Sunday, January 26, 2014

Blacks Like Me: What's Missing from HBO's "Looking" (So Far) and Gay Life on TV

As reality-based gay television goes, I'd place Looking, HBO's new half-hour comedy-drama, somewhere between Boy Meets Boy (Bravo's gay twist on The Bachelor that ran for six episodes in 2003 and featured as one of the suitors the actor who took over for Alison Sweeney as Sami Brady, aka Stan, on Days of Our Lives during her first maternity leave in 2005), and Michael's relatively tame (and lame) storylines on the U.S. version of Queer As Folk. To my gay sensibility, the conversations and sexual escapades of the three main characters in the debut episode, which premiered on January 19, were more or less believable, if hardly revelatory or stimulating (mentally or erotically).

Glee's Jonathan Groff is charming and believable as the lead, Patrick, a hopeless romantic who is still in the process of getting comfortable in his gay skin. Sure someone that good-looking probably wouldn't be so awkward and insecure, but Groff is talented enough to sell Patrick's near-crippling diffidence. I believe him.

His two best friends -- one short and Cuban (Agustín), one tall and all-American (Dom), both attractive in their individual way -- represent the sort of gay men you actually encounter in real life (ones with facial hair and imperfect bodies), not the waxed and plucked cookie-cutter specimens that usually populate television and movies. I spent much of the first episode wondering why I can't meet a 40ish guy who looks like Murray Bartlett (the Australian actor who plays Dom) in real life, but the truth is, I see guys who look like him all the time here in the real world.

Looking is probably destined to face criticism that gay men in its version of San Francisco, traditionally known as the gay capital of the U.S., are too shallow and sex-obsessed. But let's face it: So are many gay men here in the real world. Even the ones who aren't will probably see some of their friends, if not themselves, in Patrick, Agustín and Dom. I've never gone looking for a hand job in a public park or lived with a boyfriend, but I can pretty much relate to everything else that happened to them in the first episode, from Patrick's adventures in online dating to Dom's concerns about his loss of youth to Agustín's threesome with his boyfriend and a colleague (except in my version, I'm the guest star).

While Looking's depiction of everyday gay life is promising, I have mixed feelings about its take on gay diversity. In gay life according to Looking so far, the only shades are white and beige, which, at least, is slightly less pale than usual. Agustín and the actor who plays him, Frankie J. Álvarez, are both Latino, and O.T. Fagbenle, the British actor who plays Agustín's boyfriend, is half black (via his Nigerian dad).

Add the Asian-American actor who popped up briefly as one of Patrick's colleagues and the dreadlocked black extra in the club scenes, and you've got the closest thing I've ever seen on gay TV to a rainbow stew, albeit one with extra-mild seasoning. There's no mistaking what you're looking at when you're looking at Looking: a white canvas with splashes of color. It's a darker shade of pale, reflecting a gay community where people of color could easy pull a Pinky/Imitation of Life and pass for white.

In a way, I get why gay black men as sexy, sexual entities and not just as stereotypical comic relief have been so invisible on TV up to now. I can't say how things in the United States are now, but during the 15 years that I lived in New York City, to be gay and black meant being largely invisible to the white gay majority. Gay white men sought out other gay white (or Latino) men, and so did the majority of gay black men I encountered.

It wasn't until I moved to Buenos Aires that I felt like gay men actually noticed me when I walked into a room. It wasn't so much about me as it was about my exoticism in that part of the world: People in Argentina rarely see black people, so when they do, it's practically an event. Shortly after I moved to BA in 2006, I went out a few times with a 31-year-old guy named Hernan who revealed that I was the first black person he'd ever had a conversation with in his entire life. And he'd spent an entire year living in Washington D.C.!

In Melbourne and Bangkok, the reaction to me was pretty much the same, with minor variations on a theme: "Is it true what they say about black men?" Too many guys were mostly interested in finding out if the myth about black men was accurate; too few were interested in me as a human being. In Cape Town, a city with scores of gay black men, they are pretty much as invisible in gay-village life as they were in the United States. Apartheid lives on in Cape Town's gay community, sometimes by choice, sometimes out of habit. I went to a house party last weekend, and predictably, I was the only black guy in the room. I would have thought I was back in Melbourne had the balcony's ocean and Table Mountain views not been so stunning.

But here's the thing: I was at that party, on that balcony, a face in that crowd. Here, there and everywhere I go -- in Cape Town, in Bangkok, in Melbourne, in Buenos Aires, in New York City, and in all of the places in between -- there's always at least one gay black man in the room, and every other gay black man on the planet, even in the whitest corners of it, has the same experience on a daily basis. Yet gay life on TV is always so white-washed, even on shows set in major cities with significant black populations, even in Looking's San Francisco, a racially diverse city that's right across the San Francisco Bay from Oakland, which has a black population of 28 percent.

Why does homosexuality always have to be depicted on TV as being so Caucasian? I can live with all-white and mostly white casts, which, to the credit of TV's powers that be, are not nearly as prevalent as they were a decade ago. I've been living with them my entire life due to the assumptions by many network executives that white people are who the most-desired demographics want to see most on TV. But must so many of them be like Hernan, living in totally white-washed worlds, even when they're in cities that are full of black people (as Hernan was during his stint in D.C.).

Usually, at some point, a token black is thrown into the mix. At least one main character on three of the whitest series ever, Friends, Sex and City and Girls, dated a black person. On Friends it took nine seasons, on Sex and the City, it took three seasons and five episodes. On Girls, it happened at the beginning of season two.

Looking already has bested them all by including a biracial boyfriend in its first episode, but when he's played by an actor whose fair complexion and close-cropped hair make him passable as a Latino, an Arab or even a white guy with a very nice tan, and he's swimming in a sea of white and Latino castmates and extras, it feels less like a matter-of-fact representation of black gayness and genuine inclusiveness than a safe political safety net.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall during the casting meetings. When  the series' co-executive producer Andrew Haigh recently told HuffPost Live, "We have an African-American character," presumably referring to the one played by Fagbenle, a half-white Brit cast in lieu of an actual African-American, Haigh, who is also British, inadvertently revealed a lack of awareness and inclusive-mindedness that extends to the show. Did they go with Fagbenle because he was best for the job or because he was the right shade of light brown (i.e., more palatable to the white masses)? Haigh's touting of "an African-American character" would have carried more weight if that role were played by someone who looks the part. (Judging solely from his appearance and his version of an American accent, I assumed Fagbenle was Latino -- until I looked him up on Wikipedia.)

Onscreen when Patrick points out that the Latino barber who hits on him on the BART is not his type (he goes for the Ivy League guy, presumably white), when Dom, whose ex is a real-estate agent named Ethan Roberts (Could he be any more white? as Chandler Bing might ask), makes a statement like "I have to find some blond slut to help me regain my self-respect," it's clear where their priorities and preferences lie. One has to wonder why it has to be written into the script.

Interracial gay relationships are no less commonplace than interracial straight relationships in real life, yet it seems we only get straight ones on TV. Other than Will Truman's four-episode flirtation with a guy played by Taye Diggs (a fine actor who is unmistakably black) during the eighth season of Will & Grace, and David Fisher's longtime companionship with Keith on Six Feet Under, black-and-white gay romance has always been unrepresented to under-represented on TV. And don't get me started on the likelihood of seeing two black men in bed together.

General Hospital has just launched an unlikely gay love triangle featuring a white doctor, a black nurse and an Asian lab technician. The black nurse, Felix, has been onscreen for two years, the Asian lab technician, Brad, for roughly one, and the white doctor, Lucas, for a little more than one week. Guess which two shared the show's first steamy gay kiss last week.

That's right, not Felix, who has spent most of his two years on the show being the stereotypical gay best friend, offering advice on love and accessories as only a gay BFF can, dropping pop-cultural references, butting into the romantic lives of his straight friends and lusting after heterosexual men. He's still waiting to see some real romantic action. Brad and Lucas beat him to it.

Felix might spend most of his time on the periphery of his straight friends' love lives, but that's just him. I've never met a gay black man like that. I've got my own life. I may offer romantic advice to my straight friends. I may drop pop-cultural references. I even might lust after a straight man or two. (Be still, my beating heart, the next time Tom Hardy is onscreen.) But that's where the similarities between my life and Felix's life end. I go out. I date. I have sex. I fall in love. Even when white folks can't see me, I'm still there.

So don't believe everything you don't see on TV.
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