“2 BE REAL”
The internet is where I ran to become who I truly was. Who I was in the cafeteria, on the school bus, between classes was the avatar. The icons and legends lived just beyond my internet connection and they had things to offer me. The internet initiated me into black gayness: ADTV, Xem Van Adams, Newnue, Qaadir, Joseph Flownery, Love B. Scott, 3LWTV, and many more. In the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, there was a surge of black gay men who decided to use video platforms such as YouTube to create content that would not be greenlit by the television powers. As a young high-schooler with not just my sexual and gender identity, but my social placement in the world, I was just as thirsty to consume their content as they were to create it.
Through conversation, I learned that many of my peers formed their identity through the internet in their pre-teen and teenage years as well and almost all used the internet as at least a kind of supplement to the gay social experiences they were having in the material world.
At 14, I befriended my first group of black gay male friends who were in the House of Ebony and after frolicking the Atlanta streets with my new circle, I returned home to watch countless black gay men on YouTube and chat with black gay men on the forum/dating site BGCLive. My black gay boyhood’s need to consume black gay manhood was bottomless. Soon in between chats and videos, I was able to watch more sophisticated content like the YouTube show “Got 2B Real” that used voice-over work and clips of black R&B and pop legends to create comedic and shady moments. It should be noted that the creator of “Got 2B Real” is not a gay black man, but something about the intersection of sharp snark, the exalting of divas, and use of lingo that was created in the black gay ballroom and drag world made the content feel queer.
As I reflect on the content now as a black gay man, no longer a boy, I realize realness was a common thread in all of the creators and content I was consuming. Most of the black gay men who had YouTube channels expressed countless times that their goal was to transform their YouTube popularity into stardom that meant television networks and shows, hosting gigs, and mainstream attention: realness. They were not satisfied with the independent or niche market they were dominating, but instead desired “real” celebrity and power which meant mainstream attention and access. “Got 2B Real” and the creator when praised, it’s constantly said how the program/creator “deserves” to be moved off of the internet and onto something bigger, something brighter, something more mainstream. I wanted this for them because these were my digital big brothers and that’s what they wanted, not because I thought they’d be more important because they were on my television screen instead of my computer monitor. To me, they were already stars and quite frankly the most important thing in my life as far as entertainment goes before I discovered the gay black series, Noah’s Arc. Whereas the mainstream entertainment I found escape and joy in gave me the disco ball to distract me from my daily teenage anxieties, these black gay men gave me the thousand tiny mirrors that made up a disco ball that I would celebrate myself with.
I would describe this as a decolonizing process. Often domination will feed you media that tells you do not exist and you are not good enough. The actions that are born from that belief are seeking validation and power from the very locations that wish to annihilate and invalidate you. I was fed content made by and for gay black men that mentored me, told me I was worthy, and gave me excitement about my future. I think about the countless gay and trans children born in earlier generations and how their life would change if they had content that affirmed them in the way I did as a teenager. I believe much of my confidence, audacity, and vision comes from these gay black men.
For the black gay men in my part of the millennial generation, we had a bigger marketplace and more opportunities to be a part of the mainstream once we came of age to create our own creative content. The internet had opened up and internet success has been shown to be translatable into a type of mainstream success if not considered the same thing because of how integrated our lives are with the internet and social media. Black gay men who started their public creative careers on the internet have been able to move into mainstream television, film, music, and publications. Even my own beginning as a writer began on the internet and is largely sustained because of it. I first began creating essays on Medium and spreading thoughts on Twitter. This eventually grew into me creating a children’s book project that reached many mainstream outlets including NPR, NBC, BuzzFeed, and Huffington Post. My use of the internet also transformed my writing career which gave me space to write for places like Essence, The New York Times, Vice, and I even snagged a literary agent at one of the more prominent literary agencies in America.
So much of my strategy to success is due to watching and marveling at these black gay men as a teenager. It gave me a respect and honor for black gay culture and men that I believe is what sustains me and keeps my voice relevant amongst my community. Even today, I have been in public disagreements on social media with gay black adult film star TrapBoyy and iconic Hip-Hop band member of The Roots, ?uestLove. To many people, my exchange with ?uestlove would seem more important and dignified because of his line of work and his celebrity. My exchange with TrapBoyy, who engages in sex work, would be seen as more frivolous and minor because of his line of work and the fact that his popularity is niche. I saw these two public exchanges as equally culturally relevant to one another because I knew that each of these black men reaches audiences that are essential to me sustaining myself as a writer. I have not adopted the capitalist hierarchy that people are pushed into picking up, and this is largely because my idols were not the traditional, hyper-wealthy, white celebrity figures. They were people that looked and lived like me. Which gives me a different respect for people who I am in community with, but still fail certain mainstream standards. Again, consuming this black gay internet content was a strong decolonizing force in my teenage years.
It is hard for me to not experience survivor’s guilt for a section of the generation right above me that seemed to bust the doors open for black gay manhood on the internet, but have not yet (and may never) reach the “realness” they so desired. This guilt made me recall Essex Hemphill’s essay reflecting on the documentary Paris is Burning called “To Be Real”. Hemphill muses on realness, “Television and magazines tell us that our standards of beauty must be those of white, supremacist, heterosexual culture and if in doubt we should look to sacred Europe for guidance. Everyone is potentially at risk of aspiring to be like and look like the very thing that despises their existence.”
In “To Be Real”, Hemphill was reflecting on the internalized hatred one can experience and express while being socialized in domination culture. His gaze and direction of critique were on the subjects of Paris is Burning who were black and brown gay and trans people, although his critique, of course, could be applicable to anyone living inside of America. The same should be considered for my critique, that although my gaze and direction are narrowly on black gay men, this does not make it exclusive to us.
There needs to be a new respect for the queer black space and persons that is the location where American mainstream culture is produced. Often, we don’t see things as real until a white gaze validates it is as living and breathing with an award, money, a contract, or a stage. This power dynamic creates invasive individualism where people focus on their own stardom and profit instead of adding to this rich pot of culture we inherited. It births a fetishization for our own queer black culture given back to us with a white supremacist-capitalist face. We see this every time Madonna vogues or Katy Perry utters “wig”.
For the first time, I do think our relationship with realness has reached a unique point where it could be transformed in a way that couldn’t be imagined in 1995 when Essex Hemphill died. Black gay men are uniquely empowered in this current moment to claim their realness, their content, and create the mechanisms that validate our authenticity and excellence.
If my era of black gay content creators used our collective mainstream access and platform to empower the first half of the generation who were systemically blocked from such access and platform, the internalized white supremacist-capitalist hierarchy that has haunted trans and gay black communities would shake. This does not just look like sharing access, resources, and platforms that we have garnered, but it means sharing emotional, creative, and intellectual real estate with each other. It looks like saying someone’s name who has inspired you but does not have the access you currently do. It looks like publicly acknowledging how certain content has shaped your mind and heart. It looks like contextualizing creatives and their creations rightly when speaking about your own stardom and cultural production.
We have the cameras, the pen, the microphones, the stages, and most importantly, the power. In his era, we have the opportunity to move forward and give future generations of black gay men the same decolonizing experiences that I had in childhood. It starts with those of us with access to not be more thirsty for mainstream stardom as we are for our own community and to exalt those that dreamed us up over a decade ago. As we decolonize, we can shift the lens of validation into the hands of our community and finally know what it is to be real.
Photo: Lyle Ashton Harris