Representation for LGBTQ+ actors of color has been given a bigger platform in recent years, thanks to the success of shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Pose,” and films like the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.”
But as the nuances surrounding diversity continue to expand and evolve, these “double minority” actors still often find themselves as spectators, in an industry where the desire to be seen can often outweigh the images being presented.
Variety spoke to five black LGBTQ+ actors ahead of Black History Month about their struggles for visibility in the industry, the shows, books and films that paved the way for them, and what needs to be done for more queer black voices to enter the arena.
What are some challenges you have had to face as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a black actor in Hollywood?
Clark Moore, “Love Simon”
In the past, I definitely felt a severe lack of opportunity. I remember feeling like I was going on a fraction of the number of auditions as my white peers. In recent years, though, I’ve noticed a significant shift in the amount and types of roles I’ve had the opportunity to read for and to play, so I hope that continues. I’ve just always maintained a singular vision for what I want to accomplish and I love this work more than anything, so I’m continually motivated to work harder even through the setbacks. I also let go of the idea of a linear narrative and realised that paths that seem like detours at the time can lead you exactly where you wanted to go.
Brian Michael Smith, “Queen Sugar”
For the longest time I think I was compartmentalising myself and holding myself back; working against my instincts and creativity trying to make “smart” decisions to fit a type – types based on stereotypes about what a black man can be like, or how a lead should look.
I’ve often been told that in order to break in, you have to fit into a type and play certain size roles based on that type to succeed. And if you don’t fit that easily placeable type you’re not going to book. And when you don’t see any roles coming down the pipe to support your ambitions, you start to believe those doubts. I didn’t see any roles for Black trans men. For any trans masculine characters. So I felt myself starting compartmentalise and play down parts of myself, and play up other parts of myself and I realized that I was talking myself out of going for roles that were interesting.
Angelica Ross, “Pose”
It’s been a challenge coming from a background of both being one of the theatre kids combined with a social justice background, to then be in circles where a lot of people are not really about that life. Celebs turn their profiles purple for Spirit Day and talk about standing up against bullies, but not many will actually stand up in real life, for fear of jeopardising career opportunities or losing Hollywood ties and relationships.
Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, “UnREAL,” “American Horror Story”
I would say the challenges I face today in 2019, in regards to my personal “otherness” in Hollywood, are far different than they were when I was beginning my career over a decade ago. At that time, it was a struggle just for my authenticity to be seen, acknowledged and accepted. Today, space has been made for myself and others like me to take a seat at the table, and for our voices to be heard. However the odds are still not in our favour, as so much of mainstream entertainment is focused on white-heteronormative storylines that cast the black queer characters as the sassy sidekicks, or whose characters are simply there to serve as an educational tool for the status-quo.
Amiyah Scott, “Star”
This is my first acting experience and I’m lucky that I work with such a loving family at “Star”, but I’ve heard the nightmare stories from the industry and I’ve experienced how people can be when you’re different. What’s funny is that in high school, I really took theatre class seriously, but at that point, I wasn’t “out” as trans, or fully aware of who I was, so I guess I was kind of portraying a character; I was playing someone trying to please or oblige their family, and fit in in the community, and not be bullied in school. I remember my drama teacher was like, “You’re not connecting; I feel like you’re holding back.” Little did she know I was acting and playing a role the whole time.
Why do you think it is so difficult for black LGBTQ+ actors to land meaningful roles?
Smith: The messaging starts early. When I was in college, I took an on-camera class. The professor asked us to bring in a scene we were interested in performing and I brought in a scene from “Clerks.” I loved the humor and style of Kevin Smith’s films and I was excited to play in that world.
I remember my professor stopped me from finishing the scene and asked why I would pick this? “No one would ever cast you, a black female, in either of those roles,” he said. The gender and ethnicity of the characters were irrelevant to the situation in the scene and it didn’t matter that I had an interpretation of the scene or elevated the comedy; he was like, “No one is gonna see you in that role,” and that stuck with me for a long time.
It played into a struggle I was already having as a trans person about not being seen, and planted this deep-seated belief that the way other people see me is more important than how I saw myself. I believed that, instead of the truth, which was that he couldn’t see me in that role because of his biases, that he was one person, and that was on him.
Another example of how this plays out: on the casting websites I’d use when I was starting out, they set it up so you could fill out your profile and you can set a filter so that it will only show you the roles that fit your attributes: gender, ethnicity, age, etc. And once I activated that, I found that pickings would be so sparse: background roles, or comedic relief, or nameless thugs, dealers and someone “street” or “street-adjacent.” On a whim one day, I changed the filter and added “caucasian” to my ethnicity and suddenly there were pages of castings available, like all kinds of roles: lead roles, romantic interests, characters with arcs – characters with names! In many of these roles, the ethnicity of the character wasn’t even central to the story or character arc, and could have been played by anyone. But people write with themselves in mind and they tend to fill the world with people that look like them or come from places they’ve been.
GLAAD’s 2018 Studio Responsibility Report found that of the 109 films GLAAD counted from the major US studios in 2017, 14 of them (roughly 13 per cent) contained characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. This is a decrease of 5.6 percentage points and down nine films from the previous year’s 18.4 per cent.
GLAAD’s report on the television side, however, painted a slightly rosier picture. Of the 857 regular characters expected to appear on broadcast scripted programming this season, 75 (8.8 per cent) were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. According to GLAAD, this is the highest percentage the organization has found in the 14 years since first launching this report.
There’s been such a push for diversity in the film and television industries in recent years. Do you think Hollywood is moving in a more positive direction for representation?
Smith: Yes, particularly because the representation is not just in front of the camera. As Viola Davis said in her Emmy speech a few years ago, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.” And a show like “Queen Sugar” creates opportunities for positive representation, because Ava [DuVernay] has populated the entire production with women and men of color and of various orientations and gender identities.
Moore: I think it’s still too early to tell if we’re moving in a more positive direction for representation, but I hope that at the very least “Love, Simon” showed the need for these kinds of stories. Last year, we saw so many films prove the power of inclusivity and representation and I’m proud that “Love, Simon” was a part of that.
Scott: I do wish there were more opportunities, not just for trans people, but for all minorities. We have a few roles here and there, and sometimes you take what you can get, but I think we still have a long way to go. I’m so thankful for Lee Daniels, not only for myself and my character, but for him continuously telling these different stories. He’s giving those who were previously voiceless, a voice. And I love shows like “Pose”, but it’s not like trans people just popped up. We’ve been here; we’ve existed since the beginning.
Bowyer-Chapman: I think great strides have been made in black queer representation in mainstream media. It is something that I am deeply appreciative and grateful for, to be able to turn on the television and see reflections of myself and my community. As grateful as I am to have been invited to the table though, it is impossible and unacceptable to expect us to survive on the scraps offered to us, while our straight-caucasian counterparts’ bellies are filled with a buffet of options readily accessible to them on the daily. To be able to openly acknowledge that reality without fear of being perceived as the “angry black man” is something I continue to struggle with, but holding that painful truth within myself is far more toxic than the potential risk of ramifications that may come from expressing it.
Ross: There’s no turning back now. Now that we know what authentic representation looks like both behind and in front of the camera and the results it produces, there’s no way we can regress.
How can Hollywood continue to support or tell queer African-American stories?
Bowyer-Chapman: By supporting black and queer content creators and black and queer art, we cast a vote that the demand for more is real. Tune into every episode of “Pose,” “The Chi,” and “Insecure;” purchase numerous tickets to “Moonlight” and “Black Panther;” attend every exhibition of great artists like Kerry James Marshall and Kara Walker. As we support the works of our courageous and creative brothers and sisters who have come before us, we pave a way for young new voices to emerge, and we spark inspiration for members of our chosen families to pick up the battle and create our own content and art to share our stories, struggles and experiences with the world.
Ross: Actors will have to continue to rely on craft, rather than the shock value that comes from exploiting the struggles of marginalised communities — from trans people to people with disabilities — without substantially contributing to the causes these communities are faced with.
Scott: I think the audience is ready. And the minority talent that we have, they’re ready to tell their stories. But what matters is not just representation of who’s in front of the cameras; we need those same queer voices and black voices behind the camera too, especially in the writers' room, behind the scenes. Involve those people in the projects you are making so that the stories are real, and genuine, and not campy. I think we, as the LGBTQ+ community also have to be confident and self-assured and not allow the things that people say or try to say hinder what we want to do. As long as you have the courage to take the first step, what’s supposed to happen will happen. But that’s the hard part: stepping out from the shadows. Most of the time we stop ourselves.
Smith: There is a lot of people in the industry telling artists what they can and cannot do, and what they should be interested in because of what they think will sell, or what an audience will want to see. But as 2018 proved, that line of thinking is wrong. I’m very fortunate to be coming into the industry at this moment, where I’ve been able to enter doors opened by actors and filmmakers of color who have been breaking barriers and creating new opportunities to tell the stories that matter to them in their own authentic voices.
Besides your own projects, what are other shows, films or books that offer insight into the black, LGBTQ+ experience?
Bowyer-Chapman: Three of my favorite documentaries of all time are the classic, “Paris Is Burning”; “Kiki”, a modern-day view into the ballroom scene; and James Baldwin’s “I Am Not Your Negro”. “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” meantime, is the best, most enlightening and uplifting show on television.
And in terms of books, “Unapologetic” by Charlene Carruthers is a fascinating survival guide for the black queer activist. My podcast, “JBC Presents: Conversations With Others,” is also a safe space where I have raw and authentic discussions with incredible guests who embody countless intersections of “otherness,” and through our stories, uncover the universal connection between us all.
Moore: I’ve always been inspired by James Baldwin’s work, particularly “Giovanni’s Room”, and many of his essays on race. And “Black Deutschland,” written by Darryl Pinckney, is an incredible novel that features a gay black protagonist, which we could use more of.
Ross: “Hustle & Flow” – this movie speaks to the underdog in me. Coming from the street life and having a much bigger vision for your life once you see that there is more available for you out there. I also recommend “A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life’s Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle. This book forever changed my life and helped me do exactly what the title suggests and “Awaken” to my life’s purpose.
And then there’s “Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now,” by Maya Angelou. This book helped me to take ownership of my life and understand that at any time I could choose another path, and choose again if that one doesn’t work.
Scott: I grew up with Disney movies, and “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” had a beautiful story about being different (stream here). One of my go-tos was “The Little Mermaid.” I know it sounds weird, but growing up for me, it was hard to find something to identify with, as it felt like nothing was made for me, but I was able to identify with her character. Maybe she was a white fairytale princess, but I had to pull from it what I could [Scott is releasing her first book this April through Fideli Publishing. The book is titled, “Memoirs of a Mermaid”].
Smith: “Orange Is The New Black” was a game changer for me because Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset was the first trans, series regular character I’d seen. She was black and she was a multi-dimensional person. That was the first time I really knew and believed that it would be possible to play an authentic trans character in a regular role. Not too long after “OITNB” debuted, I was at NewFest and saw “Black is Blue,” a short film by Cheryl Dunye about a black trans man trying to make it in Oakland. It was the first time I could recall seeing a black trans man on screen and this was in 2015. So it was revelatory for me.
Also Dee Rees’ “Pariah”. Even though the character isn’t necessarily trans, this film is a beautiful exploration of the struggle and excitement of discovering and owning one’s sexuality for the first time and how family dynamics are affected during the process, particularly in a black family.
Oprah’s book, “What I Know For Sure,” is a must read too. It’s short and powerful, and helped give me a lot of perspective on my journey this year.