Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Black LGBT Representation on TV in Summer 2013

Darren Young (left) talks to Matt Lauer
about being gay and a pro wrestler for the WWE
This summer, Darren Young, a WWE star, came out as gay. Ever since Ellen DeGeneres famously did it back in 1997, the idea of famous Americans announcing their LGBT status has become significant and important in the culture. Darren Young is a black man or a man of color, and coming out has even more significance and importance in the African-American community. Doug Spearman, writing for The Advocate magazine, detailed that significance and importance in his recent article. The article was in response to the April 29th outing of Jason Collins, the first male, black, openly gay NBA player.

Back in 2003, I proposed an article, which was similar to but predated the cover story from Vanity Fair of December 2003 called "TV's Gay Heat Wave," which was about the rise of TV programming focused or highly inclusive of gay characters. At the time, those characters were mainly, if not all, Caucasian. In the ten years since, there have been gay characters of color, particularly black gay characters, that have been sprinkled throughout television, but not in the concentration that this past summer 2013 saw in I'd argue large doses.

A landmark television program was Tongues Untied, which was broadcast on PBS in 1991. It was followed by Paris is Burning. Both were one-time documentaries that revolutionized, even through their controversies, what could be shown on network and national TV. Not much of black LGBT representation on TV came in the decade or so following. There were sprinkles in films like Philadelphia (1993) and Set It Off (1996), but I want to focus on TV and try to document the major examples on the small screen.

The organization known as GLAAD puts on every year the GLAAD Media Awards. The awards show recognizes TV shows that represent lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) characters. They have two categories in particular. One recognizes TV shows that don't have regular or recurring characters who are LGBT and the second category recognizes TV shows that do.

For example, the sitcom known as Moesha didn't have any LGBT characters that appeared in multiple episodes, but the show did one episode called "Labels" in its second season in the fall of 1996 where Moesha, played by R&B singer Brandy, goes out on a date with a boy who turns out to be gay, named Omar, played by Chris Lobban. This is opposed to the HBO series The Wire, which began in 2002, that had a guy who turned out to be gay, also named Omar, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, but HBO's Omar was in more than just one episode and besides saying it, he actually expressed his sexuality on screen.

Cable television like HBO, Showtime, BBC America and MTV led the way with ushering in more black LGBT characters in the 21st century on a regular, often weekly basis. Notable was Six Feet Under, which introduced Keith Charles, played by Mathew St. Patrick, starting in 2001. Noah's Arc had Noah, Alex, Chance and Wade, played respectively by Darryl Stephens, Rodney Chester, Doug Spearman and Jensen Atwood, starting in 2005. Footballers' Wives had Noah Alexander, played by Marcel McCalla. The L Word had Tasha Williams, played by Rose Rollins, starting in 2007. MTV's The Real World gave us actual people like Stephen Williams from the 7th season in Seattle, Karamo Brown from the 15th season in Philadelphia, Preston O'Neill Roberson-Charles from the 24th season in New Orleans and Marlon Williams from the 28th season last year in Portland.

Broadcast television like NBC, ABC and FOX also had its contributions within the past decade. The soap opera Passions had Chad Harris, played by Charles Divins, and, Vincent Clarkson, played by Phillip Jeanmarie in 2007. Glee recently had Wade 'Unique' Adams, played by Alex Newell. Again, these are examples of series with black LGBT characters who appear in multiple episodes, if not whole seasons, but there are other shows I could cite that had one-off representations.

These representations were pretty spread, so if you wanted to see a black gay character, it was the luck of the draw, or it was few and far between. This 2013 summer, however, has so many TV shows converging on this kind of representation that I must call them out. It was to a point that for a couple of weeks at the end of July and the beginning of August, you could turn on the TV everyday and see a black LGBT character.

True Blood, which is a mainstay of the summer on Sunday nights, has two black gay characters. One is Lafayette, played by Nelsan Ellis, and the other is Tara, played by Rutina Wesley. The CBS series, based on the Stephen King novel, Under the Dome, has an interracial lesbian couple. One half of which is Carolyn, played by Aisha Hinds. ABC Family launched a new series this summer called The Fosters, which also has an interracial lesbian couple. One half of which is Lena, played by Sherri Saum.

Last summer, VH1 broadcast the series Single Ladies, which had the gay clothing-boutique worker known as Omar, played by Travis Winfrey. Omar is apparently a common, gay black name. VH1 replaced that series with Hit the Floor, which didn't have a regular gay character, but, in its episode 9 on July 22nd the show had a black, gay NBA player named LJ, played by Cleo Anthony. I'm not sure if the episode was written post-Jason Collins, but NBC brought to Saturdays its defunct, medical drama Do No Harm, which also in its episode 9 on August 17th had a black gay dancer named Chuck, played by Luke Forbes.

When it came to reality television, Bravo had Fashion Queens with Derek J and Miss Lawrence. MTV had Catfish: The TV Show, which earlier had an episode on January 28th between Rico and Ja'mari, but more recently on July 2nd had Anthony and Marq. Both were black gay couples who met online and dated via the Internet.

If you like soap operas, General Hospital has Felix DuBois, the fierce yet sassy male nurse, played by Marc Anthony Samuel. Thanks to Anthony D. Langford's blog on TheBacklot.com, I was introduced to another black gay male nurse named Jamie, played by Daniel Anthony, who can be seen on the British medical series Casualty on BBC One. Anthony might just be another common, gay black name, but Langford also cites the British soap called Hollyoaks on Channel 4, which has Vincent, played by John Omole, a Nigerian teenager.

Bry'Nt (left) in a scene from "Finding Me: The Series"
Finally, the Internet company Netflix, which now provides original content in television format, released this summer the new series Orange is the New Black. That show features Sophia, played by Laverne Cox, a transsexual woman of color, and, Crazy Eyes, played by Uzo Aduba, an aggressive lesbian. Of course, you have to pay a monthly fee to get Netflix, but there are web series on YouTube that are available for free that focus on black LGBT characters as well.

Finding Me: The Series began this year and is based on a successful, independent film. The series stars RayMartell Moore as the main protagonist, and an ensemble cast that includes singer/rapper Bry'Nt who plays Omar, the common gay black name once again. Yet, other web series of note are Drama Queenz, Jenifer Lewis and Shangela, The Peculiar Kind and The Chadwick Journals.

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