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date: 29 March 2023

Black Gay Men in Television Comedyfree

Black Gay Men in Television Comedyfree

  • Cameron Lynn BrownCameron Lynn BrownDepartment of Communication Studies, University of Iowa
  •  and Alfred L. Martin Jr.Alfred L. Martin Jr.Department of Communication Studies, University of Iowa


Approaches to studying Black gay men within television typically center examinations of the textual features of particular representations. In general, scholars focus on Black gayness vis-à-vis historic stereotypes, often focusing on hegemonic femininity as an analytic framework for cataloguing stereotypes of Black gay characters. Across White-/multicultural-cast sitcoms, Black-cast sitcoms, and sketch comedy, one of the difficulties associated with engaging with television and its engagement with the intersections of Blackness and gayness is that communication scholars often engage with media texts rhetorically. In that rhetorical treatment, there is often an elision of not only the specificities of television form but also the contours of genre. Thus, when examining Black gayness in television, that examination will look different depending on whether Black gayness appears on a “prestige” drama on a premium cable network or streaming platform, a sitcom with a principally Black or White cast, or a sketch comedy series.


  • Gender (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies)


Without question, there are more representations of gay men and lesbians on narrative television (although the same is not always true of bisexual and trans characters). The increased representation has become a fertile ground of study for scholars working across a variety of fields, including English, mass communication, communication studies, sociology, psychology, and media studies, among others. Within these fields of inquiry, media texts from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Bravo, 2003–2007; Netflix, 2018–), Queer as Folk (Showtime, 2000–2005), The L Word (Showtime, 2004–2009), and The L Word: Generation Q (Showtime, 2019–) to Will & Grace (NBC, 1998–2006, 2017–2020), Glee (Fox, 2009–2015), and Modern Family (ABC, 2009–2020) have been studied extensively. In other words, the object of inquiry has largely focused on White televisual gays and lesbians. Perhaps there are at least two reasons for this focus. First, it involves numbers—there have simply been more White LGBT characters on television. Looking at the televisual landscape, there are more White heterosexual characters on television than Black heterosexual characters, which realistically should translate into more White gay characters than Black, particularly in an industry in which televisual Blackness equals “Black show,” whereas televisual Whiteness equals “mainstream show.” In addition, within this notion of mainstream Whiteness is also an assumption that gayness and Whiteness are inextricably linked. As Allan Bérubé (2001) notes, “In the United States today, the dominant image of the typical gay man is a white man who is financially better off than most everyone else” (p. 234). Second, the corpus of shows that have received the most scholarly attention are those that have achieved ratings and/or critical success, regardless of the myriad ways networks, channels, and platforms define notions of “success.” For example, according to the website Reality TV World (2003a, 2003b), Queer Eye for the Straight Guy premiered on Bravo, where it garnered 1.6 million viewers—a record number of viewers for the niche cable network—before moving over to its sister network NBC, where it garnered 6.3 million viewers its first airing, incidentally following an episode of Will & Grace. In addition, series like Modern Family and Will & Grace have routinely won Emmy Awards, which, however problematically, stand in for notions of quality and excellence.

This article centers the importance of race within discussions of LGBTQ identities but also works to highlight the different trajectories of Black gay characters within comedic television and the ways imaginations of audiences shape the production practices of Black gay characters across White-/multicultural-cast and Black-cast television comedy. The article explores the historical rise of explicit gayness (and gay stereotypes) in television comedy and its relationship with Whiteness before interrogating those stereotypes as they are related—or perhaps more accurately, how they do not relate—to Black gayness in television comedy. For the purposes of this article, the use of “gay” or “gayness” speaks specifically to a homosexual, masculine positionality (with the understanding that this term can and has been used as shorthand or personal identifiers for a myriad of non-straight identities). An engagement with the existing literature on Black gayness, specifically in White/multicultural television comedies, illuminates not only television’s, and thus scholars’, limited engagement with Black gayness but also the need for more varied methodological interrogations that center and prioritize cultural studies, audience studies, and production studies, among others.

Black Gayness/White Gayness: A Tale of Two Televisual Sexualities in Television Comedy

This section provides a brief history of gayness in television comedies. Specifically, the distinct engagements—both televisual and scholarly—with the history and trajectory of Black gayness alongside that of White gayness are discussed. In doing so, this article’s historical analysis of gayness in television comedy is connected to the Stonewall Riots and tracks the chronological (re)iterations of gayness in television comedy through character tropes predicated on the “pedagogical gay,” the “sissy regular,” and homonormative gayness. Throughout this section, the articulation of Whiteness and gayness is highlighted.

Comedic representations of explicit gayness on television began on mostly the same ground in the 1970s, racially speaking. Although there had been White gay male representation on television as early as 1954’s television adaptation of the musical Lady in the Dark, television comedies did not engage with explicit White gay male characters until after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which are often cited as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Prior to the 1970s, male gayness had been largely mass-mediated using techniques associated with gender inversion. In this context, gender inversion speaks to widely accepted societal understandings as homosexuality—as opposed to queerness more broadly—being understood within the reversal of the gender binary. In other words, gay men in media were largely depicted as feminine and employed in “women’s professions” such as cosmetology and interior design, or what Matthew Murray (2001) called the “lavender gentleman.”

Stonewall marked the beginning of broader inclusion of gay men and lesbians on television. In the wake of Stonewall, Rodger Streitmatter (2009) argues that news media “continued to portray gay men as objects of ridicule by describing the events at the Stonewall Inn as a place where the homosexual element could congregate, drink and do whatever little girls do when they get together” (p. 19), prompting some gay rights organizations to complain about the ways gay men were being represented in media.

At the same time, Stonewall coincided with television’s attempt to rehabilitate its image as a “vast wasteland” by taking what is widely known as a turn to relevance, whereby television shows began to reflect the issues of the day. As Todd Gitlin (2000) details, Robert D. Wood engineered this turn to relevance because he thought television should “shift from cornball comedy to expressions—however ambiguous—of liberal ideas” (p. 206). This turn to gay and lesbian relevance could be seen in episodes of shows such as All in the Family (CBS, 1971–1979), Room 222 (ABC, 1969–1974), and some Black-cast series such as Sanford Arms (NBC, 1977) that began to be constructed as “positive” representations. These representations included gay men who did not demonstrate markers of homosexuality that had long been associated with gayness. These men were not feminine, nor did they have careers in hegemonically “feminine careers.” Martin (2021) has called this set of characters “pedagogical gay characters” because these White gay characters were primarily tasked with educating “mainstream” culture about gayness and attempting to break the semiotic chain between gay men and effeminacy and flamboyance. As would also become the norm for televisual representations of gay men and lesbians, once this issue was “tackled,” the gay character was never heard from again. In this way, the main heterosexual characters could be constructed as “liberal” on gay issues without having to deal with the baggage of gayness on a weekly basis. In 1970s television, it seemed, as Chuck Hoy asserts, “as if television program creators were attempting to instruct the American public in Homosexuality 101” (as quoted in Johnson & Keith, 2001, p. 145). The pedagogical gay character largely remains the dominant model for episodic Black gay characters across Black-cast and “multicultural”-cast television.

Soon thereafter, White gay men transition into what Stephen Tropiano (2002) calls the “sissy regular.” These White gay characters embodied more stereotypically feminine behaviors (and were almost always portrayed by heterosexual men) and, most important, were series regulars. ABC was the first network to feature a gay “sissy regular” on its sitcom The Corner Bar (1972–1973). Although the series was undoubtedly groundbreaking (particularly for the era in which it occurred), the series was not without its problems. Because its gay character, Peter Panama, was not going to simply “drop in” on the show, the network and writers needed to figure out how to make such a characterization palatable for its presumed heterosexual viewership. Much to the ire of many gay rights organizations, the solution was to make Peter a slightly updated version of the “lavender gentleman,” a radio creation known for his coded homosexuality via mannerisms and modes of speech. Also significant about The Corner Bar is its distinction as the first television show wherein producers agreed to negotiate White gay televisual representations with gay rights groups, namely the Gay Activists Alliance’s president Rich Wandel, who called Peter, the series’ gay character “the worst stereotype of a gay man I’ve ever seen” (as quoted in Capsuto, 2000, p. 72). Show producer Alan King agreed to make changes to the character if ABC continued to air the show. The show returned in the summer of 1973 with Peter and most of the other characters having been written out of it.

Two years after the cancellation of The Corner Bar, Norman Lear’s T.A.T. Communications entered the gay programming fray with two “sissy regulars” on Hot l Baltimore (ABC, 1975). The series featured a White gay couple who were residents of the Hot l Baltimore (the “e” had burned out on the residential hotel’s sign and had never been replaced). However, the series that would put the sitcom’s “sissy regular” on the map premiered in 1977. ABC’s Soap (1977–1981) featured Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Jodie, as a gay man who wants to undergo a sex change in order to be with his partner, a closeted professional football player. Even before the first episode aired, the network received 32,000 letters demanding the show’s cancellation, mostly from people who had yet to see an episode of the show. Although the show went on to run for four seasons, the initial protests about its content prompted Baltimore’s WJZ-TV to refuse to air the show’s first two episodes (Shale, 1977). For groups concerned about the representation of gay men on television, one of Soap’s worrisome developments was writer Susan Harris’ “apparent confusion” about the differences between “homosexuality, transvestism, and transexualism” (Capsuto, 2000, p. 139). On September 8, 1977, the National Gay Task Force issued a call to have the Federal Communications Commission survey representations of gays on television, and the International Union of Gay Athletes also demanded to meet with ABC to protest the gay representations on Soap (Brown, 1977). In addition, Soap continues to be derided for its dialogue that liberally used derogatory terms for gay men, including “Fruit Loop,” “homo,” “pansy,” and “Tinkerbell.”

From the 1980s until the mid-1990s, White-cast sitcoms would vacillate between pedagogical gay characters and “sissy regulars.” When the “gay 90s” hit television (led in many ways by the [short-lived] success of New Queer Cinema), a hybrid White gay character emerged. This hybrid character embodied many of the characteristics of the pedagogical gay character, namely his “masculinity,” but was a series regular or, in some cases, star. Within this discourse of “respectable gays” are five general characteristics of gay men on television, which build upon Streitmatter’s (2009) work with slight modifications for television. According to Streitmatter (2009), in order for White gay representations to be understood as “respectable gays,” they must fit into at least two of the following categories: (1) Gay men are charming, (2) gay men are physically attractive, (3) gay men have taste, (4) gay men are successful, and (5) gay men are chaste. White-cast sitcoms such as Will & Grace (NBC, 1998–2006), Normal, Ohio (Fox, 2000), and Some of My Best Friends (CBS, 2001) attempted to capitalize on the new “gay chic” for what Ron Becker (2006) calls socially liberal, urban-minded professionals (or the SLUMPY) demographic. These series regulars/co-stars/stars were masculine, single, and well-adjusted within mainstream (read: White) heteronormative culture. These characterizations mirrored the pedagogical gay character who was still in circulation as a one-off representation of gayness within White-cast sitcoms.

The next wave of White gay characterizations for series stars and co-stars emerged toward the end of Will & Grace’s successful run. After much criticism related to Will’s lack of romantic entanglements, Will began to date. These characters are the “homonormative gay characters.” Lisa Duggan (2003) defines homonormativity as

a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoloticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumptions. (p. 50)

Los Angeles Times writer Don Kilhefner (2007) adds,

Homonormative gays are defined by a model of gay assimilation that includes a married [gay] couple with a home, a child or two and a schedule of PTA meetings and ballet lessons (for the child), a dog, a parrot, a few goldfish and tickets to a fundraising dinner at the Beverly Hilton.

In both Duggan’s (2003) and Kilhefner’s (2007) definitions of homonormativity, the construction of the queer couple is no different from the socially constructed image of a heterosexual married couple. The poster representation for this kind of televisual White gayness can be seen in Modern Family (ABC, 2009–2020), and The New Normal (NBC, 2012–2013). Suzanna Danuta Walters (2014) suggests, “In this era of liberal gay visibility, contemporary culture has other motifs to choose from, and the coming-out story no longer represents both the beginning and the end of how gay identity is imagined in popular media” (p. 36). Walters’s assertion appears to be true for White-cast sitcoms when they feature Black gay characters. White-cast sitcoms tend to subscribe to post-racial and post-gay ideologies so that when Black gay men (rarely) appear within their ranks, there is little, if any, discussion of their Blackness or gayness. However, they broadly fit these models. Spin City (ABC, 1996–2002), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox, 2013–2018; NBC, 2018–2021), and Sirens (USA, 2013–2015) fit within the “respectable gay” model, and Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 (ABC, 2012–2013) employed the “sissy regular” model. But how, if at all, do these models and Walters’ assertions work for Black gay men within Black-cast sitcoms?

In this instance, Walters’ (2014) assertion is patently false. Her imagining of televisual Blackness seems completely out of step with her efforts to critique the gay rights movement for its lack of inclusivity. She rightly observes that the modern gay rights movement has created a charmed circle of acceptance that tends to exclude “those gays and other gender and sexual minorities, such as transgendered [sic] folks and gays of color, who don’t fit the poster-boy image of nonstraight people and who can’t be—or don’t want to be—assimilated” (p. 3). Whereas White gay men in White-cast sitcoms have become post-gay (which implicitly gestures toward a post-coming-out state of being), that move has not been extended to Black gay men in Black-cast sitcoms.

Part of the different trajectories for Black gay characters in White-/multicultural-cast comedy and those in Black-cast comedy is rooted in the television industry’s imagination of White audiences as more liberal viewers, or what Becker (2006) calls a SLUMPY demographic. As Martin (2018a) has argued, television comedies have “made no space for the imagining of a BLAMPY viewer—ones who are Black, liberal, affluent, metropolitan professionals and who understand that gayness can be a part of the fabric of Black television families” (p. 233). Thus, this imagining of audiences becomes key in discussing how Black gayness appears across White-/multicultural-cast comedy versus Black-cast comedy.

Black Gay Characters in White-/Multicultural-Cast Sitcoms

Following the discussion of the differences between Black gayness and White gayness in television comedies, this section focuses on scholarship on Black gay characters in White- or multicultural-cast sitcoms. First, this section examines how scholarship focused on Spin City’s Carter Heywood often ignores how his gayness was divorced from his Blackness. Similarly, it is argued that scholarship on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Titus Andromedon remains fixated on his position within a positive/negative representational binary and, specifically, detached from his Blackness and the Black gay characters that came before him. In the analysis of these characters, it is also argued that scholarship on Carter and Titus remain tethered to the image, prioritizing the text with little consideration of audiences, industries, or sociohistorical contexts.

In 1996, Entertainment Weekly writer Jess Cagle dubbed the 1990s the “gay 90s” because of the plethora of gay and lesbian representation across the television landscape. As Ron Becker (2006) detailed in his work, the networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—used gay and lesbian content to court coveted 18- to 49-year-old viewers. These SLUMPY viewers consumed “edgy” LGBT content as a means of differentiating their taste cultures from those of more plebian viewers who consumer broad-based sitcom content. In addition to this hunt for more “edgy” content, many series moved from domestic settings to workplace settings in order to “make way for the inclusion of a differently-raced character. In other words, series regular Black gay characters on television comedies coincided with the television industry’s pursuit of slumpies via the workplace sitcom” (Martin, 2018a, p. 235). One early example of this shift can be seen in the short-lived multicultural-cast series Cutters (CBS, 1993) that featured a Black gay character named Troy King. However, regardless of the industrial changes that occurred to make space for LGBT characters, such characters forcefully emerged from what George Gerbner (1972, p. 44) calls “symbolic annihilation” or the absence of representation and into mainstream television. As scholars attempted to make sense of these representations, they turned to the textual features of such representations. The rest of this section is devoted to a discussion of the scholarship on Spin City and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, two programs that have been the focus of much of the research around Black queers in White- and multicultural-cast television comedy.

Stephen Tropiano (2002) calls Spin City’s Carter Heywood, who was the Black gay head of minority affairs for the New York mayor’s office,

The most intelligent and respectable gay professional on television . . . Carter is a rarity on television because he’s gay, African American, and political. He’s never afraid of speaking his mind and in the first season alone challenges the mayor on such issues as needle exchange programs (“Pride and Prejudice”), gay marriage (“Grand Illusion”), and police discrimination (“In the Heat of the Day”). (p. 244)

Although Carter seemingly possessed agency as a character and represented the White-cast sitcom’s attempt at engaging race, Ron Becker (2006) argues that Carter’s

racial identity was far less salient to his narrative function than his gayness. While the show’s writers and Carter’s coworkers seemed blind to his Blackness, his homosexuality was a constant source of narrative development and jokes. Conversely, on the few occasions the series did explicitly deal with Carter’s race, it didn’t deal with his sexual identity. In other words, the series never addressed what the specific experiences of being a Black gay man or a gay Black man might have been. Carter was usually gay, sometimes Black, but never really both at the same time. (p. 180)

Thus, although Spin City attempted to represent a Black gay character that broke from the all-encompassing Whiteness of “gay 90s” representation, it could not reconcile how those identities could coexist rather than oscillating between them.

Breaking from Becker’s (2006) assertions about the ways Carter’s gayness is privileged over his racialization, Steven Capsuto (2000, p. 375) argues that Spin City offered a “full-fledged gay male regular who played a key role in almost every episode” and was never reduced to just being “the gay guy” in his brief textual analysis. The assertion of the fullness of the representation is attributed to the notion that Carter Heywood was politically active, was not segregated from gay populations, and was allowed to have romantic entanglements. Similarly, Walters (2001) calls Carter “one of the most truly integrated gay characters on television” and asserts that Spin City stands apart from other sitcoms’ engagement with gayness because it is treated as “a subject, certainly, but not a topic that is framed by coming-out stories” (p. 105). Walters’ praise for Carter is rooted in a post-gay logic that suggests that the character not having to “dwell” in his own identity development should be understood within a progress narrative of gay representations. However, Walters’ reading of Carter is also rooted in post-racial ideologies that attempt to erase or ignore his Blackness. In so doing, Walters positions Carter as what Catherine Squires (2009, p. 219) calls a “race neutral” character—Black characters who present a “constrained vision of Blacks in White society that promotes assimilation, not integration” because he is one of the few token characters of color on the show.

In her praise of Carter, Walters (2001) also notes that unlike many characters before him, Carter is allowed some semblance of a romantic life for the sake of the relationships, rather than as a comedic opportunity for the heterosexual characters on the show. Thus, Walters seemingly draws on Cedric Clark’s (1969) stages of representation, in which a minority group’s representation is understood as having ascended to the “respect” stage when its members are depicted as having interactions with children (sometimes as parents) and within committed and monogamous relationships. At the same time, Walters (2001) identifies that within Spin City and the character Carter, gayness continues to “be seen through the eyes of confused heterosexuals, struggling with their own reactions and feelings” (p. 104). In this way, as scholars including Becker (2006), Martin (2021), and Tropiano (2002) have argued, homosexuality becomes a conduit to center heterosexual and heterocentrist concerns, not queer ones.

The research on Spin City employs textual analysis of the series to make sense of Carter. Generally, the authors locate Carter on the “positive” end of the problematic positive/negative representational binary. The guiding research question for many of the authors was: How is Carter constructed with respect to long-held stereotypes of gayness? While paying attention to stereotypes, the authors broadly excluded race within their analyses. In other words, many of the authors treat Carter as a gay man versus a Black gay man, ignoring that although he may have been integrated into a gay community, he was segregated from a Black gay community, which is particularly troubling given that he lives in New York City.

Only Becker’s (2006) research gestures toward some of the industrial and demographic shifts that made gay characters possible in the 1990s. In his theorization of the liberal viewers who became the darlings of the advertising industry in the 1990s, he suggests that gay characters, broadly construed, were a tool to attract “hip” and “cool” consumers to television content. In other words, while textual analyses asked “how” questions about Carter, Becker seemingly also asked “why” Carter (and other White gay characters) was on television in the 1990s.

In 2015, another Black gay character emerged that sparked scholarly attention: Titus Andromedon on Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Carmen Dexl and Katrin Horn (2017) argue that Titus is “a Black queen whose use of camp distances him from stereotypes, but connects him with audiences, whereby he not only adds to a more diverse representation of Black experience on TV but also interrogates prevailing TV tropes” (p. 442). In engaging camp to understand Titus, the authors deploy a textual analysis that reads the character as transcoding stereotypes associated with Blackness and gayness. Thus, stereotype remains the heuristic through which the authors attempt to understand the character. Embedded within their interest in Titus and an attempt to treat him as a character who is both Black and gay, the authors engage Black television histories as well as queer television histories, but not Black queer television histories. Although, admittedly, the list of representations is short, the authors, for instance, do not suggest there are any antecedents of Titus in Eddie Murphy’s “Dion” from Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975–) or David Alan Grier and Damon Wayans’ Blain Edwards and Antoine Merriwether from In Living Color (Fox, 1990–1994). In particular, In Living Color made liberal use of Black queer camp through comedic modes. Thus, the authors remain so tightly engaged with the text at hand (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) that they lose sight of the broader history on which Titus builds.

Dexl and Horn (2017) briefly attempt to move outside of textual analysis by suggesting that Titus’ use of camp helps audiences connect with him. However, although the authors importantly highlight that audience reception is important, particularly when engaging with a character that might embody “negative” stereotypes, they provide no evidence of having conducting audience research, or a corpus of tweets or online posts to support the claim. Thus, it reads almost as their call for future research to engage this line of inquiry.

In passing, Dexl and Horn (2017) suggest that part of what makes Titus an important character is that he is also played by an out, Black gay actor. On the one hand, this gesture toward the importance of a Black gay actor playing a Black gay role centers an “interrelated set of ideological and industrial factors that contribute to an understanding of televisual representation and its material effects on employment, activism and performance” (Martin, 2018b, p. 285). On the other hand, the authors only give casting a passing consideration in their examination of Titus but do not necessarily include this as an integral point in their analysis. Ultimately, the authors’ interest in camp engages a reading of Titus that is particularly situated in their own subject positions and dissociated from industrial and reception contexts. And it is the fact that out, Black gay actor Tituss Burgess was cast as Titus which partly allows for not only their reading of the stereotypes he embodies as camp but also likely the audience’s reading of him.

In a larger work on what television can teach viewers, Ava Laure Parsemain (2019) suggests that “the representation of queerness in popular culture is important because it contributes to the formation of identities and influences views and attitudes” (p. 2). Thus, with an eye toward television’s pedagogical properties, and perhaps an imagination of television audiences as passive rather than active viewers, Parsemain finds that Titus reifies “the stereotype of gay men as comically flamboyant and desexualized” (p. 246). Parsemain gestures toward the industrial and economic structures of the media industries and recognizes the importance of parsing network, cable, and streaming representations; however, that is not necessarily the focus of her work. Rather, she is ultimately focused on the representational, concluding that television—across network, cable, and streaming platforms—“has a long way to go to respectfully and inclusively represent queerness” (p. 249). At the same time, she does not recognize/center Titus’ Blackness. That is not to suggest that Parsemain does not know Titus is Black. Rather, she seemingly constructs him as a gay Black character rather than a Black gay character. The distinction suggests that gay Black men’s (and characters’) allegiance is to gay communities first, whereas Black gay men (and characters) define themselves through Blackness (Scott, 1994, p. 300). Thus, for Parsemain, studying Titus presumably teaches something about gayness, but not necessarily Black gayness.

David Oh (2020) focuses his work on a Titus-centered storyline within Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In the narrative, Titus performs a one-person show in which he plays a geisha that is subject to backlash from Asian American communities for its insensitivities toward those of Asian descent. Oh suggests that the storyline is autobiographical for series creator Tina Fey in that both Fey and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt had been accused of being racially insensitive. Instead of having a White woman at the epicenter of the controversies within the series, Oh (2020) argues that Fey positions “Asian American protesters as intolerant and ignorant of a Black queer man’s performance of Japanese femininity, shifting the target of White racial marginalization onto Asian Americans and shifting the target of White appropriation onto Black performers” (p. 60). In such a move, Oh suggests that the series, and Fey as an extension of the series, eschews a nuanced discussion of race. At the same time, Oh’s focus on the substitution of Titus for Fey, and the ultimate rescuing of White feminism, decenters Titus’ gayness from his analysis. To be sure, Oh is concerned with how 21st-century White feminism functions, but in so doing, he continues to make Black gayness a secondary concern. Although Oh does not necessarily pay attention to industrial or reception contexts, his essay gestures toward broader cultural events to situate his reading of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, thus situating Titus and the series within its cultural context.

The research on Black gay characters within White-/multicultural-cast sitcoms has broadly remained mired in discussions of the image without much attention to the cultural, production, industrial, and reception contexts in which these Black gay characters were created. Certainly, there are gestures toward the importance of these contexts in considering Black gay characters, and much of the early work on Black gay characters such as Carter Heywood is laying the groundwork for this area of inquiry. However, stereotypic analyses do not necessarily provide any real insight into these characterizations aside from the particular reading each of the authors has offered.

Black Gayness in Sketch Comedy

Although perhaps there is not a distinction in methodology or approaches to comedy between sketch comedy and sitcoms (discussed in the section on “Black Gayness in Black-Cast Sitcoms”), the discussion is separated to provide intentional analysis of the scholarship based on genre. To further focus this analysis, this section discusses In Living Color’s “Men on . . .” skits. Unlike the research previously examined, the scholarship on Black gayness in sketch comedy move beyond the text itself to prioritize the cultural context within which they are produced.

Jasmine Nichole Cobb and Robin Means Coleman (2007) perhaps take the broadest view of television in the late 20th and early 21st century in their examination of network and cable representations of Black gayness. They assert that television “is now willing to conceptualize a Black sexuality that does not threaten White women, [but] depictions of Black queer identities frequently involve interpersonal problems, violence, and (someone’s) destruction” (p. 2). They frame representations of Black gayness within Patricia Hill Collins’ theory of the “controlling image” and argue that, particularly within the comedy genre (which is where most Black gay televisual representations are situated), these images are “properly contained and controlled” (p. 4). As evidence of this controlling imagery, Cobb and Means Coleman point to In Living Color’s Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather, who they posit are represented as “insufficiently masculine,” which helps to televisually and thus, culturally, determine how we think about Black gay men.

Representing a critical cultural studies approach, E. Patrick Johnson examines In Living Color and Eddie Murphy’s performances of what Marlon Riggs calls “negro faggotry” on Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975–) and in his stand-up comedy film Delirious (HBO, 1983). Johnson (2003a) concludes that mass-mediated images of heterosexual Black masculinity are part of the “complex process through which Black male heterosexuality conceals it reliance on the Black effeminate homosexual for its status” (p. 232). In other words, Johnson argues that notions of Black gayness work in binary opposition to normative Black masculinity. Importantly, drawing from a cultural studies approach to media, Johnson culturally places Murphy’s representations of Black gay men within its cultural landscape, including the Black Nationalist and Black Arts movements as well as the conservative response (or lack thereof) to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Thus, while Johnson is focused on images of Black gayness, he places them within larger cultural discourses.

Johnson furthers his work in a chapter in Appropriating Blackness, wherein he conducts a close textual analysis of the “Men on . . .” skits from In Living Color. He argues the skits displace misogyny onto Black gay men and further homophobia. Johnson (2003b) posits that the characters, Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather, “demonstrate random misogyny when they review works by or for women” by replying “in unison, ‘Hated it’” (p. 66). In addition, he argues the skits forward, reify, and encourage homophobic ideas and rely on “the epistemology of homophobia” by presenting images of Black “gay men [who are] lascivious dick suckers who enjoy the taste of and swallowing semen” (p. 69), as evidenced by the line in one of the “Men On . . .” skits: “Don’t tempt my tummy with the taste of nuts and honey.” Johnson also finds that the skits reify homosexual codes through wardrobe. For Blaine and Antoine, their clothing and mannerisms become code for gay, despite the idea that their homosexuality is never explicitly named. Thus, Johnson employs a semiotic analysis of the ease with which gayness is/can be read onto Blaine and Antoine’s bodies. Picking up on this thread, Cobb and Means Coleman (2007) assert that Blaine and Antoine offer “a new popular stereotype in their treatment of gay Black men, [whereby] the combination of hypersexuality and misogyny works to control Black gayness as something to be ridiculed” (p. 5).

Herman Gray (1995) also takes a cultural studies approach to In Living Color. Within that examination, he discusses “Men on . . .” and their reification of heterosexual masculine power. He posits that the men’s attire works to code gayness and conflate homosexuality with dressing in “delicate fabrics with bright colors” (p. 141). Just as these costume choices code gayness, through binary opposition, they also contain heterosexual masculinity. Therefore, an “appropriately” masculine man cannot wear “delicate fabrics and bright colors.” Particularly interesting in Gray’s work is that he acknowledges that these characters are never explicitly identified as gay: rather, to borrow from Stuart Hall (2005), these “signifying practices” code them as gay.

Essex Hemphill (1995) conducts a brief reception study of In Living Color’s “Men on . . .” sketches. Interviewing Black gay men and lesbian patrons in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, Hemphill is necessarily disinterested in how he reads Antoine and Blaine. Rather, he lets the Black gay men and lesbians tell him what they think the representations mean. The previous scholars discussed in this section read the “Men on . . .” sketches in a particular way because they are armed with a particularly scholarly toolkit. Hemphill attempts to engage the “Men on . . .” sketches as a text that “real” people engage and understand. In so doing, Hemphill found that whereas scholars find Antoine and Blaine troubling for the ways they recycled stereotypes associated with gayness, the people who they are supposed to represent engage a more negotiated response. One of Hemphill’s respondents, Anthony Owens, understands the show as “a parody . . . [and it] should be taken as such” (p. 293). Thus, Owens put little to no importance on this representation of Black gay men. However, Alan Bell told Hemphill that he found the sketches “frightfully funny, and I enjoy looking at it, but at the same time I recognize that these portrayals are going out to people who don’t have another context to put them in” (p. 394). In other words, Bell could find humor in Antoine and Blaine but has reservations about them being mediated for the Fox audience, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s was composed of primarily young, White adult male and Black heterosexual viewers.

The authors who engage in discussions of sketch comedy and Black gayness adopt an approach that centers the cultural contexts in which they appear. At the same time, although they certainly make meanings as Black spectators of the programming, they largely eschew discussions of production practices. Partly, that elision is rooted in sketch comedy generally, and In Living Color specifically, comprising a small portion of the work they are conducting. With the exception of Hemphill, the authors imagine an audience receiving the ideological messages the “Men on . . .” sketches mediate, but do not engage “real” viewers.

Black Gayness in Black-Cast Sitcoms

Little research specifically addresses gay Black televisual representation in the Black-cast sitcom. Much of the literature available focuses on a single representation of Black gay maleness within a single media text rather than putting the representations in conversation with one another. In addition, the vast majority of the studies conducted have been textual analyses of representations within televisual spaces. The Black-cast sitcoms that form the basis for this section are Moesha and Noah’s Arc. This section examines scholarship on Moesha and Noah’s Arc to interrogate the intersections of Black gayness through the coming out process (Moesha) and the confluence of Blackness, gayness, and masculinities (Noah’s Arc). In doing so, it also highlights differing methodological approaches to media studies, in general, and Black gayness, specifically.

Black gay men have appeared in 27 episodes of Black-cast sitcoms since 1977. Although they have appeared across a plethora of series and broadcast eras, they have remained narratively and industrially “trapped” in the “pedagogical gay” model. From the first Black gay character on the short-lived Sanford & Son spinoff Sanford Arms (NBC, 1977) to the multi-episode arc on Let’s Stay Together (BET, 2012–2017), these Black gay men are narratively charged with educating the characters within the series as well as the audience about gayness. Once that “lesson” has been delivered, there is no narrative utility for the character, and he can be discarded.

This pedagogical model can take on several forms. From the first Black gay character in a Black-cast sitcom in a 1977 episode of the short-lived NBC series Sanford Arms titled “Phil’s Assertion School” to the six-episode arc featuring a Black gay man on BET’s Let’s Stay Together, these Black characters’ function within their respective series is to educate its (presumably Black) audience about homosexuality while concomitantly reifying hegemonic Black masculinity. Because of this overarching narrative function, coupled with the imagination of Black audiences as less liberal/more anti-gay than White audiences, Black-cast sitcoms are deemed “not ready” for a recurring Black gay character. This “industry lore” about Black viewers shapes “what gets produced as well as how, where, and when productions get watched” (Havens, 2013, p. 4). This section examines not only what gets produced but also Black gay men’s reception practices.

Moesha was one of the first Black-cast series to feature a Black gay character in the “gay 90s.” Moesha broke new ground in its inclusion of Omar, a Black, gay teenager. Previously, homosexuality within television had mostly dealt with gay adults, not teenagers. Although the 1990s would see an explosion of gay characters as well as an increased production of Black-cast sitcoms, few Black-cast sitcoms included Black gay characters, and when they did include such characters, these characters were presented episodically and never part of the ongoing casts of Black-cast sitcoms. In 1996, a year before Spin City debuted, Moesha engaged with Black gayness in its “Labels” episode. The episode concerns the suspicion that series regular Hakeem’s cousin (Omar) might be gay. Although Becker (2006) only mentions Moesha’s “Labels” episode in the appendix of his book, simply stating that “Moesha goes on a date with Hakeem’s cousin, who turns out to be gay” (p. 230), his interest is in why gay characters appear on television with such frequency in the 1990s. For Moesha and other sitcoms of the 1990s, Becker argues that gayness (and gay characters by extension) became a marketing tool to reach trendier, hipper, and cooler audiences. In this way, then, Becker was interested in the industrial utility of gayness to television marketing.

Turning more to Moesha’s textual features, Tropiano (2002) read the “Labels” episode as ambiguous because Omar never declares his homosexuality and instead whispers something to his cousin. Situated within a section of his book on “the coming out episode,” Tropiano focuses on the textual features of episodes that feature gay characters. For Tropiano,

the ending [of the “Labels” episode] skirts the gay issue by making it more about Hakeem and Moesha’s friendship. Omar’s “coming out” and Hakeem’s reaction are never fully played out, which makes the ending all the more confusing. Hakeem and Moesha’s silence in the end . . . can also be read . . . as if they’re mourning [Omar’s] gayness. (pp. 205–206)

Tropiano ultimately criticizes the episode because it did not include a declarative speech act that would settle Omar’s gayness definitively for Moesha’s audience. Thus, for Tropiano, the ambiguity of the coming out offers an opportunity for ambiguous decodings of the episode.

However, in a study on the production practices associated with Black gay characters within Black-cast sitcoms, of which the Moesha “Labels” episode is one, Martin (2015) interviewed episode writer Demetrius Bady about how his script troubled the notion of the coming out episode and its insistence on the speech act of gay declaration. Bady recalled,

The idea that Omar whispers [something] in Hakeem’s ear and the audience never hears him say [he’s gay] is a mirror reflection of how I was living my life. . . . The idea that I was saying it shouldn’t matter meant [Omar did] not acknowledge himself in a very verbal and definitive way.

(quoted in Martin, 2015, p. 656)

On the one hand, Bady suggests that Omar is somewhat autobiographical as a character and thus has made decisions similar to those Bady himself has made. On the other hand, and perhaps more important, Bady decenters the importance of the speech act, recognizing that it is mostly rooted in Foucauldian-style knowledge production that has more to do with the hearer of the speech act than with the speaker.

There is admittedly little work on Moesha, likely due to it having had only one episode that discussed Black gayness. However, unlike much of the research focused on Black gayness in White-/multicultural-cast sitcoms, Martin pay attention to industrial aspects such as the writers’ room and audience imaginations for the series alongside the textual features of the episode.

Noah’s Arc was a series that aired on Logo (the Viacom-owned network narrowcasted to reach lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers) from 2005 to 2006. It was groundbreaking for its distinction as the first series to feature four Black gay men as central protagonists. Mark Cunningham (2013) argues that the series—with the main characters comprising Noah and his friends Alex, Ricky, and Chance—is “a symbolic suggestion of the familial nature” of queer kinship networks that uses the ‘arc’ in the title not only represents the continuing storylines . . . but also reflects the first letter in each of his friend’s names” (p. 175). Via a contextual analysis that considers the series preproduction and production, Cunningham argues that Noah’s Arc ultimately existed beyond the boundaries of a stereotypic analysis and instead engages with the multifaceted nature of Blackness, Black masculinity, and Black gayness that depicted “Black gay male relationships in an uncensored and honest manner” (p. 173). Although Cunningham’s analysis is mostly textual, he begins his work by engaging historical representations of Black gayness within television as well as a brief engagement with Logo’s initial value proposition rooted in providing a diversity of LGBTQ voices on the new network.

Michael Johnson (2010) explores notions of Black authenticity within Noah’s Arc via textual analysis. Johnson asserts that the first season of Noah’s Arc refuses to deal with the lived experience of Blackness or graphic depictions of same-sex sex, particularly in comparison to Showtime’s Queer as Folk. One of Johnson’s conclusions is his assertion that Noah’s Arc “is important because it undermines the potential deconstruction of hegemonic masculinity associated with African American identity and the framework that . . . supports . . . the femininity equals gay arithmetic” (p. 43).

Gust Yep and John Elia (2007) examine notions of “authentic Blackness” on Noah’s Arc and how the series both queered and quared those notions along class, gender, and sexuality lines. They take E. Patrick Johnson’s notion of “quaring” as “a vernacular rearticulation and deployment of queer theory to accommodate racialized sexual knowledges” (p. 30). The authors forward that authentic Blackness is linked to social class in its association with working classedness and its segregation from White hegemony. Concomitantly, they find that Noah’s Arc complicates these notions by allowing for a certain degree of code switching. However, the authors believe that in terms of gender, the show upholds notions of “proper” gender performativity rooted in notions of acceptable male and female behaviors and therefore does not quare gender. In the final analysis, the authors find that homosexuality and Black authenticity are incompatible on Noah’s Arc. However, both Johnson and Yep and Elia never contend with the notion that “authenticity” is partly an affective audience response rather than something that can be observed universally because the very definition—like positive/negative—is slippery.

In a later study, Yep and Elia (2012) use homonormativity as a framework for their close reading of Noah’s Arc. They conclude that “the characters emulate their White middleclass counterparts and their material possessions (e.g., homes, cars, clothes, products, etc.) [and] are highly characteristic of the much cherished and sought after American middle-class life with all of its benefits including social capital” (p. 907). Thus, they argue, the series seeks to flatten gayness, as evidenced by an episode in which Noah is called “faggot” before being beaten by a group of White men. For them, the series frames the violence as a gay bashing, thus ignoring that Noah is gay and Black, thereby acknowledging his intersectional identity.

Ben Aslinger (2009) uses Noah’s Arc, alongside network-mate Round Trip Ticket (Logo, 2005), to help “move queer media studies toward an increased interrogation of mainstream media industries and the cultural labor performed by out gay and lesbian producers, writers, and executives” (p. 108). Aslinger suggests that although Logo positions itself as progressive for a “diverse queer audience” through programming such as Noah’s Arc, those efforts “are undermined by textual choices . . . that reinscribe class, race, and national hierarchies in queer cultures” (p. 107). His work is mostly interested in the industrial circulation of Noah’s Arc as the only Black gay-cast sitcom on an LGBT-focused network. However, he places Noah’s Arc within discourses related to the blinding Whiteness of mediated gay culture by examining the industrial, reception (via reviews of the series), and textual contexts.


There remains relatively little work on Black gayness within television comedy. On the one hand, there is some work that addresses Black gayness in “prestige” drama, including The Wire and Six Feet Under, as well as reality television, including Love and Hip Hop. On the other hand, this work is largely textual. Thus, scholars continue to treat Black gay representation as if it is unencumbered by social, cultural, industrial, and reception contexts. Ignoring these contexts results in participation in what Tony Bennett (1982, p. 9) calls a “methodological fiction.” At the same time, the research examined in this article has demonstrated that Black gayness within television comedy is not only visible but also a fascinating area of scholarly inquiry. Hopefully this body of research will come to be known as the first phase in the study of Black gayness within television comedy. Within the second phase, researchers should amplify their insistence on examining not just Black gay representation but also the systems that have produced those images. The second phase should include more methodological attention paid to the relationships between Black gayness and television industrial practices, audiences, and sociohistorical contextual analysis. Simply stated, instead of asking how Black gayness is represented, it should be asked why Black gayness is represented.

Further Reading

  • Aslinger, B. (2009). Creating a network for queer audiences at Logo TV. Popular Communication, 7(2), 107–121.
  • D’Acci, J. (2004). Cultural studies, television studies, and the crisis in the humanities. In L. Spigel & J. Olsson (Eds.), Television after TV: Essays on a medium in transition (pp. 418–446). Duke University Press.
  • Hall, S. (2005). Encoding/decoding in the television discourse. In D. M. Hunt (Ed.), Channeling Blackness: Studies on television and race in America (pp. 46–59). Oxford University Press.
  • Hemphill, E. (1995). In living color: Toms, coons, mammies, faggots and bucks. In C. K. Creekmur & A. Doty (Eds.), Out in culture: Gay, lesbian, and queer essays on popular culture (pp. 389–402). Duke University Press.
  • Johnson, E. P. (2003). The specter of the Black fag: Parody, blackness, and hetero/homosexual b(r)others. Queer Theory and Communication, 45(2–4), 217–234.
  • Martin, A. L., Jr. (2015). Scripting Black gayness: Television authorship in Black-cast sitcoms. Television and New Media, 16(7), 648–663.
  • Martin, A. L., Jr. (2020). For scholars . . . when studying the queer of color image alone is not enough. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 17(2), 69–74.
  • Martin, A. L., Jr. (2021). The generic closet: Black gayness and the Black-cast sitcom. Indiana University Press.
  • Riggs, M. (1995). Black macho revisited: Reflections of a Snap Queen! In C. K. Creekmur & A. Doty (Eds.), Out in culture: Gay, lesbian, and queer essays on popular culture (pp. 470–475). Duke University Press.
  • Warner, K. J. (2017). In the time of plastic representation. Film Quarterly, 71(2), 32–37.
  • Yep, G. A., & Elia, E. P. (2007). Queering/quaring Blackness in Noah’s Arc. In T. Peele (Ed.), Queering popular culture (pp. 27–40). Palgrave.


  • Aslinger, B. (2009). Creating a network for queer audiences at Logo TV. Popular Communication, 7(2), 107–121.
  • Becker, R. (2006). Gay TV and straight America. Rutgers University Press.
  • Bennett, T. (1982). Text and social process: The case of James Bond. Screen Education, 41(Winter/Spring), 3–14.
  • Bérubé, A. (2001). How gay stays White and what kind of White it stays. In B. Brander Rasmussen, E. Kineberg, I. J. Nexica, & M. Wray (Eds.), The making and unmaking of whiteness (pp. 234–265). Duke University Press.
  • Brown, L. (1977, August 8). Homosexuals move to protect civil rights on TV. The New York Times, p. 35.
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  • Cunningham, M. (2013). Nigger, coon, boy, punk, homo, faggot, Black man: Reconsidering established interpretations of masculinity, race, and sexuality through Noah’s Arc. In B. Smith Shomade (Ed.), Watching while Black: Centering the television of Black audiences (pp. 172–186). Rutgers University Press.
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  • Hall, S. (2005). Encoding/decoding in the television discourse. In D. M. Hunt (Ed.), Channeling Blackness: Studies on television and race in America (pp. 46–59). Oxford University Press.
  • Havens, T. (2013). Black television travels: African American media around the globe. New York University Press.
  • Hemphill, E. (1995). In living color: Toms, coons, mammies, faggots and bucks. In C. K. Creekmur & A. Doty (Eds.), Out in culture: Gay, lesbian, and queer essays on popular culture (pp. 389–402). Duke University Press.
  • Johnson, E. P. (2003a). The specter of the Black fag: Parody, blackness, and hetero/homosexual b(r)others. Queer Theory and Communication, 45(2–4), 217–234.
  • Johnson, E. P. (2003b). Appropriating blackness: Performance and the politics of authenticity. Duke University Press.
  • Johnson, M., Jr. (2010). After Noah’s Arc: Where do we go from here?” In J. Elledge (Ed.), Queers in American popular culture (pp. 35–46). ABC-CLIO.
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  • Martin, A. L., Jr. (2015). Scripting Black gayness: Television authorship in Black-cast sitcoms. Television and New Media, 16(7), 648–663.
  • Martin, A. L., Jr. (2018a). Generic closets: Sitcoms, audiences, and Black male gayness. In N. Marx & M. Sienkiewicz (Eds.), The comedy studies reader (pp. 222–233). University of Texas Press.
  • Martin, A. L., Jr. (2018b). The queer business of casting gay characters on U.S. television. Communication, Culture & Critique, 11(2), 282–297.
  • Martin, A. L., Jr. (2021). The generic closet: Black gayness and the Black-cast sitcom. Indiana University Press.
  • Murray, M. (2001). “The tendency to deprave and corrupt morals”: Regulation and irregular sexuality in Golden Age radio comedy. In M. Hilmes & J. Loviglio (Eds.), Radio reader: Essays in the cultural history of radio (pp. 135–156). Routledge.
  • Oh, D. C. (2020). “Opting out of that”: White feminism’s policing and disavowal of anti-racist critiques in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 37(2), 58–70.
  • Parsemain, A. L. (2019). The pedagogy of queer TV. Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Scott, D. (1994). Jungle fever: Black identity politics, White dick and the utopian bedroom. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 1(3), 299–321.
  • Shale, T. (1977, July 16). Fred Silverman on the cleanliness of Soap. Washington Post.
  • Squires, C. (2009). African Americans and the media. Polity.
  • Streitmatter, R. (2009). From “perverts” to “Fab Five”: The media’s changing depiction of gay men and lesbians. Routledge.
  • Tropiano, S. (2002). The prime time closet: A history of gays and lesbians on TV. Applause Books.
  • Walters, S. D. (2001). All the rage: The story of gay visibility in America. University of Chicago Press.
  • Walters, S. D. (2014). The tolerance trap: How God, genes, and good intentions are sabotaging gay equality. New York University Press.
  • Yep, G. A., & Elia, E. P. (2007). Queering/quaring Blackness in Noah’s Arc. In T. Peele (Ed.), Queering popular culture (pp. 27–40). Palgrave.
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