Black Gay Creatives of the 1980s

Despite never being celebrated within mainstream black and LGBT media outlets like Ebony, Jet, and The Advocate magazines, black gay men throughout the 1980s utilized their creative talents to promote, celebrate and challenge others’ perceptions of being black, male, and gay during the decade. Through their works, these men strove for equal rights and inclusivity within the black and gay communities.

…to promote images and perceptions of black men that washed out practices of ostracization, vilification, and fetishization.

Riding the waves of social and cultural activism that crashed through the 1970s, writer Joseph Beam, filmmaker Marlon Riggs, and poet Essex Hemphill used their art to make names for themselves, and encourage those around them to acknowledge the racism and homophobia impacting the lives of black LGBT citizens. Like their non-black contemporaries, Beam, Riggs, and Hemphill were openly gay men during a time when it meant career suicide and social ostracization in the society at large. As stated in a 2017 HuffPost article by Eric Jimenez-Lindmeier, “…in the 80s no one talked about actually being gay.” But through their works, Beam, Riggs, and Hemphill pushed to make being gay and black assets to their characters, not detriments.

Most known for his 1986 anthology titled, In The Life, Joseph Beam (1954–1988) was a Philadelphia-born writer and activist committed to sharing the experiences of black gay men. His anthology is a collection of works by 26 authors, encompassing social commentary, poetry, fiction, and essays. “We are Black men who are proudly gay. What we offer is our lives, our love, our visions… We are coming home with our heads held up high (Beam, 1986).” Beam began gathering the materials for In The Life in 1982. He hoped to fill the void left vacant by mainstream LGBT media, to promote images and perceptions of black men that washed out practices of ostracization, vilification, and fetishization.

Beam also attempted to bridge the divide between black straight and gay men. Growing up in predominantly black communities, he went to predominantly white and elite institutions like Pennsylvania’s Malvern Preparatory School. “I’ve always been too white, or too black, or too much like a sissy, or too smart… (Mumford, 131).” Not finding his sense of community in Philadelphia’s Center City gay neighborhood in the early 1980s, Beam believed that sharing the plight of being black men could help gays feel a sense of belonging if they celebrated their similarities with straight men. He wanted black gay men to find their voices by reaching across the gay-straight chasm.

Filmmaker, activist, and educator Marlon Riggs (1957–1994) came to the forefront of America’s awareness with his 1989 documentary Tongues Untied. Melding Riggs’ poetry and personal experiences, the film showcases the space black gay men inhabit, existing between the homophobia in black communities, and the racism permeating gay neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Castro, New York’s Chelsea, and Los Angeles’s West Hollywood. “We can’t escape the reality that within gay and lesbian America, racism continues to pervade this world as it does elsewhere (UCLA Film & Television Archive, 1992).”

Born in Fort Worth, Texas into a military family, Riggs spent part of his childhood in West Germany. His acceptance of himself as a gay man began as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he also realized the challenges of inhabiting both black and gay spaces. “…moved further still beyond the cluster of ‘Black Tables,’ where I knew deep down, no matter how much I masqueraded, my true self would show and would be shunned; and sat, often alone, eating quickly… (Encyclopedia.com, 2020).”

Controversy swirled around the 1989 release of Tongues Untied, with religious and conservative leaders of the time vilifying it for its candid depiction of gay male sexuality. Partly funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, politician Pat Buchanan condemned the film as an example of the government using “our tax dollars in pornographic and blasphemous art (Los Angeles Times, 1992).” Riggs defended the film by saying, “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act.”

Chicago-born Essex Hemphill (1957–1995) used his poetry to expound on race, sexuality, and the family. Raised in Washington, D.C., he used his political edge to talk about matters important to black gay men. The topics of family and homosexuality were always a part of his poetry, which he began writing at age fourteen. While in college, he became a part of the D.C. art scene, performing spoken word and publishing his first poetry chapbooks, “a small book containing ballads, poems, tales, or tracts (Merriam-Webster).”

In 1982, with fellow artists Larry Duckett and Wayson Jones, Hemphill founded the spoken word group, Cinque. Their work was featured in Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied and his 1995 documentary titled Black is… Black Ain’t (1995). Hemphill’s poetry was also featured in black gay British film director Isaac Julien’s 1989 film, Looking for Langston.

Hemphill didn’t shy away from topics of racism and social inequality, themes that were part of his 1989 piece, Dear Muthafuckin Dreams. In it, he addressed the myth of the American Dream, “the idea that every US citizen has an equal opportunity to achieve success through hard work, determination, and initiative (Hemispheric Institute).”

…each used his status and influence to contribute to the social and cultural landscapes of black gay men.

The AIDS epidemic, which extinguished many creative voices in the gay community, also silenced Beam, Riggs, and Hemphill. Beam was working on Brother to Brother, the sequel to In the Life, when he died on December 27, 1988. Hemphill and Beam’s mother completed the project, publishing it in 1991. Hemphill wrote that the anthology “tells a story that laughs and cries and sings and celebrates…it’s a conversation intimate friends share for hours.”

Riggs died on April 5, 1994, eleven months before the release of Black is… Black Ain’t. The documentary debuted on May 5, 1995, and won the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. For the 2019 30th anniversary of the release of Tongues Untied, the Brooklyn Academy of Music did a nine-day retrospective of Riggs’ life and work, calling it “Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs.”

Hemphill died on November 4, 1995. Gay Men of African Descent (GMAD), one of the oldest black gay organizations, honored his death on December 10, 1995, with a National Day of Remembrance for Essex Hemphill at New York City’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.

These men didn’t gain global recognition like author James Baldwin, who isn’t known to have used his celebrity to spotlight the black gay community. However, Beam, Riggs, and Hemphill each used his status and influence to contribute to the social and cultural landscapes of black gay men. Beam said in In The Life that “What is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

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Erick Taylor Woodby

Erick Taylor Woodby

Writer and host of “Our Black Gay Diaspora Podcast,” for black LGBTQ+ citizens to inspire and educate on who they are in their countries and professions.