In an interview with The Advocate, Tina Fey was asked about what is arguably the brightest spot of Netflix’s very funny show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Titus Andromedon, played by Tituss Burgess. It was noted that some have criticized the Titus character as a “gay stereotype” and Fey was questioned as to whether or not an effeminate gay male character can ever exist on television without controversy. In response, Fey argued, "I know people like Titus. If a person exists, it's fair game."
Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. My first memory of gay black men on television was the “Men on Film” segment on In Living Color. While many chuckled at the overly effeminate Blaine Edwards (played by Damon Wayans) and Antoine Merriweather (played by David Allen Grier), I was horrified. As a child who knew he liked boys in the way most of the other boys felt about girls, their caricature-like depictions made for a bad introduction into what gay life meant.
And while gay white men have since enjoyed more nuanced depictions of what it means to be a gay man, it's still fairly new terrain for gay black men. There are more facets to gay black characters like Jamal Lyons on Empire or Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Captain Ray Holt, but these are very recent additions to the landscape. That said, to Fey’s point, what makes Titus’ character different than Blaine, Antoine, and all of the stereotypically gay black characters of yore is that a gay black man is actually behind the character, thus able to add nuance and depth.
Yes, if a person exists, theoretically “it’s fair game.” But the game would be much fairer if the person you know truly exists gets to be as multi-dimensional as the white woman who created him on paper. Fey and Burgess have done well, but I’m not at a point where I can trust scripted television to correctly portray an effeminate gay male character—and to a degree, any gay black character—particularly if the person penning the character is writing an experience they don’t know anything about.
Thankfully, there have been other depictions of gay black men on television upending the status quo in a veritable way.
Consider the now-cancelled Bravo series Fashion Queens. Initially, many compared the show’s gay black male co-hosts, Derek J and Miss Lawrence, to Blaine and Antoine. All parties involved challenged such association.
When asked about gay stereotypes, co-host Bevy Smith said: “Here’s the thing about the gay stereotype conversation: I understand what people are saying and they have a right to the way they feel, but my thing is that if the boys all of a sudden ‘butched up’ or changed direction in who they are comfortable being, then that would be much more horrible than people being uncomfortable, because the boys are fashion flexible and have a bit of androgyny about themselves.”
Smith went on to note that the two “have a right to dress the way they want to, speak the way they want to.”
At the time, I was one of the people who questioned the co-hosts, but Smith’s remarks challenged me and pushed me to evolve my stance. They were simply being themselves on the show. Who was I to condemn them, just because I don’t see enough of who I believe I am on television?
As Miss Lawrence told Out, “The fact that, just me living in my authentic truth and being who I am, even if one person tells me that because of you I was able to find my inner being and adapt to who I was placed here to be, that does a whole lot for me. So, that within itself is the pro for me.”
And since that show there have been others.
I know of gay black men who heard of Oxygen’s The Prancing Elites Project and quickly dismissed it. They missed out. The show, which will soon premiere its second season, focuses on five gender-bending black men who simply want to do their style of dancing, J-Setting, without ridicule in their native Mobile, Alabama. What I appreciate about the show is that it allows them to simply be who they are. They're not on a mission to uplift any particular image of gay black men; they're just themselves, which, in its own way, is revolutionary enough.
Of course, that show was preceded by Fuse’s Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce, which focuses on New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia and her journey from regional sensation to more mainstream stardom. Freedia’s power lies in her being so comfortable in her own skin. She, like the five men who starred in The Prancing Elites Project, is there to entertain, but not be the expense of anyone else’s joke. For all of these entertainers, their femininity does not undermine their power as men—instead, it only highlights how much strength is required to be who you are, on your terms.
The most recent season of VH1's Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, which began in September and wrapped up in December, featured a same-sex relationship, between Miles and Milan. Initially reluctant to see what I felt was another stereotype about gay black men, the “down-low”-esque theme to their storyline tap-danced on every inch of my last nerve. But again, that might be some folks’ reality, so at least the people who actually have to go through such an ordeal were provided a space to tell their story as they saw fit.
Ultimately, by the show’s reunion episode, Miles and Milan had broken up—in a dramatic, over-the-top, and rather draining fashion (just like every other relationship on the show). However, following each of their respective post-season interviews, there are now questions about whether or not their storyline and what it was intended to present are anything even close to real. Even so, Miles and Milan showed viewers that gay black men could be as big a mess as anyone else. That is helpful in its own way.
We have far to go in terms of depicting gay black men on TV, though. And with scripted television, until there are more men from the community actually creating shows and characters and penning scripts, there are a lot of facets of our lives that we won't see represented on the small screen. However, when it comes to challenging previous representation—like the cartoonish men on In Living Color—at least reality television has allowed black men the space to seize control of some of the archetypes of gay manhood and add much-needed layers to them. What we have is not perfect, and depictions of gay black manhood must continue to evolve. But 2015 has felt like the start of something long overdue.
Michael Arceneaux is a Houston-bred, Howard University educated writer who wants a show that'll allow him to recite UGK lyrics with Beyoncé. He's working on his first book, I Can't Date Jesus, for Atria Books.