that the coming out as a public figure has an impact. And in the Black community, that impact is heightened because of the misunderstandings, homophobia and attitudes about Black masculinity that pervade our culture. Let’s be honest, Black people are the originators of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. The prevailing attitude in our community has been to pretend gays and lesbians don’t exist. And Black America has rewarded those who hide by giving them acceptance into our congregations, organizations, schools, political and entertainment life.
A couple weeks ago a white gay friend of mine asked me “where's your Ellen DeGeneres?” He wanted to know if a major Black celebrity would ever come out? And let’s be clear, there are lots of closeted Black gays and lesbians in mainstream entertainment and sports. I count many of them among my good friends. But for most of them they continue to allow their personal lives and professional images to be hijacked by fear, internalized homophobia and the assumed repercussions of coming out. Some of these “friendships” are even secret, because there’s a fear they’ll be “gay by association”. I have had countless debates with them about “if” one can come out and be successful. But the real question is why would we ever consider a life where we cannot be accepted, authentic and whole, to be successful in any way?
It's time for us to redefine what being a "success" is in our community, and on our own terms. With young people taking their own lives, it's no longer conscionable for us to say, "she can't come out because it'll mess with her money" or "he can't come out because his audience is Christian."
But while coming out publicly may be difficult, imagine how tough it is for the teens in Oklahoma, Memphis or your hometown that live in shame fueled by silence.
So yes, I am challenging my high profile friends in the entertainment and sports arena to find the courage to come out. Like Don Lemon, their stories will be incredible and inspiring, but their true power will be in showing the common bonds we all have.
It’s true that being Black and gay isn’t easy. In an interview, Lemon said, "It’s about the worst thing you can be in black culture. You’re taught you have to be a man; you have to be masculine. In the black community they think you can pray the gay away.”
With his public coming out, Don Lemon joins a wonderful family of proud gays and lesbians who are showing our community that you can be Black, successful and gay. But you don’t need to be Don Lemon, or an actor, or rapper or basketball player to make a difference.
We need everyday heroes. Everyday stars, everyday people within our community to come out. We need to provide positive and honest examples to young people struggling to survive, to find their identity and discover their place in a world that is often stigmatizing. By allowing the world to see us for who we authentically are, we empower young people across this country, regardless of race, to see their potential within us. We give them the space and support they need to create a life full of possibilities.
That is more important the any championship ring, box office success or TV ratings.
That is the true measure of success.

Maurice Jamal
Founder/CEO GLO Television Network

Filmmaker, “Dirty Laundry”, “The Ski Trip”, “Friends & Lovers”


Facebook: facebook.com/mauricejamal
Twitter: @ mauricejamal
Email: maurice@glotvnetwork.com

Maurice Jamal an award winning filmmaker whose been nominated for both GLAAD and NAACP Image Awards. He's been listed in OUT Magazine’s 100 Mst Influential Gays in America; BET's 25 Most Important Black Gays and BET's Top Black Gays in Entertainment. His work has been profiled in The Advocate, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter. Mr. Jamal is also the first openly gay Black actor/writer to be profiled and referred to as a gay American in the mainstream urban media sources Black Enterprise, Ebony and JET. In 2010 he founded the GLO TV, America’s first Urban LGBT television network. With a full slate of digital and high definition programs, GLO TV is the preeminent source for Urban LGBT entertainment and will launches new entertainment divisions in 2012. He currently sits on the Board of Directors for Blackhouse at the Sundance Film Festival and for Frameline SF, which produces the world’s largest and longest-running LGBT film festival.

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