Dazed Voices columnist Otamere Goubadia reflects on the impact of seeing his identity sidelined as a one-dimensional, finger-snapping stereotype
Earlier this year, The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez’s seven-hour, two-part gay epic, opened in London to rave reviews. Having recently transferred to the West End, it’s being touted as the spiritual successor to Tony Kushner’s 1991 play Angels In America, the critically acclaimed, genre-defining classic. They have a lot in common: both are a pseudo-spiritual retelling of the burdens, triumphs and pitfalls of homosexuality among connected and affluent gay New Yorkers, and their relationship to the HIV/Aids epidemic. Both are marvellous feats of complexity in length and vision. And, most glaringly to me (and something that largely went unmentioned in glowing reviews): both unmistakably do a disservice to the already minimal black queer presence on stage.
When I think of black queer representation, I inevitably think of True Blood's Lafayette Reynolds. There’s a scene in that show that I’ve never quite been able to get out of my head. Lafayette – a sassy, smoky-eyed, durag-rocking, femme black gay man – fends off white male homophobes in his Deep South diner. After one of them mockingly sends back a hamburger he's cooked because “it might have Aids” he theatrically re-serves the plate to their table, asking: '“who ordered the hamburger with Aids?”, before promptly handing them their asses.
The Inheritance's Tristan (along with Jason), and Angels In America's Belize are written from the same white homosexual gaze. Both are part ‘yass queen!’ sass-bot – delivering home truths and going toe-to-toe with white staunch conservative gay men – and part magical negro (one a physician, the other a nurse) providing edification and redemptive, healing touch for the white characters. They are outnumbered by the white characters, who they act as accessories to. In a 1995 interview with Mother Jones, Kushner would later express his regret “at having made the only (black gay) person in (Angels in America) a nurse” – but more than 20 years later, the cycle still continues to repeat itself.
The complexity of black characters is so often sacrificed in favour of making them the mule of some ‘grand revelation’ for white protagonists. They are the literal personification of sass and wise words, but barely get the screen time or character arcs they deserve as individuals. They are templates, without the vulnerability and the nuance that I know us to contain.
When these are the only black queer characters we see in the media, they inform not just how others view and treat us, but how we behave, and who we understand ourselves to be. Do we acculturate sass because sass is expected of us? How much of our personalities (experienced as innate and deeply felt) do we perform without question – a shady-quipping, finger snapping, black queerness – because it has been given to us by television and theatre, socialised into us so much so that we can’t separate these learnings from the core of who we are?
Representation is not only at the core of how we feel about ourselves, but how others feel about us. If all we (and those who we coexist with) are presented with are these caricatures that don’t accurately represent the richness and variety of our internal lives, then we are easier to marginalise without guilt. As the Transparent actress, Trace Lysette, once said: “If you can see a trans person in your living room, that person becomes human to you.” Genuine, multi-faceted representations undo the knots of our oppressions, which are rooted in our mythicisation, not our reality.
In one of her now famous TED talks, The Danger of a Single Story, celebrated Nigerian feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” Stereotypes are cultural propaganda: they create the climate necessary for our oppression. They turn whole bodies and spirits into three-fifths of human beings, not worthy of respect, equal treatment, love or resource. When we are not people but gestures of people, it means we can be treated as inferior, criminalised in public spaces, fetishised in pornography and on dating apps, incarcerated with impunity, and denied the vital life-sustaining resources that our under-supported communities need.
“A lot of my time has been lost to what felt like an unspoken obligation to perform my identity – not live it”
The problems with the Belizes, and the Tristans, and the ‘sassy black gay’ trope writ large, is not that these characters are bold, nor that they are brash, nor that they are scrappy, head-tilting, earring removing, ebonics-slanging sass-queens — there is nothing inherently bad about these things. Lafayette was, and remains to me, evidence of the strength in my black faggotry. He showed me that I could win. But the problem with these characters is that ‘sass queen’ is the remit of all that they can be. The only function they serve as black queers is to serve in white-centred stories. This kind of representation reifies us in the public consciousness as something to be called ‘fierce!’ and ‘queen!’, but not truly valued or understood. We are gawked at and accessorised for entertainment, but ultimately disposable.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, realising that I myself have spent the years following the discovery of my queerness – one that has always in some sense been here – unwittingly playing to the gallery of expectation. A lot of my time has been lost to what felt like an unspoken obligation to perform my identity – not live it. When we are presented time and time with the same tired stereotypes and shallow clichés, it suffocates possibility. We are told that our only value is to entertain, and space in the community exists only for us if we do so; before we know it, we are tap dancing to survive. I want to live something nobler.
We deserve better. Authenticity will only be achieved by the inclusion of black queer people in writers’ rooms, to cancel out the othering gaze of subjection. The fullness of our lives can’t be told by even the most well-meaning proxy. Looking For Langston, Tongues Untied, The Brothers Size – time and time again it has been shown that we are best placed to humanise ourselves in film and literature and art, by writing these characters and weaving these narratives the way we see fit. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends in the Moonlight. We have stories to tell, and our truths and words exist in abundance – if only you give us the means.