Why Are Hollywood’s Black Gay Characters on the Downlow?

By · Thursday, February 12, 2009

QUEERTY IN-DEPTH–Hey! The NAACP Image Awards are today! Did you mark your calendar? Did you remember to buy extra popcorn? Were you only vaguely aware they existed and didn’t even know they were televised? You’re not alone, gay at-home viewer. While there’s a veritable cornucopia of gay characters on film and TV – Scotty on Brothers and Sisters, Eric on Gossip Girl, Dev in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, Dr. Dakota in Grindhouse, etc. – there are depressingly few examples of characters on screen who are gay and black.

A forum yesterday in Los Angeles, “Knocking Down the Door: Black LGBT Images in Media,” hosted by GLAAD and the National Black Justice Coalition, explored both possible reasons for such underrepresentation, as well as what can be done to improve gay black visibility in entertainment.

“Just having an image of a black gay [character] alters your imagination of what can be possible.”

The forum began, as all gay powwows in California usually do, with a grim post-mortem of the recent gay marriage ban. The panel forum, made up of high-profile out actors, writers, directors and media personalities, were united in their belief that the bill passage’s stemmed from a lack of gay visibility in the black community. If gay and black individuals are not open with their families members, their co-workers, their fellow churchgoers, the forum suggested, then the idea of someone being gay and black becomes something foreign and strange to many in the African American community. J. Karen Thomas, an out actor, singer and forum panelist describes it simply enough: “Most communication is non-verbal. Whether it’s in a film or on TV or in a commercial, we’re very affected by what we see. So just by having an image of a black gay, bisexual or lesbian, it alters your awareness and your imagination of what can be possible.”

Thomas brought up the fact that numerous black actors, from Morgan Freeman to Chris Rock, played the role of American president well before most folks had heard of Barack Obama. By showing, often in a nonchalant way, that a black president was both feasible and possible, it helped clear the way for people to be comfortable with the idea of a black president like Obama. In the same way, Thomas contended, having images of LGBT characters struggling with the same problems as much of the audience members struggle with can only help increase awareness and recognition in the black community.

And it’s that type of power that these images of out black characters have that underscore their necessity, said fellow panelist Sonja Sohn, best known for her portrayal of out lesbian Detective Shakima Greggs from The Wire. “What those images offer young people in the closet or just exploring who they are, it allows them a chance to recognize part of themselves in those characters,” Sohn relates. “And by seeing that they are not alone, it lets them embrace that part of their being a little bit easier and a little bit quicker.”

See Sonja Sohn in The Wire:

Ultimately, this is why increased visibility for gay black characters is so important. Not simply for the purposes of ticking off some quota box or the momentary delight of seeing someone on screen who “looks just like me.” Rather, it’s for the simple reason that it provides a necessary reflection of the African American community as it stands today. Necessary and accurate, showing black audiences that there are gay, bisexual, lesbian and transgender members of their communities. That they are nothing to be feared or misunderstood, but merely just another facet of humanity to embrace. It’s much easier to do something if you have an example to work from. And if black communities can see from their favorite television shows and movies that a gay member of the family is still a member of the family, then that’s still progress being made.

But having more out black characters may depend on having more gay, African American bigwigs. “We need executives. There are no out black executives that I’m aware of,” declared Maurice Jamal, out director of The Ski Trip and Dirty Laundry, adding, “While it’s all good to have as many gay, black writers, actors, directors or what-have-you as you can, it ultimately comes down to these gatekeepers: the guys that control the money, that decide whether a project will live or die. And if there’s a lack of sensitivity, a lack of understanding at the top, these out black images will never get out there.”

Watch the trailer for Dirty Laundry:

To be sure, it’s not all gloom and doom for gay black characters. At this year’s NAACP Image Awards (hey! Those are tonight! On Fox!) there are a record five openly gay characters nominated, including Blair Underwood in In Treatment and Michael Kenneth Williams and Sonja Sohn, both from The Wire. Ultimately, the key to black visibility and increased gay acceptance may be just as Jamal suggested: “We have to teach people how to treat us. If it seems like we’re ashamed or locked away from the light of day, then people will treat us accordingly. You have to create the image that is how you’d like to be treated.”

Dixon T. Gaines is a writer and editor formerly based in New York and who now finds himself in Los Angeles.

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