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Don Lemon Talks Safe Horizon and Being a Child Sex Abuse Survivor

“As much as you think it hurts, tell your story. Encourage people to tell their stories.”

Don Lemon attends the 2018 Ripple Of Hope Awards at the Hilton Hotel on December 12, 2018, in New York | Credit: JStone / Shutterstock.com

Don Lemon will be honored by Safe Horizon, the largest victim services nonprofit organization in the United States, at its  24th Annual Champion Awards  in New York City on Tuesday.

The organization offers a variety of services to survivors of crimes including domestic violence and sexual abuse. Lemon, a survivor of child sex abuse, will be honored among other champions and advocates during the ceremony, as will actress/producer/activist Alyssa Milano. 

During a 2010 interview, the CNN anchor revealed to supporters of Bishop Eddie Long, who was accused of coercing young men into having sex, that he was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. The church-raised Baton Rouge, Louisiana native added that he was too frightened to tell his mother about being a “victim of a pedophile” until he was an adult. One year later, in his memoir, Transparent, he disclosed to the public that he was gay.  

A couple of weeks before receiving his Safe Horizon honor, Lemon spoke to EBONY about raising awareness for victims of abuse and how marginalized groups suffer from being silent about their pain. 

Can you describe the moment you found out you would be honored by Safe Horizon? 

I don’t remember exactly when it was when I [found out] that they would like to honor me, but I was really excited. I was just surprised as I am when anyone wants to give me an award, and I am humbled by it. 

What do you want people to know about Safe Horizon? 

I just think that there’s so much room for awareness out there for organizations like [Safe Horizon] that help victims of violence, sex trafficking and sexual abuse among children.  I want people to know that they can get help and there are resources, because when I was growing up, had I known of a place like Safe Horizon or [if I] could have called and been anonymous [or] called a hotline where people would have given me advice and talked to me, I’d probably would have done it. 

I kept the stigma of childhood sexual abuse to myself until I was in my 30s. I didn’t really tell anyone about it. Obviously, when you’re a child, you don’t really know [how to handle it]. So I think that if there were a place where I could call and get support anonymously, I would have done that. And I think that would have helped a whole lot of kids who were in my same position or worse.

Why did you choose to share that you were a child survivor of sexual abuse, because you could have just lived with your story. 

I’m a journalist and you know, I hold people accountable to tell the truth. Not that you have to tell me anything about yourself personally, but if I were going to have that standard for the people I was interviewing and the people I’m holding accountable, I wanted to have the same standards for myself. Ultimately, I believe that honesty and transparency are key, and they’re the way to go. While it was a frightening experience, I’m glad I did it because you end up helping people whether you realize it or not. 

Other survivors often speak about how hard it is to share their stories or say it’s a task that needs to be lived every day. Do you agree? 

Everyone has their own truth. Everyone has their own testament, and they carry with them what they carry with them. I don’t consciously deal with it every day, but I’m sure there are certain things that have manifested in my spirit or my psyche and the way I conduct or handle myself, or how I go through life. I’m sure there’s some residual [effects] there, but I choose not to think about it every day. There are lasting effects, like people sometimes have low-grade depression for their entire lives. Some people isolate themselves, some have trouble with intimacy and on and on. I don’t think that every day I go around saying, “Oh, my gosh; I was a survivor of childhood sex abuse.”  I’m sure there are things that happen in my life and there are character traits I have that come from being a survivor of childhood sex abuse. 

Why do you feel like stories like yours are often shunned or silenced within marginalized communities? 

I think that usually for anyone who is in a group that has been discriminated against—or as you put it, a marginalized group—you already feel like you are being discriminated against or there is a possibility that you [would be] for one thing. You don’t need another thing to give someone you don’t know ammunition to discriminate against you for. 

There’s a general stigma about these issues that we don’t talk about. I think especially in the Black community, we don’t want to talk about mental health issues. We think you can go to church and you can pray for things or you to talked to a preacher. But we just need to stop that, and we need to realize that there are organizations/resources that have our own better interests or best interests at heart. [We] need to get out of the [notion] of keeping it to ourselves and not talking about or not sharing family business publicly. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, nor am I a historian. I can’t tell you why, but I know it is there, and I know that’s something that we need to get over. 

The conversation about domestic violence and child sexual abuse is usually geared toward heterosexual relationships. How do you think we can better include the LGBTQ community? 

We [must] remember, the mere fact that you’re a survivor of child sex abuse puts you in a certain community. It pushes you in a certain group in society, in a society that has a stigma against it. We have to realize that whether you’re a woman or whatever minority you may be or whatever part of the marginalized group you may be, people who are discriminated against and have those issues should stick together. That means members of the LGBTQ community, so if you are not aware of that, then you should become aware because if one person is allowed to be discriminated against, if one person’s story is about to be swept under the table, it means all of our stories and all of our rights can be swept under the table. I think we need to be more open-minded, especially those of us who have been discriminated against. 

What are some of the ways you think we can help victims of domestic violence or children who are victims of child sexual abuse? 

Awareness and resources. The main thing that keeps the abuse is silence. Don’t be silent; bring it out into the open and don’t be in the dark about it, even if it hurts. As much as you think it hurts, tell your story. Encourage people to tell their stories. Shout your stories from the rooftop. Becoming part of an organization like Safe Horizon, I think, is the best way to do it because as long as you keep it a secret, the person who is committing domestic violence against you or the person who is committing sexual abuse against you, the person who may be trafficking you, that gives that person the power to be able to do it.  They’re afraid of being found out, and once they are found out, then they no longer have that power over you. That is their biggest fear, so don’t give them that power. That is how I believe we can overcome this. 

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