CNN's Don Lemon Says a Breakup Helped Him Come Out to His Mom 15 Years Before Going Public

"She asked me what kind of relationship we had, and I told her — that's when I started crying," the anchor tells PEOPLE exclusively

A broken heart paved the way for CNN anchor Don Lemon's first, and most personal, coming-out moment.

"My first boyfriend and I had broken up," remembers Lemon, 54, in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "We were living together in New York in the mid-90s, where I had moved so I could live around other like-minded people."

Lemon's mother, Katherine Clark, sensed her son's unhappiness from back home in Baton Rouge.

"So I told her, 'Mom, I'm really sad about John and our relationship,'" he recalls. "She asked me what kind of relationship we had, and I told her, 'He was my lover.' That's when I started crying."

Lemon says it was "one of those scenes": Clark told him that she had chosen to ignore rumors over the years and that she loved him unconditionally.

"She was okay with it for a while," Lemon says. "But as I became stronger, she became weaker."

coming out stories 2020 - Don Lemon
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  • For more from Don Lemon, pick up this week's Pride issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Clark expressed a desire for grandchildren, and she worried for her son's safety, emotional health and career.

His being open, Lemon says, helped his mom: "She started to learn about my friends and my life, and she really started to accept it. She realized that all [her fears] weren't true, and she was building that up in her head."

Anderson Cooper
Anderson Cooper and son Wyatt on the cover of PEOPLE's Pride issue. Melanie Acevedo

Over the next 15 years, Lemon's career — and life — thrived. He came out publicly via a New York Times profile in 2011.

"I've learned that only once you come out, once you see the world from that perspective, then you get to be, 'What was I worried about?'" he says.

And today Lemon is engaged.

"Now I have three dogs, I live with my fiancé [real estate exec Tim Malone]," he says. "We go on vacations. We rent motor homes and we go camping and we do things that I never thought that I would do. And now I'm just like — it all feels normal. I'm buying a station wagon, okay?"

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