The first time I saw a glimmer of myself reflected back at me onscreen was in Patrik-Ian Polk’s 2005 series, Noah’s Arc, a Black gay Sex and the City of sorts. I’d watch it behind closed doors and at a barely audible volume, in fear of my mom overhearing and finding out my tea. But, starved for authentic representations of my true self, I gladly took the risk.
Historically, Black characters in Hollywood have fallen into one of the banal and often racist tropes of—as historian Donald Bogle first wrote in 1973—“the tom, the coon, the tragic mulatto, the mammy and the brutal Black buck.” Throw in a Jezebel and a drug addict and you had, for the most part, the Black cinematic canon.
As more Black writers, directors and producers gained the agency necessary to create complex, nuanced characters in their own informed images, others within the Black community—namely lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people—had to settle for representations of ourselves filtered through cisgender and heterosexual gazes.
Unfortunately, characters like those on In Living Color’s “Men on Film” sketch series often did for Black LGBTQ+ people what Black characters created by and for the White gaze did for the broader Black community: They sensationalized, stigmatized and further marginalized us.
Now, almost 15 years after Noah’s Arc, Black LGBTQ+ people have broken through, gaining a new level of access and the chance to tell our own stories. In the words of writer–activist Audre Lorde, we can finally “define ourselves for ourselves.”
The result looks like the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None in which Lena Waithe’s character comes out as lesbian to her family. What could’ve been a trite story line became an endearingly relatable narrative, thanks to the pen in Waithe’s hand. The episode would make her the first Black woman to win an Emmy for comedy series writing, in 2017.
Then came the series Pose, about the ’80s ballroom scene, created by Steven Canals, a Black Latinx queer man from the Bronx. With him and Black trans advocate and now director Janet Mock in the writers’ room, what could’ve been another opportunity to exploit Black and Latinx queer and trans folk instead became an act of revolutionary defiance as the show humanized groups sometimes thought of as less than.
In front of the camera, Black LGBTQ+ actors are also experiencing unprecedented levels of visibility—from Orange Is the New Black’s Laverne Cox to If Beale Street Could Talk’s Colman Domingo to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Tituss Burgess and singer–actress Janelle Monáe to Queen Sugar’s Rutina Wesley and Brian Michael to The Handmaid’s Tale’s Samira Wiley.
Still, we have a long way to go.
I know it can feel like Black LGBTQ+ people are everywhere, especially given Hollywood’s tendency to make certain narratives appear socially relevant or “woke.” However, it’s necessary for our allies to continue using their privileges to open doors for Black LGBTQ+ people so that we can take the lead in the telling of our stories. And queer and trans actors must be cast to play queer and trans roles while also being allowed to play nonqueer and nontrans characters according to their abilities, talents and interests.
The goal is for generations to come to know of our existence through the films and television shows we create and in which we star, because our stories, too, are Black stories, and the many ways we show up and move through the world deserve to be seen—and celebrated.
Tre’vell Anderson is the director of culture and entertainment for Out magazine.