Beyond Homophobia in Black Hollywood
Not long after he won the Oscar for Milk, Dustin Lance Black spoke at Harvard University where he recounted a story about casting the film. He recalled how it was important for director Gus Van Sant and himself to hire gay actors in the main gay roles. To do so they asked casting agents to seek them out.
Why, then, were Sean Penn, James Franco and Emile Hirsch cast in the three lead gay roles?
"It was almost impossible," he explained as to what happened. "We got a lot of great people from the theater world in New York and we cast them... but for the most part in Hollywood for like the Cleve Jones role, the young role, almost nobody."
Hollywood remains, as Black explained, a place where homophobia remains a not-so-hidden agenda. Take for instance, for the young gay actor who wants to be out.
"There’s an intense amount of pressure from the agencies and the management companies not to come out if they find out you’re gay," Black explained. "(It’s) a filtration process. When they are looking for young, new talent they’re, like, we may as well go the easier route with the straight actor and bring that one on."
Anti-gay prejudice, he concluded, remains "a problem in Hollywood. We are waiting for that Jackie Robinson moment almost when we have the A list actor who can green light a film who comes out of the closet and people still accept him or her as the leading man or woman who can be believed in a heterosexual love scene. When that happens, I believe it will change quickly, but it hasn’t happened yet."
Put simply, as progressive as our world may appear at times, homophobia remains an issue in the LA-based entertainment industry.
Now add race into the mix and things get even more complicated. How does the out African-American gay actor, writer or director make it in today’s Hollywood?
Last week a group of industry professionals gathered in Los Angeles to discuss the effects of homophobia in terms of black Hollywood and to see what can be done to combat it. The goal of a joint event by the Gay & Lesbian Writers Committee and the Committee of Black Writers (both of the Writers Guild of America, West) was to get this often-silenced conversation out in the open. EDGE’s Jim Halterman was there and filed this report.
Conversation long overdue
During the course of the Flipping The Script: Beyond Homophobia in Black Hollywood panel, a long overdue conversation ensued before a standing room only audience at the WGA’s Los Angeles offices. During the nearly two-hour conversation, not only were a variety of opinions on homophobia -- both inside and outside of the black community -- discussed, but also some panelists offered up solutions to end the silence.
Organized by WGA writer/director Demetrius Bady, the night included eight panelists who, as writers, directors, producers and actors, each play different parts in the Hollywood machine that is responsible for the portrayal (or lack thereof) of black LGBT portrayals in television and film.
Actress/writer/director Sheryl Lee Ralph moderated. Dressed in a sharp red pantsuit and exhibiting (at times) an even sharper tongue, she cut to the chase with her first question: "Why do you think we’re not having the conversation about homophobia?"
One panelist thought the conversation was not being had for broader reasons within the African American community. "African Americans in general don’t like to talk about our challenges in public," said Maurice Jamal, a writer-director-actor with credits including Chappelle’s Show. "We don’t like to air our ’dirty laundry’ for people to see. We’ve always been that way whether it’s been racism, whether it is domestic violence in the home, even when it comes to issues of poverty."
Jamal also said that another generality is the code of silence in the African American community regarding homosexuality.
"In the African American community, being gay has been seen as a challenge," he said. "(And) as a problem, so it’s not something that we’re talking about in the general sense. It’s certainly not something we’re talking about because we want to keep it quiet and kept away."
Story continues on next page.
Watch this clip from the documentary Nothing Personal.
Silence feeds homophobia
That silence is something Emmy-winning producer-director Paris Barclay sees as feeding homophobia. "There’s fear if you have the conversation that somehow it will rub off on you, (that) people will see you in a different way and you will be accused of things you don’t want to be accused; or maybe, worse of all, you might find out who you really are. So it’s better to not have the conversation at all."
But what is that people are actually afraid of? Is it gay people, or is it the sexual behavior?
Barclay said that some have long equated gay sex with AIDS, which makes it a fear factor; but he also feels that something as commonplace as the slang of the word ’gay’ also adds to that fear. Citing examples of expressions that kids use today (’That’s so gay’) he said, defining the word in such negative terms is "another way of saying ’it’s just worthless and it’s negative.’ It’s just become broadly used that way. Despite the campaigns (against homophobia) we aren’t making a dent... It’s a fear of sex itself, but also the traits that people associate with the sexual gay man."
During the conversation, it was difficult for the panelists to talk about homophobia without addressing the differences between men and women in the African American LGBT community. In fact, according to Quincy LeNear, a writer/producer/director of heretv’s The DL Chronicles, "There is a direct connection between homophobia and sexism. When you talk about why man has to be a certain way... it all has to do with man’s position over women."
He said that some view gay sex as submissive, likening it to taking the receptive role. "That says something about how society views women because all of a sudden a man is (considered) less than because he is compared to a woman."
"I think," added GLAAD Director of Entertainment Media Tajamika Paxton, "that’s what we’re dealing with is this idea of less than."
Case in point, Bady had talked to this reporter in last week’s interview prior to the panel that he had trouble getting some people to participate, many of them being black gay women.
Ralph asked Paxton and the other woman on the panel, writer Jasmine Love, why black lesbians were difficult to get onto the panel?
"I think it’s always hard to get lesbians out of the house." Paxton joked, before turning serious. "When you look at the numbers... black lesbian women as such (have) a small representation in media overall. Certainly within Hollywood."
If you add a category that’s "out," she continued, "then you really reduce your numbers. Of those people who are black, lesbian, women and out, how many of them believe that talking about this experience is actually fruitful?"
Love shared anecdotes form her experiences as a black female writer looking for work in Hollywood. "You’re told ’we don’t need an ethnic voice on the show.’ Then you’re told, ’we have too much estrogen on this show.’ (So) you’re not going to add the other stuff (being gay) because that brings all the other stereotypes... you’re not going to volunteer that when you’re trying to get a job."
In or out?
Actor Wilson Cruz, one of young Hollywood’s busiest out actors, addressed the topic of personal integrity vs. hiding in the closet - a place where many of his contemporaries have decided to stay in.
"’What is our responsibility as part of this community as an artist and where, if at all, is the line and at what point in your career do you say ’I’m going to take a chance, I’m going to take a leap?’"
Cruz, who joined the panel at the last minute due to an unexpected absentia, said that the decision to speak up about one’s sexual orientation needs to be less self-serving and more about those who come after us.
"The reason I can say that is because people have done that for us so that we’re able to have this conversation today. The reason why we’re able to is because there are people like Paris Barclay who allowed me to do what I did and for Tajamika to do what she did."
Barclay decided to come out when earlier in his directing career his producers on a show learned he was gay and stopped speaking to him. The awkwardness of the situation led him to come out because, as he put it in Bady’s upcoming documentary Nothing Personal, he didn’t want it happening again. "So I’m going to be out," he said, "and if people don’t want to work with me they don’t have to hire me in the first place, which I’m fine with, because I don’t want to help their asses anyway." It didn’t impede his career which has seen him involved as director or producer on such shows as NYPD Blue, ER, The West Wing, CSI, Lost, The Shield, House M.D., Law & Order, Monk, Numb3rs, City of Angels, Cold Case, The Mentalist, Weeds, Sons of Anarchy, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Good Wife, In Treatment, and Glee. This past year (amongst other accolades) Barclay received a WGA nomination for co-writing Pedro with Dustin Lance Black.
"So," Cruz continued, "now the question is what do we do? What’s next? It’s very simple. It’s about coming out and it’s about making a very personal decision to use your own life and your art to make a difference on behalf of the people that come behind you."
Coming out for artists (or anyone in the public eye) provides a ripple effect that Cruz feels has a profound effect. "Take it from someone who knows, it will inform your art. It will be your art. You will use your art to communicate something and to use it to further the cause."
While the personal result of coming out can be monumental, there is still a great fear that the act could be a kamikaze move by a young actor (despite the success of Cruz and Neil Patrick Harris).
"There are an awful lot of performers out there," Ralph countered, "who will say to you, ’I am not coming out because if I tell people who I am I am not going to get the roles that I know I can get if they believe me to be what they want to believe me to be.’"
Cruz’s response? "I’m not denying that. But I am saying ’What’s more important?’"
Did coming out effect Cruz’s acting career?
"I would be a liar if I didn’t say that it had not," the actor answered. "Has it enriched my career? Absolutely because I feel like I was able to use what work I did do to actually say something about my experience here and to illuminate the experience of people I know. Would I have had a different career? Absolutely. But would it have been better? I don’t know."
Love shifted the conversation to the subject of outing people who do not choose to come out publicly about their sexuality. "I personally don’t think we have the right to ask people to come out because we don’t know their story. I believe that (coming out) is what needs to happen, but I don’t believe in outing people."
Jamal disagreed to a degree. "I could say that we shouldn’t have to ask African Americans to come out because it puts us on the brink. It does, but that’s okay. The brink is the good place. That’s where you make the change. You don’t make the change by sitting down. You don’t make the change by being safe. You don’t make the change by being quiet."
Panelist Tim McNeal, Vice President of Talent Development and Diversity, shed some harsh reality on the issue of homophobia in black Hollywood and agreed that it is not an easily solved problem.
"From my perspective," he explained, "first as an agent, then as a development executive in broadcast television, the pool of people who are creating shows are white males."
This led him as an agent to come up with some creative strategies for his African American clients. "First you have to write a script that hides who you are and you can write their voice. Then when you walk in the room and they realize that you’re black, you have to find something that connects you with them that makes it personal."
This even extends to meeting with gay producers. "For a gay, black man there’s still that threat element to them. So straight or gay there’s that issue that you have to contend with."
McNeal had even more dire news for women. "If you’re a black woman and gay," he said, "[the television show runners] have no interest in you because at the end of the day they’re going to spend 14 hours a day with you and if they don’t want to spend that much time with you they’re not going to hire you."
The consequences, he added, were self-evident: "If they’re not going to hire you, you’re not going to be a voice in that room to either speak up about the stereotypes that they’re trying to create or they’re not going to listen to you about a character you want to create."
While it’s doubtful that anyone expected answers that can abruptly end homophobia, for those trying to find a place for their voice - not to mention employment - within black Hollywood, the point of the night was to get the conversation heard by as many people that would listen. Bady, for one, said post-panel that he felt that the event was a resounding success.
"It was overwhelming to see the crowd and the overflow. There were so many people that were interested in this conversation and I think it also proved that it’s a conversation that has been needed for a long time."
However, while Bady was surprised by those who didn’t want to participate in the conversation. There was little support for the panel in the gay press itself, specifically The Advocate.
"I was livid that The Advocate did not send a representative and did not inquire about what we were doing. I reached out to them several times. Gregg Mitchell from the WGA reached out to them personally on the phone and they were absolutely not interested. They have a record of ignoring black gay people. We buy their magazine just like everyone else. I started reaching out to the Advocate in January... and they had absolutely no interest in anything that we’re doing... that pissed me off."
Regardless of coverage, one thing is clear - the conversation is not over. While there will be future panels on this issue (Bady said he has been approached by the Screen Actors Guild to join together to further the homophobia conversation), Bady has his documentary, Nothing Personal, to get out to the masses including pitching it to cable operators HBO and Showtime.