On modern-day reality-television shows, audiences often bear witness to stereotypical, one-dimensional representations of black queer men. From the iconic Miss J. Alexander on America’s Next Top Model to the frequent appearances on Real Housewives of Atlanta and even Love & Hip Hop, we have often seen narrow depictions of the black male queer experience: divas applying makeup, giving someone a blowout or teaching young women how to model.
In the op-ed “Do You Understand Me? Black Gay Men Are More Than What You See On TV” last month, writer Tim Pulliam made a scathing critique: “[T]his imagery of the gay man represents only part of the community, which ultimately misleads and provides a false, damaging perception to the general public of what it means to be Black and LGBT.”
Pulliam’s perspective is understandable, though I struggle with the word “damaging” because it implies a perceived danger or detrimental effect that I’m not seeing, and the suggestion of a detriment is dangerous in itself. Further, it places the focus on straight people’s reactions as opposed to black queer people’s lived experiences. That’s not my ministry.
It’s clear that usually white and straight media executives typecast black queer men to play stereotypical roles, ones that are more audience-grabbing. It’s just that I’ve heard this one before, and it erases many people’s work.
Most important, these ongoing conversations that are allegedly about representation of all black queer men on television have been disingenuous. What many black queer men have not reckoned with is their own internalized homophobia, adherence to respectability politics and the rampant intracommunity discrimination that harms us all—especially the black queer men who Pulliam claims are too visible on-screen.
Many of us simply do not want to see black femme gay men on (or off) television for the very same reasons that some in black America decry depictions of straight black women who are flawed and messy on-screen; it is for the very same reasons that seeing straight black men in stereotypical “thug” roles makes some people so intensely angry.
We have been told that we must not stray too far from the white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal template for humanity—and that we’d better not make any mistakes. These messages have become so ingrained that sometimes the sight of ourselves in the mirror disgusts us and makes us run. But we couch those uncomfortable feelings in dishonest, reductive conversations about “representation.”
Patrik-Ian Polk’s Noah’s Arc—a show on Logo that was canceled after two successful seasons—attempted to bring new elements of what the black queer experience looks like on television. Though the series had some problematic elements, it beautifully showcased four black queer men—Noah, Alex, Ricky and Chance—navigating dating, love and relationships.
Noah’s Arc was groundbreaking and faced some criticism for being unrealistic, even from the black queer community. I distinctly remember conversations on age-old website Black Gay Chat about it not being “real” because apparently, masculine men would not date femme queer men, which is what we saw with Noah and Wade, Alex and Trey, Chance and Eddie and even Ricky and Junito.
The point is that we have seen artists attempt to diversify representations of black queer femme men, and those instances are still rebuffed in grotesque ways. And it makes one wonder: Would the same folks discussing nonmonolithic representations of the black queer male experience complain if all we saw on television and film were traditionally masculine and “professional” versions of the community?
If black queer men shown on-screen were suit-and-tie, 9-to-5 doctors, lawyers, accountants, real estate agents and Wall Street brokers—instead of hairstylists, makeup artists, drag queens and sassy sidekicks—would anyone really bat an eye?
The queer community’s obsession with masculinity—and perceptions thereof—is killing us. Like most communities, the black male queer community uplifts some types to the detriment of others. Many of us demand nuanced representations of black queer men in film and media while quickly rejecting the ones who look like these characters off script.
When some people claim that overrepresentation of black queer femme men is “damaging,” what is really being said is that these men are undesirable—by society and in more intimate ways as well.
We have to call that hypocrisy out.
We claim that the one-dimensional representation of black femme gay men is the “problem”—or, rather, the industry’s version of only one type of queer man is—when the real issue is our anger that they have any representation. This is not only about representation in media but also about intracommunity discrimination and internalized homophobia, to a real degree.
Any one of us can log on to applications like Jack’d and be inundated with variations of “no femme” themes. It’s because in our community we are often taught that being a traditionally attractive, physically fit “professional” is the standard, and everything else is relegated to the margins at best, or immediately rejected at worst. Even those of us who consider ourselves intellectually conscious can perpetuate these dangerous tropes.
We have the tendency to demean the house community, which has found homes for young black queer men rejected from parents and experiencing homelessness and also uses performance as a means of survival. We often denigrate black queer femme men who wear high heels and makeup for not subscribing to traditional norms of gender presentation even though they are bolder and freer than many of us can even imagine. And it’s because for some of us, our idea of liberation is tied to how we are perceived in the eyes of the straight community.
With the advent of #CareFreeBlackBoy and #BlackBoyJoy, young black men like 24-year-old New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. are dismantling often contrived and one-dimensional representations of masculinity. In encouraging them to do so, society is largely celebrating traditionally masculine, carefree men who have never claimed to be queer while claiming that black queer femme men are too “visible.”
Beckham is often seen dancing, singing and laughing. He stands around friends shirtless and excitedly expressive. He goes to clubs where only men are circling him, mimicking his dancing. They crave him; they want to be like him. Beckham appears to be having good, nonroughhousing fun, everything that society tells us black men generally should not do—certainly not around one another.
Beckham does it anyhow because he’s carefree. This same freedom can come at a cost for black gay femme men, who too often experience violence for daring to be who they are. And this happens because, for far too many of us even in the queer community, femininity in men scares us, and so does that image being our norm.
Pulliam writes that we need to be “[f]ighting for the visibility of all Black gay men,” but at what cost? Whose visibility within our own community can get lost in the midst of fighting for others? To be clear, visibility can be dangerous, anti-black and heteronormative, but varied representations can still be celebrated both on and off the air.
In Slate, writer Hari Ziyad brilliantly discusses black queer people in the queer liberation movement, saying, “[We] should reckon with not just the limitations of visibility, but the way certain kinds of visibility reinforce anti-black structures inherently. Instead of constantly pushing for visibility, what would it mean to sometimes embrace invisibility?”
In this context, the question becomes, what happens when those who are usually seen in our community are willing to reduce visibility for a more marginalized person? What if those who are more protected in our community used that to benefit black femme queer men whose visibility can lead to violence? Surely all black queer men are pushed to the margins to some degree, but many of those who find success on-screen are rarely treated with that success when the cameras stop rolling—and it’s often because we actively (and tacitly) prevent that from happening. We often pause that success out of jealousy that there are not enough versions of us instead.
Do not misunderstand me: We all have the right to have our experiences reflected on-screen. In Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes notes:
The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because perhaps they will learn from them?
But are we learning from black gay femme men yet?
We should not feel bad for wanting to see ourselves, for demanding nuance, for no longer wanting to be an accessory. It’s necessary that we question why cisgender, straight-controlled media executives and producers only depict certain versions of the black queer experience. However, in doing so, we must also acknowledge that who we want to see in our community offscreen is often who we want to see honored on television. Those are the ones who are celebrated by the larger black queer community anyway—we see it every day in online and offline dating, on social media, in the club/bars.
Truthfully, I do not think we want diverse representation of black queer men; we want more respectable, docile versions—the way we want straight people to think we are. I understand the frustration of not being seen—or even being too seen sometimes—but in a society where particular queer men are relegated to the margins within our own community, who is it harming to see many of them become popular?
The answer is no one. Those who want to diminish black queer femme men further by claiming that we are seeing too much of them and not enough of their more traditionally masculine counterparts are doing real harm.
Before we talk about the need for different representations of black queer men, we must honestly grapple with society’s aversion to the representations that we have now.