When I first started playing the violin in the fourth grade, my parents went violin crazy. If there was someone playing violin on a TV show or in a commercial, they immediately called for me to come see or listen to it. My mom would record episodes of shows for me to watch later because there was a violinist playing for just a minute or two. I never had the heart to tell her when it was actually just a synthesizer and the actor was doing a horrible job even holding the instrument. When I got my first car, my mom bought me a license plate with a picture of a music score on it. She was disappointed she couldn’t get the one with the picture of the violin on it. I can’t help but look at these moments with fondness. I was the odd, creative kid who had finally found his outlet and consuming all things violin was how my family could connect to me and my interests.
My family took on a similar pattern when I came out as gay. They would tell me about their favorite gay characters on TV. They would watch documentaries and other programs meant to represent the lives of gay Black men. They insist on watching the wildly popular show Empire because it features a gay Black character, Jamal Lyon portrayed by Jussie Smollett. Empire focuses on the life of a successful music producer named Lucius Lyon and his family. In the show, his three sons compete to inherit the company. Jamal is gay and Lucius is homophobic, so many tensions of the show center on that dynamic. Show creator Lee Daniels said he hoped the show would “blow the lid off more on homophobia in [the Black] community.”1 Similar to my experience of starting the violin, consuming media portrayals of gay life is a part of how my family comes to better understand me. I was heartened by their support but was worried about what they were seeing.
In numerous ways, mainstream film and television have navigated the volatile cultural space of Black male queerness. By examining the extent to which stereotypes have been adopted, pushed against, and reconciled, one can engage in an in-depth exploration of the recurrent U.S. television and film narratives of the gay Black deceiver, as well as the complex negotiation of stereotypes and portrayals of sexuality. This article is an investigation of how that specific narrative is employed and to demonstrate the general function of stereotype in regards to depictions of gay Black men.
Narratives of the animalistic, primitive nature of Black people emerged early on in European colonization and slavery and were used to justify the violence and subjugation of Black bodies. The German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, wrote in The Philosophy of History that, “The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay aside all thought of reverence and morality—all that we call feeling— if we would rightly comprehend him; there is nothing harmonious to be found in this type of character.”2 However, the increased use of stereotypes of Black men as hyper-sexed beings whose insatiable sexual proclivities posed a great threat to the safety of white women emerged at end of slavery and reflect a white anxiety about the increased social freedom and economic and political gains of Blacks after the Civil War. A PBS report on the death of Emmett Till and American lynchings details as follows:
Although the practice of lynching had existed since before slavery, it gained momentum during Reconstruction, when viable Black towns sprang up across the South and African Americans began to make political and economic inroads by registering to vote, establishing businesses and running for public office. Many whites—landowners and poor whites –felt threatened by this rise in Black prominence. Foremost on their minds was a fear of sex between the races. Some whites espoused the idea that Black men were sexual predators and wanted integration in order to be with white women.3
Accusations of rape, or attempted rape, against white women were justifications for the lynchings of Black men (many of those lynchings even involved genital mutilation).4 Consider as an example the story of the Scottsboro Boys. In 1931, in Scottsboro, Alabama, nine young Black men were falsely accused of raping two young white women, then subsequently given poor legal representation and rushed through the judicial process in order to expedite their jail time and deaths.5
Two years after the Scottsboro case, but still within the same cultural climate, Merion C. Cooper released the film King Kong (filming actually began the same year as the Scottsboro trial in 1931).6 A post from the website Atlanta Black Star listed King Kong among “11 of the Most Racist Movies Ever Made” and cited the evocation of the Black brute as one of its most problematic elements. In the criticism is the assertion that there is an “underlying racist [comparison] between King Kong and Black men. King Kong was forcibly taken from his land and brought to the United States in chains. He breaks free then meets his demise due to his insatiable desire for a white woman.”7 At the time of its release, the movie was well received by critics and audiences and is today considered a cinema classic. It has since been remade twice, and the 1933 original currently holds a ninety-eight percent favorable rating on the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.8
David Rosen, in an essay about King Kong published in the film critique publication Jump Cut, posits that King Kong represented white attitudes about Black men in the 1930s: “an object of entertainment, but also of fear. The ape is apparently securely chained, but with the ever present potential for busting his chains and wreaking violence and destruction with all the power of his supposed dangerous, primitive nature.”9 One could ask if the continued cultural resonance of the film and the more contemporary portrayals of Black men possessing weaponized sexuality illuminates the persistence of similar racial anxieties.10
The notion of unchecked, untamed power “run amuck” is what scholar Devon Carbado asserts as evidence of a lineage between the gay Black deceiver and the brute. He writes, “A family tree displaying dominant types in cultural iconography of Black men would show, I believe, an unmistakable line of descent from Sambo to the SNAP! Queen and, in parallel lineage, from the brute Negro to AIDS-infected Black Homo Con rapist.”11 Contemporary moments in popular culture have demonstrated the potency in the narrative of the deceiver. Like many, I first encountered the term “downlow” from watching The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 2004, several episodes were devoted to exposing the “double life” of what is still referred to on The Oprah Winfrey Show website as “a secret sex world.”12 Text from from the site reads:
Imagine you’re in a loving relationship with a man who you think is committed to you. You would probably never think he would have an affair with another woman…let alone promiscuous sex with other men, but that’s exactly what some say men who are living on the “down low” are doing.
This behavior isn’t just harmful to a relationship; it can also be life-threatening to you and your partner. In 2004, AIDS was a leading cause of death for African-Americans ages 25 to 44. “That is starling,” Oprah says. “All of my alarms went off.” Women, college students and people over the age of 50 are at greater risk than ever before, and as Oprah discovers, men living on the down low may be one reason why. 13
“The Downlow” became a part of the cultural vernacular, and closeted Black men were understood to be dishonest, selfish, and diseased people causing immeasurable damage in the lives of Black women and, by extent, society-at-large. The conversation is often framed in a way that places the pressure to keep these men in secrecy comes from within the Black community itself. The understanding is that gay Black men are driven to act out their sexual desires in secret because the Black community was so uniformly and adamantly opposed to homosexuality. There was seldom dialogue about the cavalier ways in which the mainstream society and popular culture labels a group of people dishonest, selfish, and disease ridden might also foster a closeted culture. It’s this archetype that has been subsequently reproduced countless times in television and film.
In the fifth season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, in an episode entitled “Lowdown,” District Attorney Andy Abbot infects his wife with HIV and commits murder to hide his sexual identity. Under the guise of a poker game, Abbot participates in a secret sex club with other closeted Black men. It’s especially damning that Law & Order uses the inversion of the term “lowdown” instead of “downlow” since “lowdown” is associated with notions of shame, deviance, and even criminality. The club is composed of successful businessmen who wish to have sex with other men without emotional attachment in a space away from the straight identities they have constructed. The episode reveals that Andy has killed one of the members of the group, Jeff, because Jeff had fallen in love with Andy and wanted him to leave his wife and family in order to begin a life together. Out of fear of being exposed as a gay man, Andy kills Jeff and stages the scene to look as though he were killed by a sex worker. It is also revealed that both Jeff and Andy contracted HIV and Andy has given it to his wife. There is an extended dialog between the detectives Stabler, Munch, Tutuola, Benson and Captain Cragen about the downlow lifestyle in which Detective Fin presents rhetoric similar to the conversations on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He offers, “You grow up being Black, you’re supposed to be a man—to be a father. Church, your family, your friends. They all seeing being gay as a white man’s perversion. It’s different for Black men. They go out, have sex with other men, then come home and have sex with their woman and pretend they’re straight.”14
Each club member values preserving their constructed straight identity as very important. One of the characters, DuShawn McGovern, a real estate agent and retired professional football player quips, ”Get clear, bro. I’m no fag!” and “I am not gay. I have relationships with women and sex with men.” The episode dispels any notion that a man who identifies as heterosexual can engage in a sexual encounter with someone of the same sex and retain a heterosexual identity. Such an interaction is shown as inherently hypocritical or deceitful. When asked by detective Fin if he wears a condom during these sexual encounters with men, McGovern responds, “Wearing protection is like admitting why you went there.” Andy Abbott does not identify as gay until the dramatic conclusion of the episode in which he is confronted by his tearful wife and subsequently confesses to murder. The episode premiered in April 2004 and today it enjoys a high 8.1 out of 10 favorable score on the IMDb website.15
The episode may perform those aforementioned racial anxieties around the economic and social mobility of Black men. Each member of the club is financially successful and has an elevated social status. All of the men are middle to upper middle class. Discussions of salary and income come up several times throughout the course of the episode. Their businesses are Black-owned and supported primarily by Black people and there are no apparent societal pressures, economic or social, outside of Blackness that creates their closet. It is the men’s lack of adherence to a specifically Black familial social code that brings about the demise of their communities, health, wealth, and livelihood.
This notion of social adherence as linked to economic realities is reminiscent of the 1965 Moynihan Report in which the sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan claims “the origins of Black poverty are placed squarely in the dissolution of the Black family.” He continues, “It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.” In the report, Moynihan places blame on the absence of Black fathers in the dissolution of the nuclear family which helped to bolster assumptions about Black men as transient or philanderers (yet another narrative of the unruliness of Black male sexuality).16 The Moynihan Report served to obscure the role of white supremacist structures (economic disenfranchisement, the creation of ghettos, discrimination, etc.) by claiming that the primary reasons for disparate economic realities for whites and Blacks originated from within Black life itself. Similarly, the deceiver claims that it is the personal moral failings of Black men in the context of a Black cultural space (assumed to be inherently flawed or misguided) that account for the deterioration of Black communities. In other words, if Black people didn’t put so much pressure on their men to be macho, they wouldn’t have this problem. The “brute” is King Kong to white women, and the deceiver is King Kong to Black women.
In 2010, Tyler Perry directed and produced the film For Colored Girls, based on the stage play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, written in 1975 by Ntozake Shange. The film depicts the downlow archetype. Like in “Lowdown,” one of the characters is closeted and is unfaithful to his wife and infects her with HIV.17 Interestingly, Tyler Perry’s film and the original play are stories created by people of color aimed at audiences of color. Perry’s work allows for an opportunity to engage with a level of nuance often omitted in discussions and critiques of the white supremacist framework—that people of color can also be complicit in that framework.18 Black people participate in and regularly engage with a society that devalues Black lives and demonizes Black sexualities. There are a number of internal policing mechanisms that Black communities have developed as a response to that reality. One of the ways that Black people have responded is by developing a intra-racial code of ethics or the “politics of respectability.”
The desire for respectable narratives and performances of Blackness has been a concern in African-American communities since the time of slavery. These conversations often center around issues of education, racial uplift, manners of dress, religion, and distancing from non-European traditions. Similar discourses around respectability emerge in queer male communities–emphasis on monogamy, masculinity, military participation, economic success, and marriage.19 These concerns intersect in a multitude of complex ways for gay Black men. Respectability is fundamentally about a community aligning itself with power systems so as to avoid the perception of weakness. These politics dictate that Black people must behave in a way that directly contradicts the negative stereotypes that the white patriarchal mainstream society has produced about them. If white society claims that Black men are lazy, Black men must show themselves to be hard working. Another way that some Black communities have responded to negative stereotypes by accepting part or parts of them as true. For example, a Black man who consumes media that reproduces narratives about the deceptive nature of other Black men may feel more comfortable hiring a white plumber than a Black one. Political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry, in her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, refers to the “politics of respectability” as a tool for collective shame management. Consequently, if some heteronormative/homophobic Black communities perceive queer identities as deviance from those set of internal politics (a potential source for communal shame), those queer Black people can be perceived as a potential weakness for the entire community and would be understood by some as committing an act of racial betrayal. Thus, not only could the downlow character could serve as a racist catharsis in its mass appeal to a white mainstream, it could also serve as a scapegoat within Black communities around issues of intra-racial policing.
It’s entirely possible that the deceiver houses and performs a number of societal anxieties. In conversations about the spread of HIV in Black communities, perhaps, for example, he allows us to circumvent conversations about racial-based healthcare disparities. As I’ve mentioned, the deceiver could reanimate white anxieties about Black acquisition of wealth and social standing. The deceiver is in no way a productive analysis of the intersection of race and sexuality. It is, in fact, a complex and masked performance of racism. Infidelity — even infidelity across the assumed rigidness of sexuality — is not exclusively a reality for Black people. There are white men who identify as “straight” and do not disclose their same-sex sexual encounters to their female partners, but a racialized term does not exist for these men. The use of the deceiver character, and other stereotypic narratives like it, point to a more broad societal racist attachment to the narrative of the Black male body and its sexualities, as possessing a naturally heightened capacity for harm and threat.
The character, Lafayette Reynolds in HBO’s True Blood, represents an intriguing, complex negotiation of narratives about Black queer identity.20 At a cursory glance, Lafayette appears to invoke several stereotypic and potentially problematic stereotypes. He speaks in an almost cartoonish African-American dialect. In the fourth episode of the second season, while putting on makeup in the women’s bathroom mirror he proclaims, “I’s is gorgeous!” His terms of endearment and affection are “hooker,” “ho,” and “bitch.” In the first season it is revealed that he sells drugs and spends much of his free time getting high. He often acts as a “mammy” figure for the white characters, offering them advice and quite literally preparing them meals.21 He wears makeup and women’s clothing, and he frequently invokes the sassy, emasculating, loud mouth, often-asexual stereotype known as the “sapphire” with his snaps and sassy quips.22
Through these recognizable and questionable narratives and imagery, Lafayette provides powerful avenues for the subversion of stereotypes and makes a strong claim for the legitimacy of Black queer male identity. The main source of social conflict in True Blood’s fictional world of Bon Temps is vampire against human and vice versa, the show takes many opportunities to explore sexual and racial space that are seemingly peripheral to the plot, but are actually very much connected to the main allegory of discrimination. It is obvious that the show’s vampire/human dynamics mimic conversations about queer and racial politics. The opening credits feature a church sign that reads “God hates fangs” meant to mimic the rhetoric of fundamentalist anti-gay groups.23 In the first season, when the main character, Sookie, falls in love with a vampire, she gives soliloquies at length about how it is wrong to discriminate against vampires in language that sounds very similar to the language of racial justice. But what helps to reinforce the central allegory is when the show specifically takes on issues of race and sexuality.
It is important to consider the character of Lafayette in the context of the “politics of respectability,” the modes of behavioral policing that minority communities enact for themselves in order to demonstrate a close proximity to normativity (i.e. white patriarchy) usually for the purpose of gaining civil rights and social freedoms as opposed to behaving in non-normative ways or embracing non-traditional value systems that could be perceived as a threat to those endeavors.24
In many ways, Lafayette seems to make no direct appeal to respectability, yet in the context of the show, he seems very much aligned with power and influence. Lafayette sells drugs as a side business, but he works a steady job and is viewed as an integral part of his predominantly white community. When he engages in romantic relationships, they are among the most complex and fully realized on the show.25 He commands respect in his social circle and his sexuality presents no substantial obstacles. His romantic and sexual endeavors are encouraged, and seldom do others question the fluid presentations of Lafayette’s gender. Consider the potency of this queer framework: Lafayette is granted the space for a Black queer identity without having to appeal to respectability. He is rarely required to earn that space or prove he is deserving of it. His right to be belongs to him just as much as it does any other character. In one particular instance in which his sexuality is questioned, he deconstructs stereotypes about masculinity, toughness, and race. In an episode from the first season entitled, “Sparks Fly Out,” some young white patrons of Merlotte’s, the restaurant where Lafayette is head chef, cheekily complain that they do not wish to have their food made by a homosexual for fear it might “have AIDS.” One of the waitresses returns their food to the kitchen and tells Lafayette of the homophobic remarks. Lafayette, angered by the comments, removes his earrings and apron, leaves the kitchen, and confronts the patrons. He asks, “’Scuse me? Who ordered the hamburger with AIDS?”26 In a heated exchange, one of the customers offers, “I’m an American, and I got a say in who makes my food.”27 To which Lafayette responds, “Baby, it’s too late for that. Faggots been breeding yo’ cows, raising yo’ chickens, and even brewing your beer long before I walked my sexy ass in this motherfucker. Everything on your goddamn table got AIDS!” The exchange ends when Lafayette punches and subdues all three men in a matter of seconds. The interaction is met with applause and cheers. Lafayette sashays away and quips, “Tip your waitress.”29
Lafayette makes a claim for his sexuality through strength and physical prowess in a way that upsets the power dynamic associated with the white heterosexual masculine performance. In this moment, Lafayette deconstructs notions of homosexuality and feminine performance as linked to fragility. In the altercation is reclamation. Lafayette’s non-masculine performance is now perceived as toughness. The racial dynamics addressed are equally as compelling. Lafayette’s attack on the white patrons in a predominantly white establishment is celebrated and to be understood by the viewing audience as a rightful victory. In fact, Sookie’s brother Jason high fives Lafayette as he walks back to the kitchen and then sassily snaps his fingers at the shamed bigots. The confrontation is justified and there are no anxieties around the aggressiveness of the Black male body. No external force enters to police his behavior because the conflict is seen as resolved. In the world that True Blood has created, an audience is able to accept that a flamboyant, gay, Black man beat up a group of straight, white, bigots in a small town in rural Louisiana–an interaction that was met by the cheers of the white patrons. Because stereotypes represent the familiar and almost serve as an anchoring, a viewing audience can be walked through a scenario that would seem to them highly unlikely in the real world without being disoriented or confused. The use (and in this case, the hyper-use) of stereotype creates points of recognition or landmarks. Because the show assumes these are narratives with which people are familiar, True Blood can actually use those landmarks to present stereotypical characters in subversive or radical realities. In the case of Lafayette, he evokes stereotypes that are often linked to histories of the lack of agency of Black people. “Mammy” is subservient. She is a slave. “Sapphire” has no real power, only irrational aggression. But Lafayette demonstrates as much agency as any other character on the show. His service is his choice, and his anger is justified and even brings about change.
In another scene, Lafayette and a vampire named James are caught having sex during a party. James is dating another vampire named Jessica, and it is Jessica who finds them. Jessica is enraged and sends James away and chastises Lafayette. Lafayette walks away only to return to admonish Jessica for not having been attentive to James. After berating her for her lack of interest in James, Lafayette exclaims, in the third person, “Everyone else in this town is falling in love and getting engaged and having babies! Has it ever occurred to you that Lafayette–that queen that makes all you white heterosexuals laugh and feel good about yourselves—has it ever fucking occurred to you that maybe I want a piece of happiness too?”30 In this moment, Lafayette explicitly dismantles his role as “mammy.”
Mammy has no concerns for her own life. She looks after white people because her love obligates her to them. She is the fixer of white lives and she is often asexual or her sexuality is perceived as non-threatening.31 In many of the earlier seasons, the character of Lafayette functions in a similar way. In an interview with the pop culture news site Vulture, Nelsan Ellis, the actor who portrays Lafayette, describes the character as “the one Sookie and other Bon Temps residents continually go to for both the tough love and the laughs, the one who comforts them when they need it most and who won’t let them mope when they need to celebrate life.”32 However, in the confrontation with Jessica, Lafayette asserts that he will be in a relationship with James even though he knows it will upset her. He makes a specific claim that the stereotypes about how his race and sexuality intersect should not prevent him from pursuing happiness or a relationship. It is a clear rejection of the assumption of his identity in favor of creating a space for his actual identity. Nelsan Ellis, the actor who portrays Lafayette, described Lafayette in the final season as “taking command of his own happiness.”33 What is interesting is that Lafayette is understood to be justified in that claim even though it infringes upon the desires of white people. This is a complete dismantling of “mammy.” His interior life is prioritized above those of white society, and he relinquishes any caregiving role. In this way, mammy is dismantled.
There are those that would argue that the reproduction of the stereotype regardless of any agency or complexity, is harmful no matter the intention of potential for subversion. But I would disagree: Lafayette represents a portrayal of Black queer male identity that goes beyond the mere reproduction of tropes. Yes, he invokes stereotypes—specifically a hyper-use of them–but there are no substantial social barriers as a result of the stereotypical racial and sexual performance. As is the case with the brute and deceiver narrative, the negative repercussions of stereotypes are profoundly restrictive: He is a deceiver. He brought about his own demise and those around him. He is a villain. However because of the sexual and racial freedom presented in the world of Bon Temps, Lafayette is nuanced, and is allowed the same space for passion, sexual fulfillment, joy, and pain as the other characters. He is in no way inhibited. His desires are seen as valid and are often met. In general, “stereotype” refers to a simplified societal understanding about a group of people. In the context of the space in which Lafayette lives, stereotypes represent individual choice about one’s presentation detached from public perception. In Lafayette, stereotype becomes liberation. He is not the deceiver; he is open and proud. He is never truly mammy because he prioritizes his needs above those of others, and his sexuality is realized. His femininity is not perceived as weakness because he can be tough. He is not a brute in his aggression because his aggression is justified and not to be feared. He is truly liberated because he is neither restricted by stereotype or respectability.
We are seeing complex and gay black realized characters in primetime. But as encouraged as I am, the problematic narratives persist. Lee Daniels, a gay Black man, during a Television Critics Association press tour, said of his motivation behind creating Empire: “Homophobia is rampant in the African American community, and men are on the DL (downlow). They don’t come out, because your priest says, your pastor says, mama says, your next-door neighbor says, your homie says, your brother says, your boss says [that homosexuality is wrong] And they are killing African American women. They are killing our women.” The use of the deceiver/downlow narrative and others like it point to a societal racist attachment to the narrative of the black male body, and its sexualities, as possessing a naturally heightened capacity for harm and threat.
My mom and dad are now pretty knowledgeable about classical music. After all of the concerts, masterclasses, recitals, and the TV shows, they have a discerning ear and can even fairly judge a performance. They arrived at this moment by engaging with the complex and sometimes uncomfortable moments: sitting through painfully out-of-tune recitals, attending my masterclasses, and listening to professional performances. It was the numerous exposures to nuanced performances that allowed them to better understand what I do. I’m hopeful that nuanced representation of black queer space (in addition to their lived interaction with me) can help them to better understand who I am.
Ryan Blocker is a violinist, arts administrator, and graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ryan is engaged with issues of social justice and minority representation and the ways in which art and criticism can help to create a more just world. He also watches a lot of T.V.
Title image by Flickr user Z S.