There’s a scene in Brokeback Mountain that is almost too personal for me to watch. Heath Ledger is standing in Jake Gyllenhaal’s childhood bedroom. There is only one window, open half-way, looking out over a barren and seemingly endless landscape. A plastic pony sits on the window ledge, the only toy in the room. Under the window there’s a small, four-legged stool. It’s easy for me to imagine a little boy sitting at the one window that belongs to him, pretending to ride his horse over the horizon to something new, something different, something better. It’s easy for me, because I was that kind of little boy, except my room was much nicer than the one in the movie and filled with toys. And instead of a depression-era landscape, I looked over a forest of maple and oak trees in Maryland. The feelings, however, were the same. How would I make it out of here? Who was going to love me?
I just read portions of a suicide note. It was written by a 26 year old black man named Joseph Jefferson. He lived in New York. His windows looked out on the busiest most important city in the world, millions of people and the wealth of an empire all spread out before him, and he saw no hope. He hung himself because he couldn’t take not belonging. He couldn’t continue the fight for not just equality, but a place where he, as a black gay man fit in. I bet Joseph was that kind of boy, too.
By the time I started walking and talking, it was pretty apparent that my parents had a gay child on their hands. I liked dolls, Doris Day movies, and my mother’s closet (in that order). My father’s disappointment was palpable. My mother, however, encouraged me to learn to cook and sew, and thought I was pretty good at combing out her wigs. The kids at school weren’t exactly mean. I was different, but it didn’t bring down any wrath. The boys in my scout troop didn’t call me sissy or fag. No one pushed me into a locker or tried to kick my butt after school because I had Barbie dolls. As a matter of fact, school was pretty easy. I was popular, cute, and had friends. I played sports well and made good enough grades to please my parents, but not so good that kids thought I was a dork.
Even if the outside was okay, the way I felt inside was not. I knew what gay was. Even though my parents weren’t telling me I was wrong and going to hell, there were still plenty of messages making it clear that my feelings were perverted and wrong. Puberty is confusing enough, and mine hit at the same time as Anita Bryant’s crusade against homosexuals, Harvey Milk’s run for public office, and the publication of Patricia Nell Warren’s book, The Front Runner. The messages were coming in loud, clear, and very mixed. Gay was good, gay was bad, sex was good, sex was wrong. It was tough enough trying to sort out my place as a young black man in America, let alone find my place as a gay black man.
I grew up and I got out. I became an actor, and I work in advertising. My whole life has been about sorting images and messages and the power of both. As an actor, I’m deeply aware that how I appear on-screen or onstage influences people. In 2005, I was cast in the first television series about gay black men, Noah’s Arc, on LOGO. It was groundbreaking because no one had ever portrayed the lives of black men living openly gay lives in such detail—some of it extravagant, but still, it was there—in color. That show caused conversations and conversions, and my email box filled up with coming out stories. Men and women found the courage to be who they are because they found examples, plausible examples to relate to. Our four characters were used to tell parents and sometimes spouses the truth that had long-been-buried under shame and fear.
When I took the job, all I wanted was a paycheck. I was more concerned about hitting my marks and knowing my lines. All I wanted to do was act, but what the world seemed to need were more role models. And in a gay world, where most of the images are of young, fit, white men, being black and gay is hard. I’ve made friends flip through gay magazines and count the images of non-white men to prove my point. Try it yourself and see. They are few. If we don’t see ourselves, whole, healthy, and thriving in our own cultural images, we feel not wanted, not necessary, and we do not thrive. Noah’s Arc did a lot of good to counteract the messages of hate that only seem to have grown louder and stronger in the last couple of years. We need more messages, more positive images, more help and more hope for the little boys and little girls out there staring out of their windows and seeing nothing—no hope, help, or horizon.
The suicides have to stop. The only way we can keep LGBT kids alive is to let them know that there is a way. Not just tell them it’ll get better one day, to the point that they can get away from school, bullies and parents who don’t understand or support them. But they need do know that it is better now. We have to stand up, openly and loudly, to advocate for these kids—now. It has to get better today. By the time the bell rings. We have to regard and respect each other. We have to show them that race and sexual orientation don’t matter, that knowing themselves for who they are right now is powerful and sustaining. We, as the role models, the image makers, the messengers, have to be there and available right now to answer questions, to guide them without hurting them, to be heroes, somehow. We have to let them know that they have value, or else we’ll leave them to a road that’s too hard, a hill that’s too tough to climb, and a horizon with nothing on the other side but darkness.