While lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) visibility in the media is much higher now than it’s ever been before, when it comes to telling the stories of LGBT people of color, those stories seems to be few and far between, especially for Black gay men. Too many times those experiences are either ignored, masked in a conversation about the down-low or solely just another statistic in a CDC study.
But Amir Dixon’s new documentary, Friend of Essex, inspired by activist and poet Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs’ film Tongues Untied, opens the door for an updated, honest and unflinching look at the lives of everyday African-American gay and bisexual men. The film, which is a fusion of interviews and narrative prose, covers a range of topics from homophobia, masculinity within the gay culture and self-acceptance.
We sat down with the Dixon, 23, to talk about his film, the racism in the mainstream LGBT community and the response Friend of Essex has had through out the country.
EBONY: What else inspired Friend of Essex?
Amir Dixon: I wanted to take that the phrase that older gays used to use to be able to identify if someone else was gay. They would ask “Are you a friend of Dorothy?” So I wanted to play off of that. Also, two years ago, a young Black gay man from South Africa reached out to me in response an article I wrote. We talked about racism not only from straight people, but also within the mainstream LGBT community and the oppression that we have to deal with and I kept thinking to myself how similar our experiences were.
EBONY: Was it difficult to find men to be so open?
AD: Not at all. I reached out to LGBT centers and organizations throughout the country and also tapped into my own network and found that men wanted to take part. I think that this openness speaks to the fact that films like this are long overdue. We not only want to hear our stories, but also tell them.
And they opened up to me talking about everything from sexual abuse, their families, HIV/AIDS, drug addiction, being closeted, pressures of masculinity, dating, homophobia in the church and the racism we face in American and within the mainstream LGBT community.
EBONY: Speaking of racism in the LGBT community. It’s a topic that doesn’t receive the amount of press that it should.
AD: Racism was brought up a lot. So many of us have been raised to believe in this White Jesus that condemns and demonizes us and that racism has spilled over into the larger LGBT community. Because of this, our voices have been silenced.
Just look at the main LGBT agenda: Marriage equality. How can I get married if I can get fired from my job for being LGBT? Why do LGBT folks of color feel unaccepted in Chicago’s Boystown or feel pushed out of New York City’s Greenwich Village?
And it’s ironic, because I was interviewing a man who was on the “DL” and he said something very poignant. He said coming out as gay would mean leaving a community of Black people who accepted him for being straight to enter a community that would hate him for being Black.
And I could relate. I thought I was going to be welcomed with opened arms when I came out and I found myself being demonized, sexually fetishized or ignored. And even in interviews that I have done with larger LGBT publications about my film, somehow this conversation about racism doesn’t make it to print and it’s disappointing because we need to talk about this.
EBONY: With so much talk about the consequences of homophobia, how does you film celebrate Black gay men’s lives?
AD: Touching on the positive aspects of our community and our happiness was really important to me. Our lives have to be more than just statistics and numbers. And while the consequences of oppression were brought up among the men in the film, they talked about much more than that. They brought up what our lingo and culture means it them. But they also talked about creating communities with others and those in the ballroom scene.
EBONY: As you tour with the film, what’s the reception been like?
AD: It’s been great. But the dialogue after the film differs depending on what city I am in. In Dallas, we talked a lot about religious homophobia. In Boston, the city I live in—which is very racist—the conversation was intense and focused on race relations. In Uganda, the conversation was centered on being persecuted for being gay and at Morehouse in Atlanta, there was a lot of calling out the administration, misogyny and anti-feminist sentiment.
And that’s the beauty of the film is the way that audiences can connect with the film and see themselves in it.
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning Chicago-based freelance writer who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Her articles and interviews have been featured in Essence, The Advocate, The Root, BET.com, Glamour, Al Jazeera and The Huffington Post. She is the former news editor of TheBody.com.