Have you ever felt excluded from everything? You come home from work or school, where you’ve been wearing a mask all day, and you want to just be okay with yourself for a few hours. So you pop in a videogame, you watch your favorite TV show, or you read the latest literary craze, but something’s still missing. There are no characters like you represented in a way that reflects how you see yourself. African-American LGBT characters are frequently unseen, and when they are included, there’s usually some old stereotype attached. It’s maddening! How can you completely unwind from the crazy world that doesn’t fully accept you when your source of refuge and escape doesn’t welcome you either. What are you left to do?
I’ve had that experience. At an early age, a realization dawned on me: anything I enjoyed would not include the type of character I could see myself in. It’s tragic, in a way. I was one of very few black kids in my small Catholic school, and I was different. I didn’t even know I was gay at the time, but it was apparent from being ostracized by classmates and misunderstood by my father that something was off. I remember coming home from school and rushing to my computer or game console and jumping into somebody else’s shoes because my own did not fit into society’s rules. Yet, playing Street Fighter II, watching Dragon Ball Z, or reading Ender’s Game didn’t do much to help my self-image. While these things were very entertaining they did more damage than I was aware of. You get token, stereotypical characters with Balrog or Mr. Popo, respectively, or completely left out of the book. And these are just three of the many instances where I experienced this. All of that adds up to not being an important black man unless you’re an athlete, otherwise you’re a joke or just not worthy at all. The same can almost be said for being gay. You weren’t important enough to be included, and when there was a character, it was a caricature. Those were the messages silently repeated to me for years and years from my sources of entertainment. I know I’m not the only one. Cue all the brokenness we see in our community today.
Things have gotten better, however. Shows like Empire, Being Mary Jane, Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood, and The Real Housewives of Atlanta have put us in a position previously left unoccupied. While there are many reasons why the ways we’re represented on some of these shows is problematic, there’s also some good we can get out of just being present. It’s funny how just a handful of TV shows can get people to panic about some false conspiracy to feminize black men. People who subscribe to this belief will say we need less, but I don’t think the 5 or so characters we do have represent the full range of our experiences. More needs to be done.
Needless to say, the way some people see entertainment as nonsense or a waste of time is not a view I hold. I think it’s an extremely important part of our culture that has the power to shape how we see ourselves and each other. I’ve defined my artistic mission long ago, but to see what’s going on these days from people like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar, and Jesse Williams only emboldens my resolve to be unapolgetically me. My goal is to create characters that add to the representation we so need. It is my hope that when you read these characters, you will connect with something in them and finally have a source of escape that actually serves as one. In life, you may still feel excluded from time to time, but in art you should be able to feel like a part of the whole.