Last week, when the Academy announced it had chosen comedian and actor Kevin Hart to host the 2019 Oscars, it felt like the Academy was trying to revive a show that had lost its luster — but it only ended up making a bad situation worse. The Night School star, whose films have amassed over $3.5 billion at the box office and who has over 100 million social media followers worldwide, has always made it a point to speak a bit of truth in his comedy. It seemed that his presence would invigorate a show that for the last few years lacked a true comedic element.
But a not-so-funny truth many discovered after the Academy’s announcement is that Hart and his comedy has been steeped in homophobia. The revelation resulted in an announcement from Hart that, rather than agree to the Academy’s request that he apologize for his past behavior and, according to Hart, “go back and tap into the days of old,” he would instead choose to step down from his post. (However, he would still issue a half-hearted apology to the LGBTQ community later in the week.)
Hart’s history of homophobic remarks dates back to 2009. Slurs, statements in interviews, and selections from his stand-up reveal that, to Hart, the idea of being LGBTQ is not only funny, but scary. In 2010, Hart told a friend his Twitter profile photo looked like “a gay billboard for AIDS” and joked by using the f-word. In that same year, Hart’s Seriously Funny stand-up special featured a bit where he described his fear that his then-three-year-old son Hendrix would turn out to be gay, and added, “Keep in mind, I’m not homophobic, I have nothing against gay people, be happy. Do what you want to do. But me, being a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will.” Yet, in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Hart countered his critics by insisting they were too “sensitive” and “mak[ing] big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals.”
Except homophobia is a big deal, especially when violence against LGBTQ individuals is on the rise. With LGBTQ-identified teens being twice as likely to be bullied by a peer and over 40 percent of the homeless population being queer people of color, homophobia isn’t a laughing matter. With the “Crisis of Hate” reporting that LGBTQ+ homicides have grown by 400 percent under Trump’s administration and more than two dozen Black queer/trans women of color were murdered this year, we have to really think about the weight of jokes made at the expense of queer individuals.
The reality is that Hart is in exactly the place that many male comedians choose to reside. From Jimmy Kimmel and Stephen Colbert, who often tease that our current president and Russia’s Vladimir Putin provide sexual favors to one another, to jokes made in older Seth Rogen films such as Superbad, homophobia continues to be the punchline of many male comedians’ work.
But Hart’s words and actions, as with other Black comedians such as Dave Chappelle and Eddie Murphy, are symptoms of a much bigger problem for Black men, one that many simply laugh off.
And the issue is one that is far more nuanced than simply saying, “Hart is problematic.” The complication lies in the idea Black men are taught from a young age that, because of the oppression they will already face for their racial background, their heterosexuality is the only thing they have in terms of access to privilege. Heterosexuality is used as a badge of honor, or a form of armor.
Much of the homophobia that can be found in Hart’s comedy, and in comedy in general, is connected to a history that feeds the myth of emasculation. Often fueled by the history of both slavery and religious oppression, this myth has taught Hart (and many Black comedians) since childhood to consider homosexuality a threat to Black masculinity, something that bell hooks attributes to Black men “absorbing white-supremacist patriarchal definitions of masculinity.” Hart’s words and actions this week speak to the issue of insecurity that lives within Black men, their identity and, in this case, their work.
These insecurities that many Black entertainers live with show up in different ways. For some, it’s anger. In Hart’s case, it’s poorly thought-out jokes that poke fun at the struggles LGBTQ people have, even while Black men suffer similar oppression.
But homophobia lives at the intersection of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. Because Black men often believe they are being emasculated by society, homophobic jokes are a way to protect the fragile heterosexual identities they find safety in, by targeting a community that is viewed as the lesser threat to their existence. The social inequality and oppression that Black men often face is passed off to another marginalized group.
In outlining all that has transpired, the issue here isn’t just with Hart or his comedy but with a system that continues to remind cis-heterosexual men that being queer is comical and, for Black cis-heterosexual men, queerness is also an identity to be feared and toughened against. If we ever want to see comedians like Hart truly grow and do better with their platform, we have to continue to hold them to task and remind them that their words have meaning, and whether in the past or present, can have a real impact on LGBTQ individuals and attitudes towards them.
Considering how many times last week Hart mentioned that he knows better, now is the time for him—and others like him—to actually do better.
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