Lil Nas X unquestionably and unapologetically queered up his live televised performances in recent months and in his music video for “That’s What I Want” (off debut album “Montero”). Lena Waithe’s character Denise spent the whole third season of “Master of None” in a complicated Black lesbian relationship. And the third season of “Sex Education” put its Black queer characters front-and-center in several prominent, poignant storylines.
Media and its gatekeepers have stereotyped – and outright stifled – that intersectionality.
There’s been honestly an erasure of Black queer people, of Black queer love,” says DaShawn Usher, associate director of Communities of Color at GLAAD.
Experts say the current media landscape – especially social media and streaming – has opened the proverbial floodgates for all kinds of representation.
“It’s undeniable that (media representation has) had an effect in terms of giving people the opportunity to just be who they are and be proud of who they are,” says Aymar Jean Christian, an associate professor at Northwestern University.
Of course, being Black and queer is nothing new in the world of pop culture. Think of 2000s dramedy television show “Noah’s Arc,” which featured four Black gay men living in Los Angeles. Or gay singer and disco star Sylvester. These series and artists paved the way for the next generation. And there’s always room for more – especially joy and love.
“I would love to see as many iterations of Black joy and Black trauma because some of it can be healing, some of it needs to be told,” Usher says.
Netflix’s “Sex Education” hones in on students’ sexual awakenings and sex-positivity at a British high school. But this most recent season, which premiered in September, went even further in its progressiveness by spotlighting Black, queer characters in groundbreaking, nuanced relationships.
That started with a diverse writer’s room, according to series creator and showrunner Laurie Nunn. The writer’s room played an integral role this season when Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) makes a trip to Nigeria with his family. Temi Wilkey, who herself is queer, Nigerian and British, penned the episode.
“It was really important that that storyline had a very particular specificity to it,” Nunn says. In the episode, Eric visits a queer Nigerian nightclub and revels in a riveting Black and queer culture he hasn’t experienced at home. Eric cheats on his boyfriend there – but it comes out of a beautiful moment where he feels a part of something bigger than himself.
“Seeing African queerness portrayed in a way that was authentic and that also was light-hearted at times was something that was absolutely beautiful instead of people regurgitating the same trauma stories and the trauma narratives that they have about African queerness,” says Dua Saleh, who plays nonbinary student Cal.
This season also featured several nonbinary characters; the show hired nonbinary consultants to stick all the right landings.
Cal and cisgender male character Jackson have an instant connection. But before that connection blossoms into something more, Cal explains that their relationship will inherently be a queer one – a fact that makes Jackson uncomfortable.
“That scene felt really important for me, as somebody who consumes media as a trans person, just knowing that there are conversations that a lot of trans people that I know have with their respective partners who are cis, or who don’t have an understanding of what their nonbinary identity means to them, or what their queerness or sexuality means to each person,” Saleh says.
Saleh has been overwhelmed to the point of tears given the outpouring of love from fans.
“(For) a lot of them, it was the first time that they’d ever seen a nonbinary person in a show at all,” Saleh says. “It’s something that I have to carry with me.”
What Lil Nas X is doing for queer Black people
Lil Nas X‘s star scintillates brighter and brighter with each passing day, whether it’s pulling off several different sexy, shocking looks at the Met Gala or teaching safe sex between Black queer men in new music video “That’s What I Want.”
The recording artist spoke up on TikTok in February about his depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, and always posts acerbic tweets standing up for LGBTQ rights – not to mention he kissed one of his male dancers at the BET Awards.
Social media erupted following premiere of his video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” this spring, which included sexually-explicit biblical and Satanic imagery (he kills the devil, among other things). Fans celebrated the queerness in the video but others felt he went too far. Advocates say his critics miss the bigger picture: his brave statement for Black queerness.
Lena Waithe and trauma: It’s a reality
The third season of “Master of None,” which premiered in May, moved away from co-creator and star Aziz Ansari, shifting to Lena Waithe’s Denise and her wife Alicia (Naomi Ackie). It was “quite literally the only time a television series has centered around a Black lesbian couple as its sole protagonists, and in such an intimate close up portrait,” wrote LGBTQ outlet Autostraddle editor-in-chief Carmen Phillips in May. It’s not a happy portrait – but that’s the point.
Waithe’s work, like the film “Queen and Slim” and “Master of None,” has been criticized as “Black trauma porn.” But “the sad reality is that to be Black in America means to experience a whole lot of trauma,” says David Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition. “To be Black and queer, trans and nonbinary means that we experience in intersectional ways which means that that trauma is often compounded.”
Usher says there’s a need to tell these stories. “It shouldn’t be the only storylines or the only things that are told,” he says. “But it is the reality of what has happened, or what currently is happening.”
Christian appreciated the series’ realness. “It seemed like they were trying to tell an intimate universal story that wasn’t trying to deny the Blackness and queerness of the characters, but also give them an opportunity to live lives that aren’t solely focused on their Blackness and queerness,” he says.
Examples of successful Black, queer representation don’t end here. See Starz’s “P-Valley,” and “Lovecraft Country” and “Random Acts of Flyness” on HBO. Or VH1 reality show “Love and Hip Hop: Miami.”
The more representation – especially when it comes to Black, queer love stories of all kinds – the better.
“When people take pride in themselves, they live their lives differently,” Christian says, “and they force other people in their real lives to confront and accept people who are different.”