I wish you could have seen the pursed lips that stretched into a frown before parting for a deep sigh, right before spilling out a string of colorful profanity upon hearing about Noah’s Arc writer and creator Patrick-Ian Polk’s newest film, Blackbird.
The project co-stars Oscar winner Mo’Nique and Isaiah Washington as the parents of a young man coming to grips with his homosexuality in a conservative Mississippi town, whose big gay revelation is blamed for his sister’s sudden disappearance. Okay, fine. That’s great, because Black folks are working, right? While I’m certain all involved will deliver powerful performances, I’m led to wonder: Where the hell are the mainstream images of happy, successful, Black gay men and women?
No, big Black men in dresses does not count as visibility. Sorry, Tyler, Martin, Eddie, and Jamie.
Sure, there was Omar Little from The Wire, the stick-up man with selective morality and inmate Simon Adebesi from Oz, but neither of those did anything to encourage the Black gay community. Aside from a select few characters, like Keith Charles from Six Feet Under, when not on a show by, for, and starring gays we’re simply not portrayed as likeable people.
White gay characters and personalities have been able to tell their stories, share their triumphs, and expose both the righteous and deplorable facets of their existences, publicly, for years. They’ve collectively had their Kanye West moment; they have “crossed over” and are now a thing. A visible, accepted, well-paid thing.
On screen, they are parents and best friends and teachers and executives. Sons and daughters. In general, gays in the media have gone from a strictly taboo status to being relegated to comic foils to now being central characters of prominent programs. Our uncolored sistren and brethren host morning talk shows, relay the news, and love their lovers in primetime time slots.
They are allowed to be human.
So infrequently are Black characters, much less Black gay ones, offered humanity that allows us to be relatable on a fundamental social level. Usually we are a type first, then, if we’re lucky, a person. As a well-adjusted, self-loving Black dude, being able to look up and see someone that looks like me, someone who loves themselves and other men—proudly—on any screen, large or small, is quite the rare occurrence. Why?
I am not suggesting that all Black gay characters should qualify for sainthood. Just once, though, it would be nice to see someone who looks and loves like I do, doing something mundane like arguing with their partner in a quasi-humorous romantic comedy like our White counterparts get to do nightly, rather than be bound to two-dimensional characterizations formed and bound by cheap stereotypes.
It has been argued, unconvincingly, that the lack of Black gay personalities and characters is a result of the rampant, disproportionate homophobia in Black communities. While that point is certainly arguable, studies have proven that including gay cast members reduces prejudice and normalizes the images and lives of gay men and women. In fact, the famously anti-gay everything Ann Romney has declared her love of ABC’s Modern Family, which stars an affectionate gay couple raising an adopted child. If a damn sitcom can elicit compassion from that cold-hearted snake, we, too, need some of that same consideration.
How do we address this deficit?
For one, to quote the delightfully condescending celebrity life fixer Iyanla Vanzant, we must "call a thing a thing."
Acknowledge that Black gays are being done a grave disservice in the public eye. On Bravo’s wildly popular Black buffoon bonanza, Real Housewives of Atlanta, I watched a group of women give one another a bootleg crash course in the textured sciences of reading and shade. Seeing a room of women who conveniently parade their Trusted Gays out for entertainment, life guidance, and wig installation debate on whether or not another equally lost woman had just been read, inquiring if she “knows any queens” was rage-inciting to say the absolute least. It appears our many glorious offerings are worthy of emulation, yet we as individuals are unworthy of positive representation. Here, the actual gays who have given these women so much life from the culture they've appropriated from them share the struggle of Martha Wash, the Queen of Utilization Without Presentation. And the RHOA girls twirl on, like that little skinny girl who pretended to lead C+C Music Factory.
Decide that we deserve better, and that we are far more than diseased, emotionally bankrupt villains and purse-carrying punch lines.
Realize that, in the vast majority of our roles, we are othered, laughed at, feared, and despised. Realize that this is not okay. Imagine the GLAAD-sponsored White Fury that would sweep through the land if our paler counterparts were regularly cast as AIDS-carrying, life-ruining, promiscuous criminals.
If we can’t look to the few working Black filmmakers who can command a large, diverse audience and a sizeable production budget to present us respectably, then what? How can we expect the rest of the world to view or portray us as anything other than subhuman, as the joke, as the sidekick, the always fashionable yet secretly suffering source of misery and shade and one-liners? If we don’t take ourselves seriously, demand some damn dignity, and tend to our best interests, why should anyone afford us that same concern?