Eric walks into his school dance, his lips painted a sparkly pink, his eyes accented with green glitter, his head wrapped in luxurious green silk, his body clad in a boldly patterned floral suit, his feet in heels. Heads turn; these kids have known that Eric was gay, and many have teased him for it, but they’ve never seen his feminine expression. He’s initially taken aback by the stares, but he presses forward, pride oozing out of him with every step.
Eric, played with heart and sincerity by Ncuti Gatwa, is the emotional anchor of Netflix’s Sex Education. The series centers around Eric’s best friend Otis, who works in cahoots with the rebellious Maeve to offer sex therapy to their classmates. But Eric plays a pivotal role by not only helping Otis realize the value of friendship, but also navigating his gender identity and self-esteem during a period of life when it’s much easier to fit in. Eric is well-rounded, emotional, and funny without being clichéd, and it’s riveting to watch his story unfold. He’s a black, gay sidekick who’s allowed to be femme and whole and do more than provide comic relief.
To a lesser extent, Austin Crute’s Alan in the recent coming-of-age comedy Booksmart gets the same treatment. He’s a theater kid who hams it up at every chance. In one scene, during a murder mystery dinner party, he plays a fabulous widow, clad in a full-length silver gown.
I’ve wanted to see this kind of representation for so long – portrayals of black queer characters who aren’t robbed of their humanity for easy jokes, who aren’t defined by their suffering. But part of me, perhaps selfishly, still wants more.
Why can’t there be a series like Sex Education with a black queer lead? Or a Ramy? Or an Insecure? A series that explores what it’s like to be black and queer, up close and personal, raw and unfiltered, blemishes and all. Lena Waithe’s long-gestating Twenties, about a queer black girl and her straight best friends, is headed to BET, though I wonder how honest this show can be given BET’s rather traditional target audience. And Issa Rae is producing Him or Her, a series about a bisexual black man based on the experiences of comedian Travon Free.
But mostly, we’re still supporting players in anthologies and hit shows, quite often relegated to subplots that don’t get the full development they deserve. Prize-winning playwright, horror novelist, and actress Tracey Brown has seen this happen time and time again. “I was annoyed by the gay cop in The Shield, because he wasn’t allowed to be proud and happy,” she said, referencing Detective Julien Lowe, who was played by the embattled actor Michael Jace.
Though more and more creators of color are getting their due, Hollywood as a whole still seems unwilling to cede the spotlight to black queer leads. Seeing ourselves reflected, especially in ways that are joyous and femme and about more than misery, is important. Just look at the response to Billy Porter’s groundbreaking Oscars, Met Gala, and Tonys red carpet looks. With each statement, he’s unapologetic and unbothered, and he’s inspiring a whole legion of black queer kids to embrace their authentic selves. Now, imagine if there was a show with a lead character who not only proudly showcased his femininity but also pursued happiness in love and family and career. That would be revolutionary.
But we must proceed with caution. Brown stresses that we need to protect the integrity of telling our stories in Hollywood. She warns that black queer characters are often written as a way to exacerbate and preserve otherness, to avoid seeing them as whole, to help white executives feel safe. “Let’s not sleepwalk into those roles being cast for us as black people,” she said. “I don’t want ‘black woman as lesbian’ to be as lazy a character trope as ‘Mammy’ is.”
Representation isn’t just about statistics or mindlessly plopping black queer characters into stories to check a box. These portrayals still need to be nuanced and fully fleshed and progressive. “Show us gay lawyers, teachers, cleaners, bus drivers, opticians,” Brown added. “Let their gayness be incidental, just as in [Jordan Peele’s] Us, their blackness is.”
Characters like Eric and Alan are proof that Hollywood is waking up and recognizing the depth of stories our community has to tell. But we need to see these characters inhabit their own worlds, too. There are plenty of young queer black kids out there who still feel it’s not okay to be themselves. They need to see people who look like them onscreen. It’s time.
Cover photo: Scot Scoop News