Despite never being fully celebrated in Black and LGBTQ+ publications like Ebony, Jet, The Advocate, and Gay Times, Black gay writers, filmmakers, and other creatives throughout the 1980s used their talents to highlight society’s perceptions of what it means to be Black and gay. Through their works, these men strove for equal rights and inclusivity within both Black and gay communities.
…promote images and perceptions of Black gay men that wash away the practices of ostracization, vilification, and fetishization.
Riding the waves of the social and cultural activism that crashed into the 1970s, writer Joseph Beam, filmmakers Sir Isaac Julien CBE RA and Marlon Riggs, and poet Essex Hemphill used their art to showcase the diversity amongst Black gay men, while challenging the public to acknowledge how racism and homophobia adversely impact the lives of Black LGBT+ citizens in the United States and the United Kingdom. Like their non-black contemporaries, Beam, Julien, Riggs, and Hemphill were out during an era when being openly gay could mean career suicide and social ostracization. As stated in a 2017 HuffPost article by Eric Jimenez-Lindmeier, “…in the 80s no one talked about actually being gay.” However, these men pushed to make being Black and gay 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, hoping to fill the void left vacant by mainstream LGBT media. He desired to promote images and perceptions of Black gay men that wash away the 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). Unable to find his sense of community in Philadelphia’s Center City gay neighborhood in the early 1980s, Beam believed sharing the plight of being Black men could help gays feel a sense of belonging if they discussed their similarities with straight men. He wanted Black gay men to find their voices by reaching across the gay-straight chasm.
Born to parents who migrated to Great Britain from the Eastern Caribbean island nation of St Lucia, British filmmaker, installation artist, and professor Sir Isaac Julien CBE RA first garnered success with his 1989 film Looking for Langston, which explored the life of American poet, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes. A September 2012 Time Out review of the film describes it as a “…poetic visual fantasy of the lives of black gay men in ’20s Harlem, shot in beautiful monochrome.”
Made during the AIDS epidemic, a time when thousands of people were dying from the disease, Julien said that “I was spending more and more of my time going to funerals, thinking about what it would be like to die in one’s 20s…” (Studio International, June 2017). Colin M. Robinson’s February 1990 Gay Community News review of the film details it as “…a critique of the “erasures” in recorded American history of the Black Gay (male) subject…” (Gay Community News, February 1990).
Julien followed up Looking for Langston with the 1991 film Young Soul Rebels, a British coming-of-age thriller that examines the UK youth cultural movements of the late 1970s. Released in the UK in August 1991, the film’s main storyline centers around a murder investigation involving one of the central characters. It’s also notable for debuting the talents of British actors Sophie Okonedo and Eamonn Walker.
Julien’s other films include Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (1996), BaadAsssss Cinema (2002), and Stones Against Diamonds (2015). His installation exhibitions have been displayed at the De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art in the Netherlands, the Bass Museum of Art in Miami, Florida, and the Tate Modern in London, UK. Julien has also been featured in publications like Red Africa: Effective Communities and the Cold War (2016) and The Shadow Never Lies (2016).
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 examines the space Black gay men inhabit existing between the homophobia in Black communities and the racism permeating popular 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 realized the challenges of inhabiting 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 Riggs’ Tongues Untied, with religious and conservative leaders vilifying it for its candid depiction of Black 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, 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, Hemphill became a part of the D.C. art scene, performing spoken word and publishing his first poetry chapbook, “…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 featured in Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied and his 1995 documentary titled Black is… Black Ain’t (1995). Hemphill’s poetry was also in 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 U.S. 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 throughout the world.
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, winning the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. For the 2019 30th anniversary of Tongues Untied, the Brooklyn Academy of Music did a nine-day retrospective of Riggs’ life and work called “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 passing on December 10, 1995, with a National Day of Remembrance for him at New York City’s Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.
These men didn’t initially gain the same global recognition as American author James Baldwin, someone who didn’t use his celebrity to spotlight Black gay communities. However, Beam, Julien, Riggs, and Hemphill each used his status and influence to contribute to the social and cultural landscapes of Black gay men throughout the world. Beam said in In The Life, “What is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”