Here, But Still Hidden: Black Queer Representation and Visibility in Entertainment Declining

A wrong envelope, a perplexed movie icon, and utter chaos backstage and onstage, it was one of the most bizarre moments in Oscars history.

The audience of Hollywood heavy hitters cheered and offered a standing ovation as the team of “La La Land” accepted the coveted Best Picture Award until OOPS…it was then revealed that a grave mistake had been made. The sea of white faces cleared the stage, quickly replaced by the shocked predominately black cast and crew of “Moonlight,” the true Best Picture winner at the 89th Academy Awards ceremony.

It was a historic night; a pivotal moment of inclusion in Hollywood despite the confusion. “Moonlight” became the first film with an all-black cast to take home the top honor and the first LGBTQ-related film to ever win Best Picture.

“I hope that it’s inspiring to little Black boys and brown girls, and other folks watching at home who feel marginalized,” producer Adele Romanski — a white woman — said while accepting the award on behalf of “Moonlight’s” all-white producing team.

However, the progress made by “Moonlight” has been fleeting. Since its release in 2016, there has been a decline in the number of LGBTQ characters featured in major studio film releases, according to the annual reports released by the LGBTQ media monitoring organization GLAAD. In 2016, there were 70 queer characters in U.S. films, but in 2019, only 50.

The racial diversity of LGBTQ characters has also, unfortunately, seen a decline since “Moonlight’s” release. GLAAD’s most recent report shows that thirty-three of the 50 queer-identifying characters counted in 2019 were white, while just 11 characters were Black. Queer Latinx (4) and Asian/Pacific Islander (2) representation was even less.

Malcolm Venable, a senior editor for TV Guide, who has been examining the complexity of black queer identity for two decades, is optimistic that the entertainment landscape will begin to reflect what he feels is a growing support and acceptance for Black queer people. His master’s thesis at Columbia University in 2001 explored gay black men who struggled with openly expressing their sexuality while also being fans of hip-hop culture, an artistic movement created by Black and Latino communities that influences music (rap/hip-hop), dance and fashion, but is also heavily associated with hypermasculinity.

Since 2001, Venable has seen advances in TV, hip-hop, and an increase of support of Black trans lives and the Black LGBTQ community. Several prominent black entertainers who identify as LGBTQ such as Lena Waithe, Billy Porter, RuPaul, and Jussie Smollett, have also become household names.

“I wouldn’t say we’re invisible,” says Venable. “But there’s still some work to be done.”

Television has certainly seen an influx of Black LGBTQ characters and queer representation overall in comparison to film. FX’s “Pose” follows an ensemble cast of trans and gay characters of color in New York City’s Black and Latino ballroom culture scene in the 80s and 90s. Porter became the first openly gay Black male to win a Best Actor Emmy for his leading role in the drama series. Porter has used his star status to unabashedly express himself through fashion. Through gender-fluid gowns, capes, head pieces, and tuxedos, he is redefining what Hollywood men can wear on the red carpet.

“I have the luxury of being older,” he told the CBS TV show “The Insider” in 2019, explaining that his team forced him to suppress his expression during his early career. “What you’re seeing [now] is a human being emboldened by their own self-acceptance who can stand grounded on their own two feet and be authentic.”

That authenticity is slowly becoming visible on TV screens as well. GLAAD’s 2019 “Where are we on TV” report shows that LGBTQ characters of color on television outnumbered white queer characters for the second year in a row (52%). But there is more room for growth since only 90 of the 879 regular characters in scripted broadcast programming identified as LGBTQ.

The lead character Hattie of “Twenties” (BET) is a masculine-presenting black woman. The non-binary Uncle Clifford in “P-Valley” (Starz) has a relationship with a male character that identifies as straight. And Montrose of “Lovecraft Country” (HBO) has an emotional, nuanced story arc. Set in the 1950’s, the 50-year old character’s hidden sexuality is brought into the open after being caught with his on-and-off again partner by his adult son. He is friends with drag queens and frequents underground gay clubs. The supernatural drama even goes back in time to show the beatings he received by his father when he was a child, as well as his first secret relationship with a boy.

“[It’s] a validation of these stories,” says political and pop culture journalist Jarrett Hill, who has contributed to outlets such as CNN and Variety, and co-hosts the podcast, “FANTI.”

Not only do Black queer children and adults get to see themselves reflected, but films and shows with black queer characters benefit all viewers. Hill’s aunt once called him after watching “Pose” and couldn’t stop raving about the show.

“It humanizes people for folks that aren’t used to these stories and I think there’s a real value in that,” Hill says.

While representation and visibility on-screen is beneficial, there should be a greater sense of ownership stake, and more representation behind the scenes to accurately produce and greenlight projects with Black queer narratives.

“It is the person that’s creating the opportunities in the first place for people to be seen that is the more powerful and impactful thing,” Venable says.

“Pose,” for instance, offers a major platform for nonwhite transgender and queer artists. The show was created by Ryan Murphy, a white, gay man, and his white business partner. While media and advertisements praised Murphy for telling these stores, media largely ignored a third “Pose” creator, Steven Canals, who is Afro-Latino and gay.

Using his platform, Murphy has been at the forefront in telling queer stories, making a priority to include people of color, as seen in “Pose” and his other projects. He has even pledged to donate any profit he earns from the FX series to trans and LGBTQ charities and organizations.

“I just decided I need to do more than just making a show for this community. I want to reach out and help this community,” Murphy told Variety in 2018.

In 2018, Murphy also signed a 5-year deal with Netflix reportedly worth $300 million. The sexual orientation of the lead character, Payton, in his first project for the streaming service, “The Politician,” is ambiguous. Several other characters — black and white — in the dramedy are LGBTQ, such as Payton’s transgender male campaign manager. However, his storyline is not centered around his gender identity, allowing the character to be multilayered and fully developed.

“I believe that if you see a character on television and you love that character, you will consider our character to be your friend, even if you have nothing in common with that person,” Murphy has said.

Venable admires Murphy, but argues that having queer black creators, writers and producers would have a greater impact on the representation issue. Luckily, he sees a “wave” of people who are leading this change.

Lena Waithe, for instance, has created and written several TV and film projects (“Twenties,” “Master of None,” “Queen & Slim”). Charles Ray Hamilton (writer), Cameron Johnson (writer), Little Marvin (writer, producer), and Vernon Sanders (co-head of television, Amazon) are all working to create not just Black queer stories, but the best stories.

The Internet and social media have also been instrumental in advocating for better representation. Hollywood gatekeepers have always been reluctant to change, says Venable, but social media offers a platform for consumers to voice their concerns and it has forced the entertainment industry to listen and revaluate.

“They’re either going to reflect reality or miss out on money,” he says.

The internet offers a completely new path for many creatives that allows them to tell their stories in a more authentic way. Issa Rae’s YouTube series “Awkward Black Girl” launched her career and lead to her HBO comedy series “Insecure.” The show has featured several black queer characters and has earned multiple Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series in 2020.

“If you are somebody who has 12 million followers on your SoundCloud and nine million followers on Twitter and Instagram, you’re putting out good music, you don’t need a record label. Or your YouTube channel has millions of subscribers and [viewers], you don’t need a TV station. They’re just irrelevant; the industry is reckoning with that,” Venable adds.

New York Times Digital Editor Jamal Jordan, who rarely saw himself authentically represented in media as a child — says he no longer needs major primetime networks to showcase Black queer characters. He’s more inclined to view independently produced content on YouTube, Twitter, or other online outlets to find the kind of representation he craves.

University of Southern California Ph.D. student Tyler Quick has extensively studied LGBTQ identity and representation in the social media sphere. While browsing Netflix, he discovered “Tangerine” (2015), a film he believes set the “gold standard” of queer representation of people of color.

The film, shot with three iPhone 5s smartphones and a $100,000 budget, follows two transgender sex workers. It became the first film to launch an Academy Awards campaign for two transgender actresses, both women of color. Though the film was critically acclaimed and received some recognition on the awards circuit, it was completely ignored by the Oscars academy.

Even on Netflix, it continues to be overlooked. Quick explains that the algorithms Netflix and other streaming services and social media apps use are created with biases that often exclude people of color from being recommended to users. “Tangerine” is most likely only going to be seen by a niche Netflix audience.

Equally as problematic, the same year of “Tangerine’s” release, director Ronald Emmerich (“The Day After Tomorrow,” “Independence Day) released his film “Stonewall,” written by Jon Robin Baitz, both white and gay. The film is about the 1969 Stonewall riots that helped spark the gay liberation movement in New York City.

The $17 million budget film received extreme criticism for whitewashing the historical event. Emmerich and Baitz chose a white, male lead and reduced key Black and Latino figures like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera to background characters, even though queer people of color were heavily instrumental to the Stonewall protest.

“So, all the little gay boys who went to see ‘Stonewall’ when it came out…instead of identifying with this heroic gender non-conforming black person (Marsha P. Johnson), identified with this non-descript white guy who everything works out for in the end,” Quick laments.

The conversation about representation of marginalized communities is often centered around positive representation; the characters can’t be too flawed or complex. Or in the cases of Black, gay, male characters, they are often portrayed as the fun and sassy sidekick. Positive representation is obviously appreciated, but the issue is that it limits their characterization to just their sexual orientation or gender identity and reduces their fully lived experience.

“I don’t need every black gay person to be a good guy,” Venable says. “I don’t really want that; It rings false and is disingenuous. I want to see a black gay villain. I want to see a hero. I want to see someone who’s morally conflicted.”

One thing Jordan wants to see is a Black queer love story. He created the photo series “Queer Love in Color” for the New York Times in 2018 after noticing the publication rarely showed queer couples of color.

“I’m one of those people who believes that the power of imagery is that it shows you what is possible,” Jordan says.

Interviewing over 150 queer couples of color, Jordan has adapted the popular photo series into a book set to be released in 2021. And like Romanski, the “Moonlight” producer, he wants the book to inspire young queer people of color and broaden their scope of what is possible in love.

As Jordan celebrates queer love and Venable advocates for more nuanced Black queer representation, hip-hop culture continues to make some progress with LGBTQ acceptance. It has certainly gotten better since Venable’s 2001 thesis, but there continues to be problematic barriers.

A recent episode of “Power Book II: Ghost” — executive produced by hip-hop mogul Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson — featured two black male characters kissing. The scene received social media backlash. That series, or its predecessor “Power,” had previously showcased queer characters.

Hip-hop culture, which heavily influences the show and its target audience, may have contributed to the backlash.

“People are fucking ignorant,” says Venable. “[The hip-hop] culture is so macho and entrenched with toxic heterosexuality. Seeing men being tender with each other and have intimacy probably caught them by surprise.”

The current state of hip-hop does show somewhat of an increase in openly queer representation and acceptance. Lil Nas X and Young M.A are both openly gay rappers. Rapper Taylor Bennett, the brother of Chance the Rapper, is bisexual. And male rappers Lil Uzi Vert and Young Thug are both known for their gender-bending fashion.

Quick applauds queer artists like Bbymutha, Mykki Blanco, Le1f, and Princess Nokia for embracing their identities and for their storytelling.

“All of these openly queer figures in hip-hop are making really nuanced, weird, different and interesting art. I think they’ve done a big service to queer culture by just demonstrating that we’re as diverse as the rest of the world,” he says.

But what’s at stake for a black queer artist? The entertainment journalist speculates that the industry and fans are more likely to embrace an established artist who comes out than a newcomer who’s openly queer. However, there is one saving grace for anyone who wants to hop into the hip hop scene.

“It goes back to: How good of a rapper are you?” he posed. “If [your music] is great, funny, and vibrant, then people are going to love it…But if [your queer identity is] all you have to offer and [the music] is not that good, then no one is going to care.”

Hill believes the hip-hop community has slowly been embracing LGBTQ people, calling out prominent awards shows like the BET Awards and NAACP Image Awards which have both received criticism for excluding LGBTQ people from its live broadcasts. “We want to see their names spoken and their faces shown and their work celebrated.”

The reason Black queer artists and representation are excluded from such events may be due to some continued longstanding stigmas of homophobia within black culture. Though neither Venable nor Jordan like to label the community as homophobic, Hill points out that some homophobic tropes are regularly being reinforced to black viewers.

Media mogul Tyler Perry has included LGBT characters in many of his TV shows, films and plays. But unlike Ryan Murphy’s TV projects, Hill and many others have criticized Perry’s portrayals as problematic. Perry, who writes and directs his projects alone, has featured storylines of down-low men (men who secretly have sexual encounters with other men) and male characters who are secretly HIV-positive who then infect their unknowing female partners.

“The Black queer experience is so much more broad than those old tired tropes,” Hill says. Frustrated by Perry’s dangerous LGBTQ depictions, he says the tropes resonate with Perry’s large Black audience because the historical depiction of how the LGBTQ community has been characterized within the Black Christian church for decades.

“It’s the job of the storyteller to be considerate of the characters they put into the world,” the journalist says. “I have not always felt Tyler did that…there’s not enough attention to their humanity.

But how effective is representation really? Many have long-stressed the importance of representation in media and that push is very active today. But even though diverse representation has increased, the same injustices and discrimination exists, which leaves Venable admittedly jaded.

“What we’re seeing now in our country is basically intellectual and domestic terrorism,” he vents. “People are using the government as a way to inflict oppression and terrorism on people’s lives.”

“It’s great that we have athletes and actors and rappers, but at this stage in 2020, it’s vital that we have judges, lawyers, people who are going to be able to defend lives and ensure the people can live free of oppression because this shit is real. This shit is very real,” Venable passionately says.

“At the end of the day, if you live in a state where people are infringing on your voting rights, infringing on your right to medical care, and make basic decisions about your life, it matters very little that Billy Porter is on television.”

Hill is hoping to change this cynicism. Right now in his career as a journalist, podcast host, and a new screenwriter, he’s only interested in talking or telling stories about Black people, queer people, or the intersection of the two. He feels a responsibility to talk about these issues.

“It is important to me that I use my time and my influence to uplift those stories and make it better for the folks who will come after me because it’s a shit show out here right now.”

This piece was originally written for a graduate course at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in November 2020.



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