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Queer, Black Characters Have Been Sidelined For Too Long

Writing for Elle in late 2016, I asked the following: “How many Black lesbians can you count on television?”

The question served as the lede for my review of The Same Difference, the award-winning documentary directed by Nneka Onuorah which brought viewers into the world of Black queer women. As I discussed with Onuorah that same year, it is frustrating to see how there is a dearth of Black queer perspectives in television and film, be it her documentary or more fictionalized accounts. There are sprinkles of us to be found on various shows, but we’re never the leads. We are never, ever at the forefront; we largely exist within the constraints of the sideline roles.

No, that doesn’t diminish those roles or the actors behind him. I appreciate Jamal Lyons. I like Titus. I would never play Kima Greggs like that. All of these characters have helped move things along. Yes, I get that progress is slow.

Still, why can’t we be the main attraction? Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams live charmed lives, but why can’t we get the Beyoncé treatment? Wait, both of them got solos after LeToya and LaTavia were escorted out of the group by Mathew Knowles. Let me try this again. In the past, queer folks have gotten the Joh’Vonnie Jackson treatment in television and then we progressed to Rebbie Jackson’s “Centipede” and maybe one or two modest hits from La Toya and Jermaine. But obviously, we’re Michael and Janet. Ain’t it about time we got to show the world our butterfly?

Shut up, this all makes sense.

Yet, as much as I gripe about the lack of Black queer male visibility on television, I know that it has been far worse for Black queer women. To wit, Emmy award-winning writer, producer, and actress Lena Waithe made a similar complaint about the lack of Black queer female representation a similar complaint last fall. Speaking with The Daily Beast, Waithe shared a vision on how to help right that wrong.

“I want to create a show where a black gay woman is the lead, where she is the protagonist, she is the person whom we are following,” she explained. “That is still yet to be done. I have faith. I hope we can make it happen, we still don’t have that. We don’t have a show where a queer brown male person is the lead.

For those of us familiar with Waithe’s work, we knew that she had been trying to get said vehicle, Twenties, a show following three Black women but one queer one as the protagonist, off the ground for some time. Some years ago, Waithe, working alongside Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit production company, released a pilot presentation of Twenties, to help show what the series could be. To get people to see the obvious lacking representation and seize upon it.

As she told Shadow and Act back in 2013, “A lot of networks read the script and loved it, but they either thought there wasn’t an audience for it or that it already existed. Of course I became extremely frustrated because I knew neither of those things were true.”

Ahh yes, that bullshit trope. You see, let a few small minded fools tell it, if you are Black and queer you are too “niche,” and thus, not able to enjoy the opportunities your paler and/or straighter peers are often afforded. I’ve been told this many times for many different reasons. I have not decided if I am cursing some of them out in my book acknowledgments yet.

That said, Waithe did ink a deal with BET about the show, though it never came to fruition. Now, after winning an Emmy for her Master of None episode based on her own Black female queer experience along with a hit Showtime series in which she serves as creator and executive producer, Twenties now has another chance of helping fill a void as TBS announced that has ordered a comedy pilot for Twenties.

In a statement, Waithe said: “I always wanted to tell a story where a queer black woman was the protagonist, and I’m so grateful to TBS for giving me a platform to tell this story. Queer black characters have been the sidekick for long enough; it’s time for us to finally take the lead.”

TBS and TNT, under President Kevin Reilly, has actively been rebranding the networks. What better way to illustrate that they are indeed now one of the more formidable, forward-thinking cable networks than by doing the bare minimum (a task Hollywood so tragically tends to struggle completing) and showing all of us. As Waithe and others have long said, Queer Black characters have been the sidekick long enough.

We are no less appealing than anyone else; let Lena Waithe and the rest of us prove it.


Michael Arceneaux

Michael Arceneaux writes the “Dearly Beloved” advice column at INTO. He is the New York Times bestselling author of the newly released I Can't Date Jesus from 37 Ink/Atria Books/Simon & Schuster. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Essence, The Guardian, Mic, and more. Follow him on Twitter.