By George Johnson
This June marked the 17th celebration of “Pride Month,” a designation declared by Bill Clinton to recognize and observe the heritage and culture of LGBTQ people. As LGBTQ rights continue to be attacked politically, growth in pop culture and media is simultaneously surging in areas of journalism, television, Broadway, and the big screen, creating new narratives and shifting the conversation from a hetero focused lens to one more inclusive of what life actually looks like.
However, these two opposing trends lead one to question whether increased visibility and representation is only doing the beneficial work we presume it to be doing in the fight for LGBTQ existence.
According to a GLAAD report on diversity in television, 2016-2017 was a record-breaking year. It included 278 characters falling within the LGBTQ spectrum, with the number of transgender characters doubling from the previous year to 16.
LGBTQ people are now finding placement on major network shows as main characters, indicating a progression from the past when they were depicted in supporting roles at best.
Shows like Empire, How to Get Away With Murder, and Star, all portray nuanced characters with layers and depth, showcasing many sides of the LGBTQ community that aren’t typically depicted. RuPaul’s Drag Race recently moved from Logo to VH1, with a major increase in visibility and audience. Big Fredia, Queen of Bounce, has also been renewed for a sixth season consisting of 8 one hour episodes, as opposed to the original 30-minute time-slot due to fan demand.
2017 also marked a massive shift during the awards season, when the small independent film Moonlight took the award for “Best Picture” at the Oscars over the favorite La La Land. Moonlight showed the layered nuance of growing up queer but never fully being able to embrace that experience due to one’s environment. The movie revolved around Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert (boy), Ashton Sanders (teen), and Trevante Rhodes (adult), as he navigated this identity, and explored how the suppression of one’s self, mixed with the intersection of drugs, a broken home, and loss of mentorship, guided his path through life.
Speaking with the writer of Moonlight, Tarell Alvin McCraney, gave me more insight into the importance of creating characters that have always existed between the margins and bringing them to the forefront of the story. “Always eluding me as a kid were images of full people,” McCraney explains. “There were heroes and villains, good and bad, gay and straight, black and white images, but I have always been hungry for people who meet at the crossroads; at the intersection, so to speak. They often find themselves in the margins.”
In speaking of developing the character of Kevin, played by friend and actor Andre Holland (in the character’s adulthood), McCraney talks about how Kevin was not “one thing.” As a young boy, Kevin was Chiron’s best friend, which as a teen turned into an intimate interaction setting into motion the often untold narrative of male intimacy and identity struggles.
According to McCraney “It’s hard to guess what Kevin is up to or what he is after or desires because we know so few people who are willing to be both truly kind and awful, both your friend and your enemy; both your love and your scorn.”
McCraney finished off by discussing the importance of media reflecting on his own life, stating “I just remember growing up and consistently being shocked at life because it didn’t reflect film and TV; people who loved you could do you the most harm in real life. Those truths are what I seek. The time your enemy asked ‘are you okay?’ and meant it.”
McCraney brings up a valid point in hoping to change the actions of the enemy using visibility. Although visibility is not the end all be all route to freedom, it is a necessary part of exposing the world to the lived experiences of those who fall between the margins of society. Visibility is an important tool in telling narratives that have forever existed but been erased by a society centered in uplifting patriarchy and heteronormativity as the status quo. People seeing a reflections of themselves serves a validation of the lived experience, which at times can seemingly be one that is lived alone.
I spoke with Editorial Director and Founder of Broadway Black, Andrew Shade who seconded these sentiments. According to Shade, “The LGBTQ community is profitable right now, on Broadway and beyond.” He argues that “the theatre world has been mostly commoditized by the work of the LGBTQ community,” but now “our narratives are getting the opportunity to be heard. With stories like Kinky Boots, Invisible Thread, & Sugar In Our Wounds, we get the chance to actually see us.” Shade continues, “We’ve come a long way from 1996; there’s now more than one RENT, there’s now a myriad of stories that tell who we are, on and off Broadway and beyond.”
Although visibility is important to many in liberation work, it has a very dangerous side that makes the LGBTQ more of a present target, normalizes our death and narratives as part of the dehumanization, while drawing the enemy out of hiding. Violence against the transgender community is one example of this. Black Trans Women have a life expectancy of 35 years of age, despite the rise in visibility of the trans community.
In a piece entitled “LGBT Characters now permeate some of Hollywood’s best work, but the community is bracing for backlash”, writer Tre’Vell Anderson discusses the backlash that comes from depicting these narratives. His article details that as visibility and narratives of the LGBTQ increase, more of the viewing audience is becoming vocal about their dislikes, and increase their antogonism in the process.
Visibility is often sold as a saving grace. The idea that if we existed in public spaces, those who created our oppression would begin to see and respect us differently is seductive. Careful analysis of the over 400 years of Black existence in this country might highlight another reality. Despite the hypervisibility of Black struggle, the systems of oppressions denying us access to the very rights we have gained through past movements continue to evolve.
As children continue to assume their sex and gender identities at a younger age, representation of those lived experience is an important tool in environment navigation. Having movies, shows, and productions that showcase these narratives allow those seeking not only validation, but connection to a lived experience similar to their own access to learn and process self through a lens outside of a heteronormative structure. As a blueprint generation for public living as LGBTQ people, Black Queer Media is assisting in the acknowledgment and understanding of our experiences.
However, visibility has proven to not be enough on its own to change the society’s views, and when relied upon solely it can even bring out a new level of resentment and antagonism towards our communities which have already been criminalized and dehumanized. Perhaps the answer lies in McCraney’s comment about our representations being not just “one thing,” and in deeper questioning of whom those representations are meant for. In “For Black Queers, Invisibility Is Often the Best Liberation Strategy“, Hari Ziyad discusses the catch-22 that is visibility and how on the “surface”, projects like “Transgender Day of Rememberance” are “commendable.” But while the visibility of the Black body can bring a wave of understanding, awareness, and acknowledgment of the intersections to some, it can also be used as a weapon of oppression against our existence by those unwilling to lose power and privilege.
After Philando Castile’s murderer was acquitted, and the similar end to many other cases that were recorded or witnessed, Ziyad argues that “at some point the question must be asked: Can visibility, based as it is in a notion of shared humanity, work for us if black people aren’t seen as fully human?” Creating more documented evidence of the extent of violence cannot help when a person’s protection from violence is not deemed inherently deserved.
The Black Queer Media movement has begun to shift the context of how society views those who fall outside the margins of cis-hetero life, for the good and the bad. As LGBTQ issues continue to be threatened politically, the media’s responsibility to portray our lived experiences becomes that much more important, but only if it is working in through the context of knowing that visibility is simply not enough. Black Queer lives have been here, and are forever present; simply placing them on a higher platform only means we have further to fall when the world knocks us down.
George M. Johnson is a Black Queer Journalist and the Managing Editor of BroadwayBlack.com. He writes for EBONY, TheGrio, Teen Vogue, NBC News, Black Youth Project and several other national publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram