“Change comes with time.” It’s a tired response that minorities receive from friends, family, acquaintances, social justice leaders and even one we give ourselves. It’s a train of thought that we adopt to acquire patience while enduring oppression, misrepresentation or worse yet, no representation at all, be that in politics, higher education, media or other institutions. As someone who has been involved in the film industry and marketing industry, I can attest that time and time again, the gatekeepers of inclusion have found depictions of the LGBTQ+ community acceptable only when incorporating a White LGBTQ+ person. More specifically, a White gay man is seen to suffice for a television show, film or commercial to be LGBT-inclusive.
I remember watching Modern Family for the first time, which featured a gay White couple. Just after marriage equality, the number of television shows and marketing campaigns featuring gay couples amplified. I was concerned as almost all gay characters featured were rural or suburban White men, but thought I should be grateful as television networks, digital and print outlets were lending themselves as a tool for progress. In time, I realized they weren’t normalizing me, my gay, Latino or low-income identity as much as they were normalizing White gay relationships to the heterosexual majority and glorifying White gay culture to gay men of color.
From the inception of Queer as Folk to Will and Grace, the representation of gay men took the form of flamboyant, sexually insatiable middle-class White men. Yet, many would argue that incrementalism is the only method to opening the doors for LGBT representation. So why would the White male population be the only community members onscreen? Unlike most civil rights movements, the LGBTQ+ population has overlapping members with the White, male elite, allowing the movement to progress faster than any other civil rights movement with White gay men at its forefront. Ironic, given that this was a movement started by transgender people of color and yet hardly surprising, given the history of White interactions with communities of color.
The evolution of gay men on television has, as we’ve seen more recently, begun showcasing a greater number of gay men of color. Nonetheless, the weak efforts by mainstream producers to remedy the exclusion of LGBT people of color has been to frequently incorporate one dimensional Latino, African American or Asian gay men as a side kick to White-centered gay films, or as leads but with a White romantic partner. Love Simon, a film that follows a gay White high school student also provides ample screen time to the movie’s White secondary characters but refrains from delivering a backstory to the African American gay character, Bram. La Mision, one of the few gay films that dives into the life of a gay Latino character depicts him in a relationship with a White guy who saves him from gang persecution. Honey Maid’s gay commercial that is narrated in Spanish by a Latino character reveals him having a family with a White gay man at the end.
The recent Netflix film, Tales of the City, illustrates two gay men, one presenting as ethnically ambiguous, while the other a White character, with a more than 15-year difference. The significance of age difference here is its frequent implementation. Many ad campaigns have casted and fetishized the idea of a White gay older man with a young Latino or Asian guy, while others have preserved creatives that solely incorporate interracial couples that are composed of at least one White man.
These repetitive compositions not only build the perception for communities of color that the gay identity can only exist in White form, but that gay men of color can only come close to attaining a normal gay relationship by aligning themselves with a White guy. Besides cultivating exoticism, and even otherness, of gay men of color to the White gay community, it disempowers them and accentuates the idea that Whiteness is the goal to being accepted.
Moonlight was the first LGBT film I have seen maintain focus on the African American gay experience, preserving a love affair between two Black men whose lives revolve around urban environments, a drastic contrast from the over sexualized White images and country backstories recycled through the LGBT Netflix genre and Hollywood. Our stories do not need the Great White Hope in order to be on screen, they need to be told in their most raw form, highlighting the challenges faced by every person of color, whether or not it is relatable to the White gay community.