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

By Jason Sheeler
June 10, 2020 01:00 PM
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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."

Don Lemon
Andrew H. Walker/Shutterstock
  • 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 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?"