Black queer artists are having a moment, but you wouldn’t know if you consume black media.
Janelle Monae came out after years of speculation in the pages of Rolling Stone. Lena Waithe made history as the first black queer woman on the cover of Vanity Fair. In one month, the first television series with a black trans lead cast, Pose, will debut on FX. One of the few documentaries about the ball/vogue scene debuted this month with a lot of buzz on Viceland. RuPaul’s Drag Race is now an Emmy-winning, globally popular reality competition format on VH1, also known for the sometimes-queer Love & Hip Hop.
Who missed the news? BET. Its website has yet to post about Monae calling herself a “free-ass motherfucker” and coming out as pansexual. Even as Pose is set to make history in June, it has yet to receive coverage on what is the largest black entertainment outlet.
Even as queer black people are celebrated for their artistry and excellence, BET has a long, unfortunate history of forcing them to the sidelines. Five years ago, before Dear White People and Master of None cemented her stardom, Lena Waithe released a pilot called Twenties. Produced by Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Entertainment, the pilot was eventually picked up by BET. At the time I was incredibly hopeful BET would finally embrace queer stories beyond side characters on Being Mary Jane. But the program never aired.
But last year Waithe won overdue recognition of Master of None’s “Thanksgiving,” winning an Emmy for what was best episode of TV that year, one which explored her character’s coming out. She finally re-sold Twenties… but to TBS.
I will admit I have a personal stake in black media’s embrace of queer people. I run a platform called OTV | Open Television. We release intersectional indie TV series out of Chicago. Our most well-known series, Sam Bailey and Fatimah Asghar’s brilliant, Emmy-nominated Brown Girls, now in development at HBO, garnered a ton of press attention, mostly from non-black media. Our other black queer programs have been virtually ignored. Last week we received our first celebrity endorsement, a beautiful post by Patton Oswalt, a straight white guy!
Community-specific press and distribution is critical to building up artists’ careers. Before she was a mainstream star, Issa Rae got regular coverage on Shadow & Act, an active blog about black film and television now owned by Blavity. Most black music artists, especially in R and hip hop, need to be covered by black-run media sites before they get attention by the likes of Rolling Stone.
But black media owners have yet to fully embrace intersectionalitythe theory that folks who are marginalized by their race along with gender, sexuality, class and other characteristics have specific experiences and forms of oppression. Queer and trans black artists are constantly struggling to get attention and reach black audiences, with inconsistent help from our own media outlets. This is rooted in homophobia and transphobia, a perception that black audiences aren’t “ready” for these kinds of stories.
There are rare exceptions, however. On OWN, Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots and Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar both have queer characters. Tarell Alvin McCraney, the writer behind the play on which Moonlight was based, also has a project at OWN. These examples are too few and far between.
Meanwhile, white- and gay-run media outlets are quickly starting to embrace our stories, though not always with sincerity. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black boasts one of the most intersectional casts on TV, but with a mostly white writers room and not enough storylines featuring Laverne Cox. Cox, the first transgender Emmy-nominee in history, was set to star in a CBS show Doubt, but it was quickly canceled.
Do a search for magazine covers with trans women of color and you’d be hard-pressed to find a black media outlet. Janet Mock has been on the cover of Out and Paper. As an editor at Marie Claire, the table of contents boasts her name. But Mock was buried in Essence. Laverne Cox has solo covers with Time, Cosmopolitan, The Advocate, Entertainment Weekly, and Variety, but her two Essence covers have her flanked by more mainstream cisgender stars.
In music, hip hop artists like Cakes da Killa, Le1f, Mykki Blanco, Kaycee Ortiz, Mister Wallace, Roy Kinsey, Young MA, and Azealia Banks are putting out some of the most cutting edge lyrics and beats in the game. They find regular coverage in Vice, Billboard, MTV, and other similar outlets.
It is simply untrue that the black community “can’t handle” queer and trans stories. In fact, many of our community’s most significant artists have been queer in their private lives or in their performances. As portrayed by Queen Latifah in the eponymous film (that aired on HBO), the blues singer Bessie Smith was queer. The ever-expanding list includes Ma Rainey, Moms Mabley, Whitney Houston, P.M. Dawn, Luther Vandross, Marvin Gaye, Richard Pryor, Little Richard, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Frank Ocean, Justin Simien, Lee Daniels, and Todrick Hall. Princewhile avowedly straightblurred the lines of gender and sexuality on stage.
Queer black people have always been on the forefront of art and representation. Dating back to the 19th century, balls grew out of the black community; before Stonewall, these were community events that everyone participated instraight and gay alike.
Maybe as black media has become increasingly corporate in the latter 20th century, it has cemented its preoccupation with “respectability politics,” trying to become as normative as possible. Representing straight, middle-class, married people over queer families is a key part of this.
Scholar Alfred Martin’s research on black gay characters in black-cast sitcoms found that too often these character’s stories are confined to the closet and rarely reappear in subsequent episodes. Scholars Jasmine Cobb and Robin Means-Coleman found black gay characters in TV shows are disproportionately sad, closeted, or stereotypical, limiting the complexity of our representation. At the same time, E. Patrick Johnson’s work strongly suggests that the black church (i.e., the main reason black media seems allergic to queer stories) has always been queer. Look at your choir directors and fiercest worshippers!
Despite decades of challenges and forced invisibility, voices like Lena Waithe’s and Janelle Monae’s are emerging as the black straight cisgender men held up as community leaders are falling due to their own misogyny. Bill Cosby has been convicted of sexual assault. Kanye West is a Trump supporter. Nas, R. Kelly, Russell Simmons, Tavis Smiley, and others are being accused of sexual misconduct and the abuse of women and girls.
The moment is now for black media to have more faith in black people and join in the celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, pansexual, trans and queer folx. Once we do, our cultural capital and community strength will grow beyond our wildest dreams.