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Tongues Untied: A Decade Later

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Thursday we watched a film called Tongues Untied in my Advanced Video Production class, and given the subject matter of the film I was sort of shocked I had not only never seen it, but I'd never heard of it either. In addition to the fact that it was extremely helpful by aiding me in determining how exactly I was going to use mostly stock footage to demonstrate how unequally we judge male and female sexuality, it's a beautiful film that addressed issues of internalized racism and self-hatred among black gay men.

It was made by Marlon Riggs, who unfortunately died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994. He was a black poet, educator, and filmmaker who went on to make other films like Affirmation, Anthem, Color Adjustment, and Black Is…Black Ain't (which he unfortunately didn't finish working on before his untimely death, but was posthumously released in 1995). The film is not a typical documentary in the sense that it has a purpose and it has a topic, but it doesn't say "I am a documentary and I'm now going to tell you about something." It knows its message, it knows its audience, and once it starts it just goes.

The filmmaker himself is present in the film as is a prominent gay black poet named Essex Hemphill whose poetry essentially scores the film. Riggs' own personal story of experiencing violent homophobia only to be rescued by a white man acts as a through line for the documentary which features many different types of gay black men, from transvestite prostitutes to stocky, middle-aged men with dreads (who undoubtedly know how to "z-snap") to passionate voguers who unabashedly embrace the dance created by gay men in 1930s Harlem ballrooms. But most importantly, it just shows black gay men, being with each other and loving each other. Unfortunately, Riggs' message is one that is missing for an entire generation of gay men of color, who are frustrated with the lack of support they have from either community that they are a part of.

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Generally, I think minority communities are less accepting of individuality than mainstream white culture. Maybe it's because we've been oppressed and thus feel a certain sense of unity and cohesion is necessary to achieve equality. Black, Latino, and Asian culture is very much about family, honor, and often religion. Unfortunately according to many people these are attributes that homosexuality negates. Just ask Will Smith who, when asking for advice from Denzel Washington about whether or not to do a gay kiss in the film version of Six Degrees of Separation, was given a resounding "No." Why, you ask?

Said Smith, "Denzel said white people generally look at a movie as acting. They accept the actors for who they are, and the role is separate. But black people, because they have so few heroes in film, tend to hold the artists personally responsible for the roles they choose.You can act all you want, but don't do any real physical scenes. Don't be kissing no man." This was from an interview in Premiere magazine from 1994. To give Smith some credit, he later said he regretted not fully committing the role, telling Entertainment Weekly, "It was very immature on my part. I was thinking, 'How are my friends back in Philly going to think about this?' I wasn't emotionally stable enough to artistically commit to that aspect of the film. In a movie with actors and a director of this caliber, for me to be the one bringing something cheesy to it. This was a valuable lesson for me. Either you do it or you don't."

Apparently being gay wasn't heroic enough for Denzel Washington but playing a dirty cop in Training Day (for which he won his second Oscar) was. Why is it that Washington took issue with will kissing a man on screen, but had no problem with the fact that Smith was playing a con artist? The fact that African Americans' most prized actors don't want to touch homosexuality on screen is telling of just how relevant Riggs' point is. If this is how the black community feels about homosexuals, imagine how gay people must feel about themselves. White gay men and women at least have the gay community as their safe harbor, but what happens when you are black and gay? You are rejected because of the homophobia in the black community, and then also rejected because of the racism in the gay community.

Things have gotten better since Riggs released this documentary. There have been portrayals of gay men of color on television on shows like Spin City, Six Feet Under, The Wire, Noah's Arc, My So-Called Life, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the DL Chronicles, The Real World, and American Candidate. Unfortunately most of these shows are on cable where mainstream audiences may not see them and/or lived a very short life on the television circuit. None of them are still currently on the air, and I can't think of many current examples of shows that feature gay men of color beyond The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency (also on cable) and Logo's Shirts & Skins. Note that of all the shows I've listed, most of the gay men were black, two were Latino. Asian or Native American gay men — they virtually don't exist. Oh wait, there's Rex Lee's character on Entourage, Ari Gold's lackey assistant whom he treats like trash, and basically serves as not much more than a backboard for Ari's plethora of derogatory gay jokes.

And in film? You're not alone if you're hearing the sound of crickets. Broken Hearts Club featured a gay black character who was completely inconsequential to the film. Shawn Wayans played a predatory gay caricature in Scary Movie. Adam Sandler's I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry featured a gay Ving Rhames, who was of course a hilarious character (clip not safe for work!) because he's big, black, scary, and (gasp) gay! He's not a skinny, blow dryer-toting effeminate young white male! The cognitive dissonance is making my brain explode. Some good examples in mainstream films that I can think of are Collins in Rent (great for liberal Broadway audiences but apparently not so much for the larger American public), and Mercutio in the Baz Luhrrman version of Romeo and Juliet – played as a gay man in love with Romeo. There's scatterings of other minor, marginalized characters in films pre-1990s such as Revenge of the Nerds, Torch Song Trilogy, Norman…Is That You?, and The Boys In The Band, but three-dimensional, fleshed out lead characters, whose shtick is something else besides the fact that they're gay? Hmm. Apart from 2008's Noah's Arc: Beyond The Broom, a limited release based off on a canceled cable TV program, no.

What difference does it make, you might ask? Everyone knows there are gay people of all colors, shapes, sizes, and socioeconomic backgrounds, right? It's just common sense. Why would people think homosexuality is a trait limited to white people?

I'm not sure, let's ask these children. In the controversial 1996 documentary It's Elementary, middle school students who were given the opportunity to speak to young gay people and get any questions answered or misconceptions cleared up about homosexuality that they had. When the gay activists of color left the room, and the teacher asked the students what they learned, one of those things was that gay people were not all white.

I thought all gay people were like white. I mean, you know, I feel bad saying that but they're not. That's what I thought. 'Cause mostly gay people I see are white.

Another student says,

That's where I got it from 'cause talk shows they mostly have white people on there that are gay. So that's what I thought. So then again that kinda changed my little thinking about it.

This documentary is from 1996, so you could say people's perceptions of homosexuality and race have changed since then, but let's revisit the television shows and films I listed. How many of them are post-2000? Very few. Gay black representation in the media has dwindled since the '90s, as have the number of heterosexual black lead characters in television and film, and the same for women. Why is that? I'm not sure. But I do know in 2004 when MTV had gay men of color, and more than one gay person on The Real World for the first time, I remember a friend of mine at Fordham University told me she was watching it with her roommate (a white girl) who said to her that prior to seeing Karamo Brown on The Real World Philadelphia, she had no idea that black gay people existed. At the time, this shocked me to the point that I thought this friend of mine had made it up. Of course, I was a naive 18-year-old who had not yet realized the power of the media to manipulate how the majority of the world viewed those lower than them on the social hierarchy. Today, I hear things like that and shrug.

I remember being a 16-year-old boy and seeing Keith Boykin on Showtime's American Candidate. It was almost a religious experience for me. He was intelligent, well-spoken, well-dressed, charismatic, politically astute, black, and gay. For the first time in my entire life I felt like I finally saw someone in the media who truly represented me. At the age of sixteen! I wrote Keith a letter telling him how much seeing him on that show (and frankly, owning everyone on it left and right) meant to me. It was at that moment that I understood all of my potential could be fully realized.

All of this makes Marlon Riggs' work that much more important. It makes his death a lot sadder, and it makes the fact that his film was ransacked by the conservative right that much more angering. As much of an impact as Tongues Untied had, imagine how much bigger a revolution it could have started if it weren't blocked from television stations all over the country in 1989. American Candidate was aired in 2004. Imagine how much earlier I would've begun to love myself had I seen Tongues Untied. Imagine how many fewer black online dating profiles you'd see that listed they were only interested in dating white men. Imagine how many fewer black men would be marrying women and having unprotected sex with men on the side, telling themselves they're not gay because they're on top, and then bringing sexually transmitted diseases home to their unsuspecting wives. Imagine how many fewer black gay men would have killed themselves because they were rejected by their families and their churches, and were overwhelmed by the sense of isolation and shame.

A straight student in this class raised his hand and said that he wasn't gay, but that the way Riggs presented homosexuality in the film, he thought gay men were beautiful. In response to a clip shown in the film of Eddie Murphy's 1983 homophobic stand-up comedy routine where he not only degraded gay men but repeatedly used the word "faggot", he said we'd come a long way since then, as people wouldn't get away with saying things like that on television anymore. His first and second comment reveal very different realities about the state of homophobia in today's society.

The first is that it's incredible to see just how far people have socially evolved, to even be able to use the words "gay" and "beautiful" in the same sentence. It shows just how effective Riggs' experimental documentary really is. The second is that still, too many people are blinded by straight privilege. While his intentions were undoubtedly good, I found it outrageous that one would think people don't still say things akin to Eddie Murphy's '83 stand up routine today — both in real life and on television. The 2000 comedy special The Original Kings of Comedy featured many homophobic jokes, mostly from comedian Bernie Mac who repeatedly referred to his 6-year-old nephew as a faggot. The word and many others like it are still the premier insult used amongst young people in the Western world.

I, as a gay person, know that the world hasn't changed that much since 1983, especially when it comes to the black community and its resistance to addressing homophobia. For every Barack Obama there are five Rev. Willie Wilsons. But I can understand why someone who doesn't have to deal with homophobia first hand wouldn't notice it. The hope is that the issues Tongues Untied discusses are issues that come to the forefront, in both the black community and the gay community, so that finally gay men of color can on a large scale feel a sense of pride and self-worth that they deserve to enjoy.

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