So-Called Sissies Save The World

Do you remember what life was like in 2005? Most of us had never heard of Barack or Michelle Obama. Marriage equality wasn’t even a thing, never mind anything resembling trans rights. A pre-Kardashian Kanye said during a nationally broadcast telethon for Hurricane Katrina that second term president George W. Bush “doesn’t care about Black people.” Destiny’s Child announced they were officially breaking up, as if all the hits off Beyoncé’s 2003 debut solo album hadn’t already made that clear. People were gagging about that moment in Brokeback Mountain when Heath Ledger spit into his hand before raw dogging Jake Gyllenhaal. Michael Jackson was found not guilty of child molestation charges. Oprah’s 2004 special “Living on the Down Low” had Black women frantically trying to clock tea as HIV rates in communities of color continued to soar. The video sharing website YouTube was founded. And the soapy Black gay sitcom Noah’s Arc premiered on the newly launched LGBT-themed cable network Logo.

As the folklore goes, three years before the show’s cable premiere, series creator Patrik-Ian Polk walked into the packed (and now defunct) nightclub BoyTrade during Black Gay Pride weekend and said to himself, “No one is making TV for this demographic.” Over the next year or so, he wrote and cast the pilot episode, shot a number of promotional shorts to help fund and sell the pay-per-view series, and even got backing from the Black AIDS Institute and the Human Rights Campaign’s (apparently now defunct) diversity team to screen the clips at Black Gay Pride events across the country. It was at one of those screenings that Logo executives saw the show and eventually decided to make Noah’s Arc the network’s flagship scripted series. Polk’s little bootleg gay web series was headed to TV.

When the pilot aired, viewers watched as Wade, a ridiculously handsome, ‘traditionally masculine,’ corn-rowed Black man, consummated his attraction to Noah, a soft-spoken, delicately dressed, doe-eyed romantic with big curly hair. Noah ran with a crew of three other Black, openly gay, unapologetically sassy friends with personalities that felt reminiscent of the four leads on Girlfriends or Sex and the City. The tone of the show was campy and colorful and intentional about bringing some levity to its subject matter. It was fast-paced and fun and meant to highlight the camaraderie of these four fabulous men and the ways that good friends–our chosen families–can help guide one another through the challenges of career, love, and loss. Yes, it was a direct response to the conspicuous absence of men of color on gay TV shows popular at the time, but it was also an affirmation of the Black gay experience itself.

I played Noah. I’d tapped into the gentlest, sweetest places I could access at that stage of my career and did my best to represent this man I’d never seen on television, but who I’d definitely witnessed kiki’ing at the legendary (also now defunct) Jewel’s Catch One nightclub. At the time, I don’t think it even occurred to me how bold and unexpected it was to have the titular character on a show be so comfortable in his softness. But it made perfect sense in the world we were creating.

Now... there was an admittedly ‘fantasy fulfilled’ feel to the two episode pilot’s romantic storyline. It didn’t even take an hour for the shy gay guy and his hot- bodied ‘straight’ friend to end up in bed, bumping and grinding against the Downtown LA skyline. I might have rolled my eyes at the TV too if I hadn't been in the room when we shot it. But even if the implausibility of the plot required a tiny suspension of disbelief, it should have been clear to everyone watching that the show was meant to celebrate Black gay men and the ways we love each other.

Apparently that’s not how everyone saw it because many of the initial responses to the pilot were brutal. I was well aware we were weren’t performing August Wilson at The Public and that most of us were fairly green when it came to television work. But the vitriol and contempt that bubbled up that first week caught me completely off guard–particularly the responses from Black gay men. “Why are all the main characters just stereotypical queens?” “How come they couldn’t find any masculine men to be on this show?” “Why would they put all these sissies on TV for the world to see?” “This show doesn’t represent real Black gay men.”

While we were indeed playing within the parameters of TV archetypes (there was even a scene in which we compared each character to a Golden Girl), I didn’t think we were playing stereotypes at all. Noah was fragile and emotional and romantic in ways we rarely see Black men–gay or straight–portrayed. The other three guys were also playing heightened variations of their Black gay selves, so the idea that we were depicting something that didn’t actually exist in the Black gay world was ridiculous. As far as I was concerned, Patrik-Ian Polk had managed to capture and honor the spirit and energy of Black gay friends beautifully. But our most vocal critics didn’t agree. For them we represented the worst of what the community had to offer.

I was really hurt by their response at the time, but now–twelve years later, I think I understand. The shame they wanted us to feel for depicting unapologetically gay men was actually a reflection of their own shame. So many Black men were busy aping thug culture (remember the term ‘homothug?’) and breaking their backs to avoid being clocked in public that seeing Noah and his crew’s fearless expression was like a slap to the face. These men had been starving to see their own experience of navigating the closet in sagging Marc Ecko jeans and Timberland boots played out on TV. And here I was rocking Ugg boots and midriffs with my hair in pigtails with no shame. I get it. We really weren’t representing their Black gay experience.

Bear in mind that at the time, the Black gay community was reeling from data confirming that we were being hit hardest with new HIV infections. The Black church was laying the Leviticus shit on thick. Not to mention the hyper-masculine posturing Black culture has historically felt compelled to idealize in order to survive the constant emasculation of America’s obsession with white supremacy. These men had every reason to be uncomfortable seeing us be fabulous because they had been told their whole lives that they weren’t allowed to be.

Patrik-Ian Polk explains, “When I was creating Noah's Arc, there was a palpable backlash against all things feminine in the gay community. I made a conscious decision to craft Noah as a softer, somewhat feminine, fashion-forward gay Black man. I felt that we as a community needed to see that character and see that he could be desirable, a role model even.”

By the fourth episode, we had addressed the ‘effemiphobia’ issue head-on. ‘Newly gay’ Wade was embarrassed about bringing his ‘femme’ new boyfriend around his straight friends... So Noah cornrowed his hair, pulled on an oversized sweatshirt, and did his best impression of Larenz Tate in Dead Presidents. I remember seeing some of the early critics come around at that point. Almost as if he had predicted the culture’s backlash against the fabulous four, Polk effectively shut down any notion that Black gay men needed to perform some archaic idea of hyper-masculinity to be accepted–especially by other Black gay men. And without wanting to overstate the show’s impact, it almost seems as if our giving people permission to tap into their fabulous, feminine selves has opened the culture up to more liberal ideas of self-expression. Don’t get me wrong: there have always been Noahs... We’ve always had men in our midst who were fearless in their expression and shameless in their femininity. But since that show, it seems like we now have permission to celebrate those men in the ways they deserve.

Hard to believe how much the world has changed in twelve years and that after all the progress we thought we’d made during that time, we appear to be slipping backwards. I mean, just ten months ago, most of us were still jokingly scoffing at the mere prospect of our current President... But it just goes to show quickly and profoundly the culture can shift. And how the stories we tell ourselves about what life should look like actually affect our lives.

 

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