E. Lynn Harris: 1955-2009

The gay black writer invented his life the way he invented characters and changed the face of black literature.


To read an E. Lynn Harris novel was to eavesdrop on the lives of the young, black and fabulous. The, young, black, conflicted and fabulous, that is: Harris made a name for himself chronicling the lives of the beautiful and the buff, men living on the down low, having lots of hot, tormented sex while wearing designer duds and generally living the glamorous life.

He’d be the first to tell you that he was no literary stylist, no turner of sweet phrases, but he knew how to tell tales, tales that people wanted to read. There’s a reason Harris, who died Friday of an apparent heart attack, was a 10-time New York Times best-seller; his writing struck a deep, resonant chord. He may have been a gay black man writing about other gay black men, but he also wrote about black women, straight black women, with sensitivity and often with glowing admiration. Sisters returned the favor, lining up in droves to buy his books, becoming his biggest fans.

From the beginning, when he first self-published Invisible Life in 1994—it would later be picked up by Doubleday—Harris made it OK for black folks to talk about gay issues, from the beauty parlor to the barbershop. His gay male characters were macho men who just happened to love other macho men: football players, basketball players, highly paid executives. Churchgoing folk. He normalized gay life for a community that’s long been in denial about the non-straight folks in the family, and in the process, launched a genre of black gay literature. Publishers looked at the extraordinary selling power of his books, and looked at other black writers—straight or gay—and saw gold in them thar hills.

“His writing, and his incredible mainstream success, encouraged a league of black gay and lesbian writers to follow in his footsteps,” says Lisa C. Moore, the publisher of the black lesbian publishing house, Redbone Press. “His words helped make black gay life accessible and worthy of open discussion to black readers, gay and straight—something much, much needed in black communities. I am grateful to him for opening those doors. He definitely made a powerful impact on the publishing business for black gay folks.”

He wasn’t the most likely suspect for changing the face of black gay literature—and indeed, he always seemed a little stunned at his overwhelming success. While his characters lived pampered lives, his upbringing was anything but pampered. A Flint, Mich., native, he grew up in Arkansas, and attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he became the first black male cheerleader. After graduation, he worked for a decade as a computer salesman for IBM. He quit his job to write Invisible Life, and when no publisher would have him, he published it himself, peddling his book out of the trunk of his car.