While one hopes that a Best Picture win for Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight will translate into more stories about black queer men, it cannot be denied that representations of lesbians and queer women of color are sadly lagging behind in pretty much every medium, from film to literature. But Tee Franklin, a queer black, disabled emerging writer, hopes that her upcoming graphic novel will bring that much-needed change.
Her 80-plus-page Bingo Love depicts the fictional romance between Hazel Johnson and Mari McCrary, two 13-year-olds who meet in 1963 at a bingo hall and fall in love. When their families find out about their relationship, they are forbidden from seeing each other again and later end up marrying men. Decades later, they both divorce their husbands and rekindle their relationship, which lasts all the way up to 2030.
This tale of love lost and love found is heartbreaking, necessary and right on time.
“Very rarely do we see queer people, women of color and elderly people in comics, so I knew I was taking a risk, but it’s been well worth it,” Franklin told The Root. “People need to see that you can be LGBTQ and have a partner for life. We are all worthy of that happy ending, too.”
“I was once married to a man and wasn’t fully out to my extended family until very recently,” the mother of three said. “I definitely understand that there are black LGBTQ people out there like Hazel and Mari who feel that they have to hide their true selves from the world because of how society views them. I wanted to tell that story.”
The Root recently sat down the New Jersey native to discuss her first-of-a-kind passion project, why she’s publishing her novel independently and the lack of diversity in the comic book industry.
The Root: What was the inspiration behind Bingo Love?
Tee Franklin: One day I was watching TV, and this commercial with two older black women sitting on a stoop popped up. I kept thinking what a cute little couple they were as they laughed and talked—and the idea just hit me.
In terms of the bingo-hall setting—I love bingo and still play bingo now.
TR: Why a graphic novel?
TF: Ever since I was a child, I have always loved comic books and was drawn to strong female protagonists such as Storm, Vixen and Wonder Woman. But sadly, it was hard to find stories about women and women of color then, and it is still now. That lack of diversity has always been an important issue, so in 2014 I started writing reviews and criticism with a focus on representation in the industry. Now it’s time to write my own comic because no one else can tell my story but me.
TR: Filmmaker Ava DuVernay once said that female creators should just go out and make their projects without asking for permission or needing validation from the mainstream. You are doing exactly just that by publishing this yourself.
TF: Thank you for that. Honestly, I just wasn’t interested in having white publishers tell me that no one wanted to read a book like this or that there wasn’t an audience for it. And I know that had I pitched this to them, I would have been shut down.
So instead, I decided to let the actual community my story is geared towards tell me if they were interested or not—and it’s been clear that they were. Within five days of launching our Kickstarter campaign, we made our total goal of $19,999. I couldn’t believe it! And we’re still raising money, having surpassed $33,000.
This really speaks to people being hungry for these types of images and stories. But I also want to stress that even if our campaign didn’t get fully funded, I would have continued on because I believe in this story and in our team.
TR: In addition to the tremendous Kickstarter backing, what else has the response been like?
TF: Really amazing. I initially sent a copy to actress and filmmaker Reagan Gomez, who told me how happy she was with it! People are excited, they have thanked me for creating characters they can identify with, and I’ve heard a few stories [about] how this reminds them of their own grandmothers who, because of the times, were never out.
That’s what’s really important: This love story between Hazel and Mari is not an anomaly. This is real life, and there is plenty of black people who can relate to these characters and what they endure throughout the book.
For me, one of these days I am going to be a queer grandmother with a wife next to me, and this will be our happy ending, too.
TR: We are slowly seeing a shift in diversity in the industry. With Amandla Stenberg’s Niobe, the graphic novel release of Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Marvel’s influx of black writers, how optimistic are you about the future?
TF: We still have a really long way to go before we are fully represented with characters, creators, illustrators and writers of color. And this isn’t any shade to Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates, but there have been so many other kick-ass black comic book writers before them who aren’t high-profile enough to be given this type of shot. It’s truly frustrating.
Why is it that in order to be black and write for places like Marvel, you have to be a literary wonder? White writers don’t have to live up to that type of standard. Why should we?
TR: What’s the final thing you want our readers to know about Bingo Love?
TF: First, Bingo Love will be distributed by the end of the year, so thank you to all of our backers and supporters for helping this happen. Second, love is love, and no one should be shamed or punished because they love different than anyone else. So let people live and love whomever they choose, because at the end of the day, it’s none of your damn business.
Learn more about Bingo Love’s Kickstarter campaign here.
Kellee Terrell is an award-winning, Chicago-based freelance writer and filmmaker who writes about race, gender, health and pop culture. Her articles and interviews have been featured in Essence, The Advocate, Hello Beautiful, Glamour, Al-Jazeera, The Body and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter.