* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
TV that showed Black gay friendship, love and growth changed my life
DaShawn Usher is founder and executive director of Mobilizing Our Brothers Initiative (MOBI); associate director at Communities of Color, GLAAD; and creative consultant of podcast series 'Being Seen'
*contains language that might offend
Do you remember the first time you felt seen? The first time you noticed that confusion or adrenaline rush when extra attention was focused on you? It happened the first time I did something “bad” as a child, or so I thought. Until then, I had felt both invincible and invisible.
The first time I felt seen, I was about five years old and I was instructed that “boys don’t do that.” My family took extra notice of me and started to police my carefree behavior. My brother told me I was too soft. My sister called me a sissy and my father called me a faggot. As a child figuring out the world, I knew I did not want that kind of attention and yearned for the days of being unnoticed again.
So I hid. I suppressed any differences, emotions, and joys that would cause people to see me in “that way.”
That was until I saw what freedom and creative expression looked like for Black women through entertainment. Those limitations I placed to censor myself came to a halt one day in 1995 when I was watching TV and U.S. singer Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me” video came on. It was the first time I heard or saw anyone bucking back against societal norms and expectations. Then I was introduced to the band TLC, and I loved their messaging when it came to sexual education and awareness, especially since this was the same year that my aunt was diagnosed with HIV.
Often, we do not acknowledge the positive impact that artists, athletes, musicians, entertainers, celebrities, and influencers have on our lives. I was 14 the first time I saw gay people on TV. It was Showtime’s “Queer as Folk” and I did not see anyone that looked like me. In fact, that show made me question if I had the ability to be “gay”, as it was filled with partying, hooking up, drugs, and carefree cisgender white men.
Fast forward five years later to the age of 18 and my first semester in college, I finally felt like I had been seen in entertainment. Patrik-Ian Polk’s groundbreaking television show, “Noah’s Arc”, changed my life. It became my possibility model of what Black gay friendship, love, and growth could look like; I felt prepared when I had my first sexual experience, my first break-up, and my first HIV test.
Film and television continue to lack diversity of multidimensional Black gay and queer characters. Every year, we see a plethora of new and renewed shows that focus solely on white characters, whilst the gap of shows featuring Black gay and queer characters widens. We are missing out on diverse representation, visibility and shared experiences that let viewers know they are not alone.
Recently, I have had the opportunity to serve as a creative consultant for ViiV Healthcare’s “Being Seen”, a podcast series that explores how culture can resolve the tension between how we are seen and how we see ourselves.
I wanted to be involved with “Being Seen” because our collective stories are worthy of telling. Being able to have one central platform that brings together Black gay and queer men – and their allies – to discuss these topics finally provided multilayered perspectives that were meant for us and were largely created by us too.
These narratives and storylines not only shape our current perspectives, but champion our future success to navigate an even more complex world. Most people, LGBT+ or not, still do not have a reference for some of the plights, traumas, joys and successes that we experience as a community.
We have the power to change that.