Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Powerful Article in Tribute to E. Lynn Harris Written by L. Michael Gipson

On July 24, 2009, E. Lynn Harris went into cardiac arrest and died at the age of 54 years old. Lynn, as he was known to friends and associates, was a 10 time New York Times bestselling author with over 4 million books in print. This distinction made E. Lynn Harris the first commercially successful, openly Black gay writer in America since James Baldwin. While he stood on the shoulders of a spare number of pioneering Black gay writers who came before him, including: Essex Hemphill, Joseph Beam, Assoto Saint, Yulisa Amadu Maddy, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, Samuel R. Delaney and other members of this exclusive club, Lynn would go further than any of them in cultural impact and financial reward. Like Harris, all of these writers described the lives of closeted and openly gay Black men, some long before Harris was even born, but Harris fortuitously arrived at a time when the culture was hungry for different, more sophisticated stories about Black people. The public proved eager for operatic tales of Black affluence, celebrity success, and salacious sexual diversities, not the previously dominating stories of poverty, racial animus or traditional sexual and family relations. For them, Lynn delivered, changing the national dialogue about Black gay men forever.

The debut of Invisible Life and its numerous sequels benefited as much from the times as it did from the earnestness of Harris’s fresh, confessional tales of closeted Black male life on the down low. In 1991, when Harris arrived on the scene, America was in the middle of its fourth Black literary renaissance, only this one was better known for its commercial achievement rather than its literary cred. In the late 80s, early 90s, mainstream publishers (again) discovered that Black people do indeed read books and were a considerably large portion of the untapped literary market. The stratospheric success of Terry McMillan’s Waiting To Exhale proved prescient, shepherding in an explosion of Black writers delivering what some derisively be termed “sistah girl fiction” and the vaguely dismissive “urban lit” by others. Simultaneously, Hollywood realized (again) there was an untapped market for urban romantic comedies starring post-Civil Rights buppies in situations parallel to their professional white counterparts. Popular music was just experiencing its split between b-boy rappers and thug crooners and those “queer-oriented” dance music artists like RuPaul, C.C. Penniston, C&C Music Factory, and Crystal Waters whose tribal beats were fostering a revival of the sexually diverse discotheque. In these anything goes nightclubs, straights and gays and everything in between together partied like it was 1999 and tried to live out try-sexual movies like Threesome. The organized gay rights movements were becoming more vocal and visible, but thanks in part to queer racism, was largely a white identified movement. Black gay life was limited to bars, gyms, clubs, parks, bathhouses, fraternities and telephone chatlines—there was no Internet and you could count the national number of Black gay organizations on your hands.

Then came E. Lynn Harris, a former IBM executive, telling stories that married all the energy of the roaring 90s for Blacks: the gay nightlife, the dual lives of closeted men, neo-Black bougie life from fraternities to boardrooms, the pressures and ambitions of instant millionaire artists and athletes in the entertainment industry, all without the specter of racism and only the occasional touchstone about AIDS. Lynn fed readers a sepia-colored Dynasty with all the camp, family melodrama, and delightful sexual triangles and quadrangles still intact and little of the harsher realities of poor and working class Black gay lives.

By ensuring parallel Black straight love stories were formulaically included in nearly every novel and initially marketing them to Black beauty salons, Harris got Black women readerships’ attention and kept it. Almost overnight Black women were aware of the existence of Black homosexuality beyond the stereotypical Blaine and Merriweather from the Men on Film skits from the then uber-popular In Living Color. Before J.L. King’s memoir, before Oprah Winfrey’s infamous D.L. Men’s Show, before Terry McMillan was bamboozled by her bisexual hubby, Jonathan Plummer, there was Harris educating millions about a phenomenon centuries old. It seems laughable today, but when Harris first lifted the veil, some Black women were completely stunned to learn that their man could love sports, drink beer, be fit, be sexy, be successful, speak in baritones, and exercise complete control of his wrists and still like, love and lust after men. Before Lynn, this shadow society of men was a whispered secret between some urbanite gay men and their straight girlfriends, and even then there was a sense among these women that their gay friends were exaggerating the scale of heterosexually identified men who chased after them (and not necessarily the other way around). But all of that was before Lynn. With books, stage plays and musicals, and several forthcoming movies of his work, Lynn changed everything.

After Lynn, Black male heterosexuality is less likely to be automatically assumed based on masculine presentation. After Lynn, many Black heterosexual men who were not on the D.L. resented the implication that they could harbor same sex desires, assisting some in embracing hyper-masculinity as a distancing response. After Lynn, the conversation about HIV/AIDS shifted and black women realized that a wedding ring would not protect them from a pandemic. After Lynn, there was an unscientifically founded belief that gay men and their DL lovers were primarily responsible for the precipitous rise of HIV among Black women, a myth repeatedly proven false by the Centers for Disease Control. After Lynn, Black women and some Black straight men realized that they had more in common with their Black gay brethren than they didn’t and began to dialogue with their gay brothers as people, not as a social problem. After Lynn, Black women realized Black gay men weren’t dismissible freaks, but competition and willing accomplices in their husbands and boyfriends infidelities—causing rifts and suspicion. After Lynn, Black gay youth no longer had to read white gay or Black straight fiction to identify a broad range of well-packaged reflections of their racial and sexual identity, both “out” and closeted. After Lynn, Black gay youth would see those reflections as romantically high bars of idealized male beauty, ostentatious wealth, preternatural talents, academic superiority, and bourgeoisie values coupled with wavering morality on participation in marital duplicity and infidelity. After Lynn, Black gay writers write and publish often, laudably believing their much needed voices are viable, valuable and marketable—regardless of literary quality. After Lynn, no publishing house could ever reject another Black gay writers’ stories as commercial suicide and be taken seriously. After Lynn, no one could say that Black gay and bisexual men didn’t exist and weren’t indeed vibrantly alive, and ever be taken seriously. Flaws and all, positive and negative, E. Lynn Harris changed American views, perspective and conversation, about Black gay men forever. And for that I thank my dear, sweet associate of fifteen years. May he rest in peace.