Beyond the secrecy it inspires, the homophobic attitude of many in the black community has a greater consequence. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health reported that gay, lesbian, and bisexual black and Hispanic youths have a greater incidence of suicidal behavior, even if the factors of depression or drug use are removed from the study sample. (O’Donnell, Meyer, and Schwartz, “Increased Risk of Suicide Attempts Among Black and Latino Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals”) The isolation that these LGBT youth feel was expressed by the late author E. Lynn Harris, when he said, “‘For me, my 20s and early 30s were spent just hiding and running, because there was no one to tell me that my life had value and the way I felt was okay.’’ Harris’ friend, author Keith Boykin, reinforced this idea when he noted, “We have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy in the black community.” (“Author E. Lynn Harris dead at 54”, 24 July, 2009)
All this brings us back to Norman, dreamy black gay guy and a rarity in film. Numerous studies have proven that positive representations of LGBT persons in the media have aided in increasing understanding and tolerance. However, such positive representation is rare for black audiences. Sure, black men can dress up as women for comedic effect (Flip Wilson, Tyler Perry, Martin Lawrence, Shawn and Marlon Wayans), but showing the life of a black transgender person is less appealing to a mass audience.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been any black LGBT characters, let alone black characters who can serve as role models. Keith (Matthew St. Patrick) in Six Feet Under, Holiday (Ving Rhames) in Holiday Heart, Det. Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) in The Wire—hell, even The Rock as Elliot Wilhelm in Be Cool—are just a few of the black LGBT characters who are open and proud.
Often, though, these characters exist within predominantly white worlds (think of Carter on Spin City). The gay world of Queer as Folk was lily-white, while The L Word did better, featuring several black lesbian characters. Still, these characters were surrounded by women of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. There are few media representations of the lives of black LGBT persons living among other blacks. One such depiction came courtesy of Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus, which told the story of gay couple Randall and Kyle (Harry Lenix and Isaiah Washington—yes, that Isaiah Washington) as the men broke up while riding on a bus of black men headed to the Million Man March. Another, Omar on The Wire, was featured in last month’s column as one of the ten most important LGBT characters in TV history (“Beyond Jodie Dallas: TV’s 10 Most Important LGBT Characters”).
Further, the here! network had a short-lived series in 2007, The DL Chronicles, about men on the down-low, while Logo ran Noah’s Arc for one season starting in 2005, with a feature film Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom coming three years later. The 2002 documentary Venus Boyz prominently featured Dred Gerestant, black lesbian Drag King, a rare look at a black lesbian experiencing life as a trans person. Gerestant has developed quite a following in the years since, in part due to her appearance in the film.
Unfortunately, relegating positive portrayals of black LGBT characters to subscription cable or film festivals fails to inform the general public. Worse, it increases the sense of isolation that black LGBT individuals may feel, particularly those in predominantly black countries, cultures or neighborhoods with little access to other LGBT persons, in life or in the media. Highlighting a sympathetic gay or lesbian character in a film certain to be seen by both black and white audiences—say, in one of the countless Madea movies—could help foster an important dialogue about how society views and treats black LGBT persons.
Until that time, though, there are countless resources online to help build a community among black LGBT individuals. Some are issue oriented, such as United Lesbians of African Heritage and The National Black Gay Men’s Advocacy Coalition, while others are more fun, like Black Gay Gossip. A simple internet search reveals numerous blogs by black LGBT persons, as well as bulletin boards and chat rooms that black individuals might find reassuring. Of course, most broad-based LGBT individuals welcome persons of all races and ethnicities, and many have trained counselors or personnel who can lend an ear. Still, talking to someone who has walked in those shoes can be even more reassuring.
Just as positive changes for the LGBT community have come slowly in societies, so too will it take time for the attitudes of the black community to grow and be more inclusive. Positive portrayals of blacks of all orientations will only make that progress happen faster. Then, proud black gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans persons will become accepted by their families and cultures, as these entities come to realize that their gay family members and friends are too valuable to discard.
Cheers, Queers to Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown, who refused to succumb to publisher pressure to change one of the characters from gay to straight in their forthcoming young adult novel, Stranger.
Here’s Mud in Your Eye to Tea Party Nation president Judson Phillips, who has called homosexuality a “liberal freak show”, “distinct threat”, “bad behavior”, “aberration”, and “one more factor in the destruction of America”. Phillips also notes that bullying is merely peer pressure, healthy in that it forces those young wanna-be homosexuals to re-evaluate that “bad” choice. Phillips’ statements reinforce the idea that what had started as a ground-based movement of dissatisfied citizens has been hijacked by right-wing reactionaries. (Source: Joseph Ascanio, “Tea Party Shows its Anti-gay, Bigotry Hand”, Progressive News Daily, 27 July 2011)