Many of us have been privy to urgent conversations in unmixed company pertaining to the conspiratorial theory that there is a homosexual agenda being promoted in recent popular Black film and television. (1) For African-Americans the runaway success of the show EMPIRE with its openly Gay character of Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) created by the openly Gay filmmaker/TV producer Lee Daniels has become the flashpoint for seeing any non-shaming representation of Black homosexual desire, affection and identity on the film and television screen as the fulfillment of “the homosexual agenda”. Which of course begs the question what exactly is “the homosexual agenda”?
This is a difficult question to answer because it is a conspiracy theory that changes depending upon the race, class or gender with which you are discussing it.
For Black males of a certain age and class, seeing the character of Jamal Lyon kissing another male or openly displaying homosexual desire and/or affection fits neatly into the conspiracy theory of a White controlled entertainment industry that supposedly is hell bent on making Black males appear effeminate, cross-dressing, and weak while simultaneously knocking all Black actors and the characters that they play out of competition for full dramatic agency- otherwise known as the ability to change, influence or take charge of a situation and survive the outcome of the circumstances within a story.
In the patriarchal pecking order the Gay Black male is rated lower than his Black Hetero male counterpart because his “Gayness” presumably knocks him out of competition for true power. True power which we all know was succinctly articulated for us in Depalma and Stone’s 1983 film SCARFACE:
“In this country you gotta make the money first; then when you get the money, you get the power; then when you get the power, then you get the woman.”
No truer words on the relationship of power and pussy in a Capitalist system have ever been stated from a singular male heterosexual perspective before or since.
Yet if we peel back the layers upon which many private unmixed company conversations about the homosexual agenda are based we find a recalcitrant homophobia underpinning these entire discussions. The notion of “out of sight, out of mind,” governs the distaste and passive protest against non-shaming representations of homosexuality on screen. The people who start these conversations usually go out of their way to state that,” Nobody has a problem with anybody being Gay,” as a means of giving themselves an air of tolerance and common-sense, but they usually finish their declaration by saying in one way or another,” but nobody wants to see two men kissing or getting down that’s just going too far.” This is the equivalent of saying,” it’s okay that you are Gay but please keep it in the closet.” Even after the historic Supreme Court decision which gives all Americans the right to same-sex marriage (also part of the Homosexual agenda, depending upon who you talk to) the notion of equal representation in film and television is often met with passive protest in the form of a discussion about a conspiracy theory that presumes that to see homosexuality as human is to make other humans homosexual.
This is not to say that there have never been representations of homosexuality in film and television before EMPIRE or the Supreme Court decision on Gay marriage, but these passive protests highlight the fact a majority of representations of Black Gays on film and television before EMPIRE were shame based. The prison rapes in HBO’s OZ series, Lesbianism on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, even the Gay representation of Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) on that Holy Grail of cable television shows, THE WIRE is still shrouded in shame as the character participated in illegal and illicit activities which attaches a criminal stigma to his homosexual identity.
The matrix of shame as it concerns sexuality means that dramatic representations of homosexuality are accepted as long as these representations are shamed by the negative circumstances or outcomes wherein which they are placed.(2) Thus, prison homosexuality can be represented as rape and tolerated because the participants are in jail for their crimes against society and away from the public at large. We can be voyeurs upon their transgressions and absolve ourselves because that’s what happens –and what should happen- to criminals. Closeted homosexuality has always been tolerated as an open secret because the participants tacitly agree to keep things private and therefore out of sight, out of mind. Even Dee Rees impressive film, PARIAH (2011) which tells the coming-of-age story of a young lesbian has a drama that hinges on the matrix of shame as it concerns homosexuality and the Black family (and by extension Black communities at large) and the film ends with a negative (e.g. non-relationship) outcome .
The matix of shame most certainly has its beginnings in early childhood expressions, mimicry and/or performances of adult sexual desire. Young Black boys are often warned of being “too mannish” just as young Black girls are warned of being “too fast” when they express, mimic or perform certain aspects of adult sexual desire. Other normal expressions of childhood sexuality such as masturbation and same-sex exploration are often severely frowned upon but, it could be argued, are a natural step in human sexuality. It could be that the adult’s shame warnings to young children are the first steps towards orientation confusion and/or latent sexual hypocrisies in adulthood if such shame warnings are so emotionally hysterical or physically severe that they stunt healthy sexual development or impede the child’s ability to heal from early childhood sexual abuse by adults or older adolescents.
As a corollary to these early childhood shame warnings, as long as the representation of Black homosexuality is shame based it has been tolerated in Film and Television, but the moment such depictions are non-shame based the notion of a homosexual agenda becomes the conspiracy theory through which those who still harbor deep-seated homophobic tendencies can express their disdain. By making homosexual representations part of a larger White supremacist agenda to mock and weaken the Black man, non-shame based representations of homosexuality are made to appear as but one more of the White man’s mental weapons to degrade the Black male who apparently only sees himself through film and television.
Ironically, it’s as if more open representations of Black Gays have made more Black people closeted homophobes.
As heterosexual males our sexual hypocrisy often goes unnoticed in unmixed company. For example, we might watch the no-holds barred Lesbian sex scenes in the recent French film,” BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013) with ever so much curiosity and arousal, whereas we might intentionally refuse and even avert our eyes to the simulated Gay male sex scenes in Fassbinder’s QUERELLE (1982) that was made over 30 years ago. Under the informal parameters of the matrix of shame in popular cinema films that deal with LBGT issues spectators are often involved a cognitive trade off that blinds them from their own sexual hypocrisies. For instance, the rape of Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) in Spike Lee’s SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986) was tolerated (certainly not by all spectators, but by many including the filmmaker himself) as long as the character denied her lesbian friend, Opal Gilstrap (Raye Dowell) any sexual favors.(3) Another example of the cognitive trade off within the matrix of shame in popular cinema is the lesbian kiss shared between Shug Avery (Margaret Avery) and Celie Harris (Whoopi Goldberg) in Steven Spielberg’s THE COLOR PURPLE (1985) that was tolerated as long as Celie successfully escaped the abusive Black male character of Mister (Danny Glover).
The non-consummation of homosexual desire or the dissatisfaction and break down of homosexual relationships (ending in loneliness or death) are functions of the shame matrix that allows Heterosexual spectators a cognitive trade off with which to blind themselves from their own sexual and/or moral hypocrisies. When non-shamed based portrayals of homosexuality appear on television or films the notion of a conspiracy to make all Black males effeminate or to promote a “homosexual” agenda becomes the only means through which many, but certainly not all, Heterosexual spectators can continue to blind themselves to their own sexual and/or moral hypocrisies.
Yet I’d like to return to the notion that the White controlled entertainment industry has a vested interest in promoting Black actors who accept Gay roles in film and television as a conspiracy theory to weaken Black males with Gay representations. It is almost impossible not to think of a young Will Smith and his early starring role as a Black Gay con artist in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (1993) and the legendary story of his asking advice from Denzel Washington about how to approach the role and Mr. Washington allegedly advising him,” not to kiss a man on screen.” (4) Or Dave Chappelle’s famous refusal to wear a dress in BLUE STREAK (1999). (5) All of which makes one wonder did Wesley Snipes wear a dress too early or too late into his career to save it in TOO WONG FOO: THANKS FOR EVERYTHING! JULIE NEWMAR? (1995)?
Given the limited amount of roles for Black actors in film and television, coupled with the recent article concerning the aging of Black action stars it is difficult to turn away from the seductive logic of the Homosexual agenda conspiracy theory and Black males in film and television roles.(6) If the contemporary Black male actors like Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Sam Jackson and others are getting too old to play Black action heroes, then perhaps the real question is not the Gay agenda but why isn’t the White controlled entertainment industry doing more do develop new Black male and female actors to become the leads in action films?
Some may point to a new candidate for the Black action film star with Michael B. Jordan in THE FANTASTIC FOUR and later this year, CREED. Alternately they might also point to John Boyega in the upcoming Disney STAR WARS project, Idris Elba or Chadwick Boseman but these actors and their works do little to lessen the seductive aspect of the Homosexual agenda conspiracy theory. These actors are playing in singular films with specific release dates, whereas a show like EMPIRE comes on multiple times every week during a television season and replays on line ad infinitum.
In fact this repetition of television images on mobile screens and our deeply held homophobic belief that Gay is ok as long as it is out of sight and out of mind might be what is enlarging the threatening aspect of the non-shaming representation of Gays on the television screen.
The great fear that the homosexual will get the money; then the power; then the man- gives a bad case of the blueballs to many a self respecting heterosexual male still in competition for a capitalistic ideal of success.
Since there is really no way to convince anyone for or against the existence of a Homosexual agenda in film and television (the best conspiracy theories never can convince those who refuse it and cannot make those refuse what they are already convinced of) it must be said that by diverting our attention to a Gay conspiracy theory the real issues concerning the deliberate underdevelopment of new Black stars, the restricted access of Black films to the global marketplace, and our own (in)ability to finance and distribute representations of ourselves; these real issues are lost in the perfumed fog of homophobia and sexual hypocrisy.
A fundamental problem that has always impeded the realization of true Black unity is found in the mistaken notion that unity means uniformity; that is to say that Black unity means that every Black person must be the same (heterosexual, votes Democratic, eats chitterlings, is Christian Baptist, etc, etc.), when instead true Black unity is a political, economic and moral force that through its collective spirit binds us together and uplifts each and every one of us as Black people over the obstacles and travesties put in place by the illusions of White supremacy to keep Black people behind and under Whites in the pursuit of happiness and freedom.(7) Conspiracy theories that use the non-shame based representations of Black Homosexuality in film and television as a means of demonstrating how White supremacy is weakening Black men (and to a lesser extent, Black women) are divisive counter-plots that are used to keep us dis-unified and forever suspicious of each other.
No matter how different we may appear to each other, we all look alike from the other end of the guns that are often pointed at us- even if by our own race.
Therefore if you are so distracted by two Black men or two Black women kissing on screen, you might be oblivious to the greater dangers closing in on you.
(1) Elsewhere I have defined the difference between mixed and unmixed company as,” For instance, an individual in Mixed Company may censor offensive, indecent or belligerent statements and actions against a particular race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or creed while in the company of others who are members of those categories or those who are known sympathizers. Unmixed company is, of course, when one is in the company of those like you so that belligerent, indecent or derogatory statements and actions can be made about others with impunity. Both Mixed and Unmixed company form an informal social custom that temporarily modifies an individual or group’s expressed public beliefs or opinions in an effort to appear tolerant (mixed company) or to appear to uphold the status quo (unmixed company).” (Pg. 62, SLAVE CINEMA: The Crisis of the African-American in Film 2nd Ed.)
(2) These negative circumstances and outcomes can be as simple as the declining of homosexual desire or relationship and as severe as the death of the homosexual character through murder or fate as in Lee Daniel’s PAPERBOY (2012) and the vicious murder of the homosexual character Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey).
(3) Although Spike Lee has since apologized and openly regretted his depiction of Nola Darling’s rape in SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/14/spike-lee-shes-gotta-have-it-rape_n_5323288.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000046&ir=Women
(7) It’s interesting that Whites and other ethnicities that claim Whiteness often unite when there is a threat that Blacks and other people of color might be achieving economic parity or other forms of equality. One could say that this unification of Whites and other ethnicities (often including Blacks of a certain income and class) could be called “default unity”, otherwise known as “anti-Blackness” in other socio-political contexts.
Andre Seewood is author of "(Dismantling) The Greatest Lie Ever Told To The Black Filmmaker." Pick up a copy here.