there needs to be more black queer love to watch

august 2020

Searching for intimate portrayals of Black queer men on the small screen have been hard to find during a time when society needs them now more than ever.

The first time I saw two Black men kiss on television was during an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.

I was an insomniac pre-teen who used to stay up late watching what my grandmother described as “garbage TV” while everyone else was asleep. The episode I watched was definitely trashy -- one of the Black men revealed to his girlfriend on national television that he had fallen in love with a man that she knew. In pure Jerry Springer show fashion, instant drama ensued the moment the gay lover came on stage to confront the now-enraged ex. The two men kissed on camera as the crowd reacted out loud. I remember gasping and having sweaty palms in anticipation.

My emotions were complicated. I knew these two men were wrong for betraying a woman who appeared completely innocent. But I also felt inspired by how carefree and open they were about their love. Whether or not the storyline was made up or not, seeing those two men out at a time when I didn’t have the words to describe my own queer identity touched me.

But such images in pop culture would continue to be very few as I now reflect on how far we haven’t come in seeing Black gay men in love.

Transitioning to high school, I witnessed the unfortunate end of the trailblazing Black gay television series Noah’s Arc on Logo. It during this time that I began to see healthier and  nuanced portrayals of Black queer men who dealt with societal issues and were able to talk about sex more openly. It was while watching this show that I saw other gay men talking about getting tested for STIs, being out in society, and what makes ‘tops and bottoms’ different. Even though I was around 14 years old at the time, this was the closest I got to LGBTQ sex-ed that I wasn’t getting in public school.

By the time I attended college, most of what I saw of Black queer men being intimate was either framed as something deceitful or non-existent. I was triggered by the ill-fated “down-low brother” tropes that made gay Black sex scandalous in films such as Tyler Perry’s adaptation of “For Colored Girls” and “Cover” starring Vivica A. Fox. Pop culture was basically telling me that who I desired was dangerous and reckless (in both of these films, Black gay men contracted HIV as if it were a punishment).

As a result, the only time I ever felt a sense of comfort about my sexuality via media at the time was while watching Black gay intimacy in porn. Although often dredged in stereotypes surrounding hyper-masculinity and street culture, Black gay porn validated my existence in ways that mass media could hardly do. Seeing these men comfortable with their sexuality in a way that felt normal and personal spoke volumes. Other than these experiences, I only saw fragmented portrayals through “garbage TV” reality shows that only made a mockery of our love lives (side-eyeing Real Housewives of Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop). 

Representation matters, but how you center it does even more. Now 28, things have gotten only slightly better. According to GLADD’s recent “Where We Are On TV” report that monitors LGTBQ representation, only 25% (28) of LGBTQ television characters on the top five broadcast networks are Black, with 18% (37) and 14% (16) on cable networks and major streaming platforms, respectively.

And while this is promising, there’s something to be said for the need of more Black intimacy within these characters. Most characters are either non-intimate, pursuing toxic relationships, or involved interracial relationships. I initially struggled without actor Jussie Smollett’s now-removed character Jamal Lyon in FOX’s Empire who either had an abusive or drug-induced toxic love affair with other Black men. It wasn’t until Lyon’s final episode on the hit show (which will soon begin its final season) that he gave us a powerful moment: the first-ever Black same-sex marriage in television show history.

Since then, there hasn’t been much change. In the groundbreaking FX series Pose, I had to endure seeing the devastating break-up of Ricky and Damon, two Black queer men whose naivety reminds me of one of my first relationships. The two start off young, wild, and free until fame, infidelity, and an HIV scare ruined what was the most identifiable romance  I’ve connected to on television in years. To add salt to the womb, audiences had to watch Ricky pursue a relationship with Pray Tell, a Black queer man who once served as a father-figure to both characters. Although this newfound relationship has presented itself on the show to be healing for both of them, I can’t help but feel betrayed by the initial hope of less contentious Black queer dating.

At a time when an out Black rapper can have the longest-charting #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 ever and we’re still seeing anti-LGBTQ jokes made on Netflix by Black comedians, more should be done to give us the loving images we so deserve. Black LGBTQ people are faced with the stigma of living in a world that marginalized our racial identity and sexual orientation daily. Television is a platform where we also deserve the right to escape into a reality that we can exist as whole. It is often said within the community that Black queer love is a revolutionary act. If this is so, the rest of society should be able to see that and learn more about us from such an experience.

Now with my partner of over six years, I have desired even more to see the kind of love we share normalized on the small screen. We didn’t find it in the throngs of sex and drugs in a helpless place, but on a dance floor while in college. It would be nice to see a story like get told, one that feels real, sensible, and human -- just like our love is.

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Ernest Owens is award-winning journalist and CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC. He is based in Philadelphia, Pa. Follow @MrErnestOwens