On Black Panther and LGBT Erasure in Black Liberation
This week, I sat on a panel at the University I attend with 4 other black LGBT individuals. Titled “Being Black” we finally had a platform to speak about our experiences while having intersecting identities. We spoke of coming out, the black church, slurs, and being LGBT in the workplace. It was exhilarating to be able to sit among my peers and speak openly. As we closed on the topic of racism in the LGBT community, I still felt like there was something missing. Something that I always feel is missing whenever there is a conversation about issues facing the LGBT community. Straight black men. Those who position themselves as the supposed “protectors of our community”. Those who command “respect”, and constantly boast about leading us into the future. There were a few sprinkled around the room, but they remained silent, quietly looking at their phones and barely engaging with us panelists. It always seems that as much as these men have to say about the “emasculation of the black man” and the “gay agenda”, when they have the chance to lay it all out in person with a group of well educated, confident queer folks their mouths are shut. While many like to run their mouths on Twitter about how they don’t like Deray McKesson at the forefront of the fight for Black Lives because of his sexuality, when I spoke of how both LGBT and black liberation movements would be nothing without black queer men and women, they said nothing. But my frustration did not start here. These thoughts have been flowing through my head for about two weeks at this point. And if you’ll stick with me while I reflect, maybe we can navigate through this together.
On the Friday after Black Panther premiered, a group of friends and I crammed into an Uber XL, movie-theater bound. Dressed in all black after a very long week of white nonsense, we were running off of the hype of this film that had spread to every corner of the world. Black people arriving in garb from across the diaspora, whether that be paying respects to The Black Panther Party, or regalia from their own respective tribe. Videos of us dancing in the lobby of movie theaters, Delta’s strolling, and grills on deck were circulating on the Interweb. I walked into the theater with a huge smile on my face, and walked out in tears. I didn't expect to become emotional during the film, but it was nothing short of beautiful. From the way that the story struck a nerve at certain points, the many quotable moments on screen, to the cast and meticulously designed costuming. I was overwhelmed being in the presence of so much collective black joy. And that feeling is still there. But the opening weekend numbers are in, and after grossing $404 million worldwide, it's time to talk.
The issue of queer representation in Black Panther was not a first thought when the film was announced. I never expect to see queer characters on screen, especially a Marvel film. But, what really sparked conversation was Roxane Gay's interview in The Advocate. Gay is an extremely accomplished author and commentator, and lead writer for Marvel Comic's World of Wakanda, a spin-off of Black Panther. Recognized for its portrayal of queer characters, World of Wakanda featured a love story between guards Ayo and Aneka. Early news of the film mentioned a scene featuring Ayo and another woman, and an interview with the co-director of the film proved that the idea was at least mentioned amongst filmmakers. There was no sight of this in the final version of the film, to Roxane Gay's disappointment. In addition she was not invited to the premiere of the film, though World of Wakanda has been mentioned as inspiration. But what irked me the most about this whole ordeal was the response that criticism of the lack of queer representation brought. Even people from the LGBT community were skeptical to criticize the film. We finally had this “blackety black” film, which was on the path to be a huge success, but now we had to add an issue to it? And a gay issue at that? The homosexual agenda to destroy our community was prevailing again. Living in this black body every day, and being a gay man, the world tries to tell me that I have to choose. And when it came to Black Panther we were pushed to choose blackness. This movie could not fail like Birth of a Nation, and I don’t think any of us wanted it to.
I saw straight black men crying that “The gays are never happy”, and “it’s a superhero movie, why do they need gay characters?” And to the last question, a simple answer is: Because there was one written in. For whatever reason, Ayo and Aneka’s relationship did not make the final cut, and it’s disappointing because straight black folks should not be the only people who get to feel the joy of being fully represented on screen. We should not have to “wait our turn”. Roxane Gay put it most eloquently in her Advocate interview:
"Even when great progress is made, some marginalized groups are told to wait, are told, not yet, are told, let's do this first and then we will get to you," she said. "And we are also told we're asking too much, that we should be grateful for what progress is being made. But I don't buy into that. It would have been incredible and so gratifying to see a queer black woman in what will likely be the biggest movie of the year. Alas, not yet."
But Black Panther was not just a movie about men in capes flying around and saving the world, and saying it had political elements would be an understatement. The commentary that it provided not just on the complicated relationship between African-Americans and the African community, but also the deeper conversation on collective black liberation, and how to achieve that, was at the center of this film. We had men screaming that they were T’Challa, and then those rooting for Killmonger’s, to put it lightly, “problematic” politics. Women in the film took over non-traditional gender roles, most notably with Ayo not letting her relationship with W’Kabi sway her from fighting for what she believed in. With all of the praise for the film tackling “controversial” yet important topics, it was still sadly heteronormative. There is no such thing as black liberation without queer black people. From the queer radical poetry of Claude McKay, telling us that “If we must die, O let us nobly die” to Audre Lorde being black because she comes “from the earth’s inside”. The man who told us that “love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without”, James Baldwin. Those who organized and led us on the path of freedom, like Bayard Rustin. And the man who provided the space for us to dance the pain away, Alvin Ailey.
While people still love to quote Lorde, McKay, Hughes, and Baldwin, the case of Bayard Rustin is a prime example of queer erasure in history. In the early 50’s at a time when homosexual activity was still illegal in most parts of the United Stated, Rustin’s sexuality was no secret, but throughout his career was used against him and a point of wariness for those working around him. But, he was a true activist, organizing the early Freedom Rides (known as the Journey to Reconciliation), formed the Committee to Support South African Resistance, and most notably advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. But Rustin’s legacy is barely present in any of today’s Civil Rights school curriculum, there is no rush to make a biopic, and just over the past few years has he even been mentioned as an influence during Black History Month spiels. His erasure from the idealized Civil Rights movement has everything to do with his sexuality.
I understand that there are only so many hours in a day, and only so much space in a film, but how much longer must we wait. How many films must be made with the same, heteronormative plotlines, before someone believes that there is “enough space” for someone black and queer? How many more opportunities will be given to homophobic rappers and complicit record executives to curate a soundtrack for “black people” while co-signing or remaining silent on the tearing down of black LGBT folk. How many more times will straight black men be able to whine about how hard they have it while killing black trans women, and kicking their own flesh and blood out of their homes because of what they believe is “unnatural”. Well my black is not painted on, and my love for another man is not artificial. While this is not the oppression Olympics, Malcolm definitely didn’t say that the most disrespected person in America was the straight black man. Understanding that it is not true liberation unless women and LGBT+ folk are included is just the beginning.
Black Panther was phenomenal, and conversations like these aren’t to take away from that the greatness that we all witnessed in theaters all across the world these past few weeks. I still greet every black person I see with “Have you seen Black Panther?” But when it comes to black queer representation we shouldn’t have to wait for the “next time”. The time is now.