The second episode of ABC’s promising new comedy Black-ish, aired last week, left its LGBTQ viewership ‘black and blue.’
‘It looks a little gay,’ Pop (the grandfather played by Laurence Fishburne) casually told his son Dre – short for Andre – while he was stretching to prepare for his talk with his son about the ‘birds and the bees.’
‘It looks a little gay. The act of stretching. Really? I guess a man doing yoga would be the sign he’d become the long-lost cousin of Liberace,’ Tim Teeman of The Daily Beast wrote in Why ‘Black-ish’ Has a Gay Problem.
Black-ish is a sitcom about an African American upper-class Los Angeles family that orbits in a predominately white milieu. The patriarch (played by actor and comedian Anthony Anderson) worries that his brood is losing sight of their rich black cultural heritage.
In the first episode we saw the warring tension between individuality and cultural identity when Dre’s eldest son Andre Jr. (played by Marcus Scribner) insists on going by the name ‘Andy’ at school in an effort to fit in with his peers. He also announces to the family that for his upcoming thirteenth birthday he wants to convert to Judaism – in order to have a Bar Mitzvah like his friends.
While the first episode gently poked fun at implicit acts of racism and unconscious acts of assimilation it didn’t leave any demographic group of its viewership bruised.
But the second episode, titled ‘The Talk’, was not only a disappointing discussion between father and son about sexual desire and reproduction, but also about manhood. ‘Just a comfortable man with no shirt on talking to his son about nasty stuff!,’ Dre told his son, beginning a silly ritual of taking off their shirts before talking about sex.
While uptightness and awkwardness are standard shtick when it comes to sex talk, implicit and explicit homophobia is not. In Dre’s insistence that he and his son do ‘manly’ things like lifting weights and shooting hoops, Pop’s statement as Dre’s stretches —‘It looks a little gay,’ – is a reprimand to his son. Pop is stating that not only is the act unmanly, but it also suggests a physical weakness or lameness in having to do so.
‘I had thought, stupidly, television was done with this lazy, insulting phrase – of something being “gay,” of an action being seen as “gay,” of people being told not to be so “gay.” I remember its defenders claiming it didn’t mean “gay” when they said it, just, y’know, “lame,”’ Teeman wrote.
But Teeman’s outcry isn’t echoing or provoking a public outrage usually seen for homophobic remarks by well-known actors. Instead, we’re seeing an overwhelming quiet acceptance and rationalization for Pop’s homophobic on-liner.
‘The truth of the matter is that the dialogue is honest. Especially so in African American homes there is an outdated sense of manhood,’ Danyale Robert wrote on The Daily Beast blog.
And Robert’s right.
I will continue to argue that the African American community doesn’t have the patent on homophobia. We do, however, have a problem with how male sexual orientation and gender expression relates to the defining of black masculinity.
In 2011 our beloved Tracy Morgan, comedian and actor on NBC’s 30 Rock, during a standup performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, ‘intended’ to make jokes about LGBTQ people that were instead insulting jabs:
‘Gays need to quit being pussies and not be whining about something as insignificant as bullying.’
‘Gay is something that kids learn from the media and programming.’
‘I don’t “f*cking care if I piss off some gays, because if they can take a f*cking dick up their ass… they can take a f*cking joke.’
Morgan publicly expressed his mea culpas to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) as part and parcel of his forgiveness tour.
But Morgan, like many of us who have grown up in communities of African descent – here and abroad – cannot escape the cultural, personal, interpersonal, and institutional indoctrinations in which homophobia is constructed in our very makeup of being defined as black.
And the community’s expression of its intolerance of LGBTQ people is easily seen along gender lines. For example, sisters mouth off about us while brothers get both – verbally and physically – violent with us.
My son ‘better talk to me like a man and not in a gay voice or I’ll pull out a knife and stab that little n-gger to death,’ Morgan told his audience at the Ryman Auditorium.
Morgan’s homophobic rant about LGBTQ people is about the tightly constructed hyper-masculinity of black manhood, that Dre is struggling with in a white environment, and so, too, is Pop.
Some critics have suggested calling Fishburne out for the homophobic one-liner in the show. Others in defense of Fishburne make the distinction between Fishburne the man and Fishburne the sitcom character, Pop.
As ABC correctly brings more diversity to its viewership, it must not do so at the expense of others. The race card should not trump LGBTQ tolerance.
The Reverend Irene Monroe is a writer, speaker and theologian.
Black-ish images: ABC