From oversexualization and being the neutered best friends to complete invisibility, people of color are often denied the multidimensional agency of their white queer counterparts.
There are characters here and there, but very few series are designed or centered around non-white queer folk. Additionally, people of color are rarely afforded the opportunity to head an entire program. Who wants to see that, right? Here, we’re going to acknowledge series germane not only to Queer people of color but, by proxy, to people in the LGBTQ community more broadly.
Noah’s Arc was the first scripted television show for the newly cemented, queer-focused network, Logos. It premiered in 2005, right after George W. Bush used his opposition to gay marriage to win the 2004 presidential election. Noah’s Arc redefined the way we tell stories of non-normative queer people.
Created by Patrik-Ian Polk, an openly gay black film director and writer, Noah’s Arc followed the lives of four queer men of color: Noah, a sensitive writerly type working in Los Angeles as a screenwriter; Ricky, a promiscuous Latinx man who owned a clothing boutique on Melrose; Alex, a femme, married HIV/AIDS educator who served as the comedic center; And Chance, a stiff, elitist by-the-books economics professor with a blended family.
The series showed how they navigated love, career and friendship through the prism of their sexuality and the experiences it both afforded and kept from them. It touched on gay marriage, othering, being denied employment, the rigid world of Hollywood, straight-identified men who sleep with men, toxic masculinity, theepidemic of HIV/AIDS, femmephobia in the queer community and much more. It was a one-of-a-kind series that illustrated how to write complex, interesting copy for a series of interconnected, yet totally different, characters. It was, perhaps, the first television representation of queer men of color in a wholly multidimensional fashion.
Then you have FX’s Pose, spearheaded by creator Ryan Murphy of American Horror Story and Glee fame. This show predominately centers around black and Latinx trans women in the 1980s house/ballroom scene of New York City. This story wasn’t necessarily close to Murphy’s life experience, but he wanted it to be told. To do this properly, he enlisted trans women of color, like the author and journalist Janet Mock, to work as writers, directors and advisers.
This is what representation looks like. It’s using the opportunities afforded to you to open doors for underrepresented members of a community who are more intimately related to the story you want to tell.
However, this is also where representation frequently hits an impasse. Stories of queer people of color are either portrayed as idyllic or utterly misrepresented. It seems innocuous to those who are constantly and deliberately shown throughout every medium, but for groups unknown to the public, that media narrative constructs, shapes and codifies cultural ideas about them as individuals. This is because minorities aren’t afforded the privilege of individuality.
A show like Jerry Springer is a good example. Frequently, the show’s casting directors reach out to trans women, often of color, to come on the show and tell their sexual partners that they were assigned male at birth. Of course, it’s never done tactfully. Instead, the trans woman say, “I am a man” while the audience, filled with cisgender-heterosexual people, chuckle and yell “Jerry!” Upon realization, the trans woman’s partner then proceeds to physically and verbally assault her. This show, which has remained a cultural staple, perpetuates a troubling narrative about trans women.
It portrays them as dishonest people who are meant to be leered at and mocked. Their womanhood becomes a question to which the answer is always “no.” Unfortunately, this serves as many people’s introduction to transgender people and it lays the foundation for the way our society denies them their humanity. Additionally, we know that trans women of color are disproportionally represented in anti-trans hate crimes. The correlation is not an accident
While representation of queer people of color in media is still not ideal, they are getting better. The problematic Jerry Springer has ended production and other shows similar to it, like Maury, are being instructed on how to navigate the world of transgender issues with an emphasis on the “people” not the spectacle.
It’s even better for queer people of color in scripted television. According to GLAAD’s annual “Where Are We On TV” report, 33 percent of LGBTQ characters on media platforms – broadcast, cable and streaming – were of color in 2017. In total, queer people made up 6.4 percent of regular characters on primetime television shows, the highest proportion recorded since GLAAD began tracking this information over 13 years ago.
We have a long way to go, but it’s also important to understand how far we’ve come.
Article written by Brandon Sams edited by MC Robinson.