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Eric goes to prom in Sex Education
via Netflix

Sex Education’s vital, complex portrayal of black queer teenhood

Eric Effiong offers a refreshing take on black queer femininity, family and friendship in Netflix’s new series

Note: Some spoilers for Netflix’s Sex Education below

In an age where we’re allowed no rest from television’s often shallow attempts at ‘diversity’, Netflix’s Sex Education offers an impressively multi-layered and relatable portrait of a black queer boy through its ebullient character Eric Effiong. Eric, played by British-Rwandan actor Ncuti Gatwa, might be the best friend of the central protagonist, Otis, but to me he steals the show. Though it would be easy for a series which centres on the sexual awakening of high school students, there is no exhausted bildungsroman format attached to Eric about overcoming sexual shame – Eric is confidently homosexual. He is proud to have given exactly two and a half handjobs over the summer. He exhibits his favourite gay porn scenes to alien erotica writer Lily, and at a house party he hosts a 101 dick-sucking workshop with a banana.

By refusing to solely frame him through the lens of shame, the writers of Sex Education provide space for Eric to experience and express a multiplicity of moods and emotions. He is hilarious, energetic, annoying, caring, and confident. Far from remaining a disregarded enigma on the edge of the plot or school social hierarchy, Eric enthusiastically throws himself into life there – whether it’s joining the swing band (even though he sucks at the French horn), or donning attention-grabbing (and often garish) outfits, so much about Eric embodies the confidence I try to carry myself with to this day.

But while his electric energy and playfulness with drag and femme identity is invigorating for black queer audiences, what stands out for me is how Eric is distinctly a Nigerian in diaspora. As queer, West African diaspora, our relationship with queerness is fraught with tension, as we attempt to resist the expectations imposed on us by culture and tradition. In one episode, Eric is victim to a homophobic attack, having been left out alone in drag after being stood up by Otis. This sparks a turning point in his narrative where these tensions are explored. As is often the response to such violence against queer and gender non-conforming people, he retreats from queer expression and dresses down in dull, olive-brown tones. He attempts to fashion himself into the stoic and masculine figure that is expected of young, Nigerian boys, asking his father, “what kind of man do you want me to be?”.

“Eric resolutely affirms to young queer people watching, that while there is no undermining the fact that your identity and aesthetic are tied to the reality of your safety, there is strength and joy to be found in living as your true, queer self”

Eric’s relationship with his father embodies one of the most authentic and moving relationships in the show. Eric’s father is paradigmatic of what I see in a lot of West African parents of queer children – he is not the stereotypical close-minded parent who violently rejects their child, but he is certainly not wearing a baby pink PFLAG t-shirt and attending Black Pride in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens either. Mr Effiong is a parent trying; he does not at all understand Eric’s sexuality, but fiercely wants to protect him. Over the course of the show, we learn his dad’s behaviour is not about a malicious intent to restrict his son, but based on an anxiety that expression outside the scope of ‘normality’ can lead to physical and emotional abuse.

But Eric rebukes this attempt at protection, delivering the lines “I’ll be hurt either way. Isn’t it better to be who I am?” while donning an emerald gele and silvery, flamboyant makeup. In doing so, Eric resolutely affirms to young queer people watching, that while there is no undermining the fact that your identity and aesthetic are tied to the reality of your safety, there is strength and joy to be found in living as your true, queer self. His father responds that he is “learning from his brave son”.

Noting the difficulty he faced in acclimatising to white Britain as a West African migrant, he recognises the added difficulty Eric has in being a queer man confronting homophobia. The recognition of his heroism is validating without reducing him to a ‘magical negro’ archetype, and credits the bravery it takes to live our blackness and queerness unapologetically.

Eric’s presentation is well-balanced as comedic, poignant, and ultimately empowering. But, despite the strengths of his characterisation, I found some disappointing parts of the script. One of Eric’s ‘humorous’ sub-plots is his romantic pursuit of another gay student, Anwar. But the premise of humour in Eric chasing Anwar is that the black, gender non-conforming Eric is obviously not desirable, and therefore deluded in his pursuit. It is not necessarily an offensive presentation, but as black queer people craving media representation, it seems we either find ourselves as objects to be lusted after and fetishised, or to be pitied and humoured for our lack of desirability.

The pairing of Eric with his bully and abuser, Adam, in the season finale makes this even more difficult to swallow. It is frustrating that after showing Eric rebuild his self-love and confidence after a brutal homophobic attack, he is then presented as gratefully lapping up sexual attention from his bully. Not only is the “abuser-turned-lover” trope exhausted, but this pairing runs the risk of reducing Eric to a plot device bolstering a white character’s ‘coming-of-age’ narrative.

Sex Education also fails to truly hold Otis accountable for leaving his friend alone and vulnerable, leading to his attack. The reality of physical harassment and assault for black gender non-conforming people is well documented by Black British figures like Travis Alabanza and Otamere Guobadia.

While the presentation of Eric’s reaction to the assault was appropriately sensitive and sympathetic, by reducing the incident to a petty argument between Eric and Otis, the show has missed a vital opportunity to document how straight and/or white ‘allies’ can and must do better to protect their black and queer friends from harm.

Even with some of the more unsavoury parts of the plot, Eric’s character was welcome and vital representation for black queer boys. What would be an important direction for Eric is to show more interactions with other black queer people, as we saw in one scene where is he inspired by a “fierce” looking black queer man. Eric could find a second home and community for himself amongst black queer peers. Representing black queer people is important, but representing the relationships, friendships and space we share with each other is important too.