In their own words, actors on being black and (openly) gay in Hollywood
Diversity has been the buzzword in Hollywood for the better part of the last year. With Viola Davis’ recent historic Emmy win for “How to Get Away With Murder” (and the equally historic co-nomination of “Empire’s” Taraji P. Henson) and the continual sprinkling of LGBT people and characters on screens large and small, Tinseltown paints itself as a progressive paragon in a world not yet there.
But true progress in Hollywood has yet to trickle down for those at the intersection of their non-white race and non-heterosexual identity.
In an effort to chronicle the experiences of openly gay black actors in Hollywood, I reached out to all those that I could think of, a relatively small list. Though many of the more well-known actors were not available or declined to be interviewed (Wanda Sykes, Raven-Symoné, Jussie Smollett, Samira Wiley, Tituss Burgess), I was able to speak to a number of people eager to discuss their thoughts on the industry.
Below are six openly gay (or bisexual) black people who have been in front of and/or behind the camera, in their own words:
Dalila Ali Rajah
"The Young and the Restless," "Pretty Tough" and "Grey's Anatomy."
On choosing to openly express her bisexuality:
“A lot of other actors said it was a bad idea [to be out]. I think they thought it would cause a lot of problems with me getting work, but to do that didn’t feel authentically myself. I told them, ‘I’m not choosing that path for myself. I’m just going to be who I am and people are going to have to deal with it.’ But it also meant that I had to create my own content because there weren’t a lot of roles for me.”
“People go with what they know and a lot of the people who are in casting and positions of power at networks, their world vision is surrounded by a lot of white people. For them, New York looks white. Look at ‘Friends,’ which never had a black person for most of its run. It shows you people's perceptions. They don’t see people of color. When they’re going to cast, it doesn’t occur to them -- we don’t occur to them.”
On the gay black best friend role:
“Of people of color who are queer, I think there is a major lacking of [roles] and I'm not sure of the reason other than perhaps they’ve [already] got the stereotypical black gay best friend, the evolution of Sapphire. It’s very safe for people. It keeps them away from the brutal black man that’s going to steal their women. It adds all the comedy and the edge of buffoonery, in some of it, without the dangerous stuff, so it’s safe.”
On LGBT diversity in Hollywood:
“There’s been a watershed moment, but it’s mostly been for white people.”
On playing a gay character in his first Hollywood role:
“I never thought about that until we started doing promotion for the film and people started asking me. The only thing I can say is the film is so honest and it tells the truth about what people actually deal with [when growing up gay in a religious home]. I’m not afraid or nervous [of how this will affect my career]. I feel like [my performance] in the film will speak for itself.”
On straight roles in the future:
“With being an actor, you should be able to step out of yourself. Given the opportunity, I will be able to perform whatever the role calls for.”
"Glee" and "Geography Club"
On gay characters on television:
“Hollywood will accept gays and put them on TV, but there's usually a sense of masculinity [to the character]. That’s why you have straight men playing gay characters.”
On straight actors playing gay roles:
“You’ve got to know your limitations. You don't see Meryl Streep playing black roles. She knows her limitations. The conversation is always about what is your life experience. It’s one thing to change your whole persona and body to play a role and another to have someone literally transition into a truth they’re familiar with. The question should be, ‘Do you know what it’s like to live through this?’”
“It’s always a role where a panel of Caucasian people are looking at me determining if I'm black enough or not. I’m often told I’m not black enough, or gay enough. ‘You’re not the gay we want.’ But gay is gay. There is no specific [type] of gay. Sometimes I’m too too big or not big enough... It’s always about something, in my experience, [dealing with] where I am in life.”
Director of "Punks," "Noah's Arc," and "Blackbird"
On the impact of “Noah’s Arc” and other black gay characters on television:
“If anyone appreciates your work, it's a good feeling. But in some ways, it makes me sad because the fact that so many people go back to ‘Noah’s Arc,’ it’s evidence of the reality that we’ve had nothing like it since then. We have isolated characters here and there, but they’re not the main focus of anything, whether it's reality TV where they’re the fabulous sidekicks for the Real Housewives of wherever or we’re supporting characters on a scripted TV show… All of the gay characters of color on TV, especially the men, have white partners. People don’t think about these things, but it makes a difference for young black gay people to never see fully rounded versions of themselves on movies or TV. Obviously that's why my work has resonated with so many people.”
On young black talent in Hollywood:
“Hollywood is doing a really horrible job of cultivating younger black talent. They’re always developing a slew of white actors and actresses that you’ll see in a few months on the cover of Vanity Fair in the new Young Hollywood issue. It’s a shallow pool [of black actors] to begin with then actors always express a fear, a reluctance [of playing gay] because they’ll get stereotyped and they won’t get other roles.”
On openly gay black actors:
“I enjoy casting gay actors in gay roles. The problem still is we don't have enough out black celebrities, or actors, for that to matter. The handful of ones that are out there don’t want to be associated with it. They’re sort of trying to run from it. It’s unfortunate.”
On diversity on television:
“The problem is, on the one hand, television has moved to this place of being more diverse, but what that ends up looking like is that you have an ensemble TV show and they’ll make sure there's some diversity. And if you have a black gay character, it’s a twofer. But what ends up happening is you have these diverse characters existing in this world that doesn’t look like them.”
"The Skinny," "Griot's Lament" and "Hit the Wall"
On being a gay black actor:
“Being just a black actor, we have to work 10 times harder just to be [on par] with white actors. And you’re gay? In my mind, maybe because of pressure that’s been put on me, here's the black straight actor and I’ve got to put in some more to be [on par] with them too.”
On defining himself:
“I’m just an actor who happens to be gay and black. I try not to put myself in boxes because I know when I walk into certain worlds, someone has already put me in that box.”
On gay actors playing gay and straight roles:
“I think it’s important for black gay actors to continue to play the gay role, but because we have the label of actor, we also need to show ‘them’ that we can do just as much, if not more, even playing the straight roles.”
"Noah's Arc," "DTLA" and "Survivor's Remorse"
On being a gay black actor:
“You can be one or the other. You can be black or you can be gay. You can’t be both. We can’t confuse America. That’s too much for them to stomach. So, the progress of the LGBT movement in Hollywood can be moved along as long as the face of the gay movement is white men.”
On turning down stereotypical roles:
“I was so offended that they thought this was a worthwhile role to introduce the first black gay character to their lily-white show because all he was doing was chasing this white boy around. There are things that I am not going to do. I will not represent that for you. Because, no.”
On straight black actors not playing gay:
“There’s the assumption that black folks are more homophobic than other folks. I don’t think that’s true, but I think we are aware of limits this culture places on us as black men. We have 15 seconds to get our foot in the door and if we don't,’ we’re in the dark forever. Black actors are very aware that they have to work hard at remaining commercially viable.
“In order to be appealing as a black man, we have to maintain this hypermasculinity. It’s a matter of our own cultural hangups [both black culture and American culture] as well as lack of access to varied roles that keeps us locked in this fear of presenting anything that is not hypermasculine.”
On the importance of seeing oneself reflected on TV:
“It’s so important for marginalized communities to see themselves on TV because we’re so used to being invisible and not understanding our place in the world because all we’re seeing is the images that white supremacy is presenting to us. We need to begin to see black people presented more honestly. We can't be marginalized in life and then marginalized on TV as well.”
On the future of diversity in Hollywood:
“I do think that as Hollywood’s and America’s view of gays and understanding continues to evolve, we all will be given the opportunity to play so many different characters. We’ve already seen it happen with the white actors like Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer. I think it's a question of when will the black faces be invited to that party.”
Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.
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