Jason Howard Green

Jason Howard Green

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Loss of Black Queer Icons in 2021


Happy New Year to you!!! Let's be real - 2021 SUCKED!  The whole year (just like 2020) was soiled with tragedy.  It started with the Capital insurrection at the beginning of the year.  It ended with the loss of one of the nation's greatest treasures - Betty White.  For me, there were some losses that happened this year that hit me just a little bit more than some of the others.  I am a black queer man.  I live in this space  of  intersectionality.  When  we  lose  other  individuals  that  occupy  this  same  space  (other individuals that exist in the space of black and queer),  the cut seems to be just a little bit deeper.  2021 took some of those individuals as well.

On September 6, we loss the phenomenal actor Michael K. Williams.  I do not know much about Williams personal life.  He never said he was a gay man. He never said he was not a gay man.  He has said regarding his sexuality that it was nobody's business and that for the most part "I am a work in progress" I do know that for black gay representation in the media - Michael K. Williams changed the game.  He is the reason I can't buy in the concept that queer characters should only be played by queer people.  I don't think a person has to profess who they sleep with or confess their gender identity in order to get a part.  I believe that the person who performs best in the casting call is the person who should get the part.  His portrayal of Omar on The Wire was GROUNDBREAKING!!!  In the series Hap and Leonard, he played the complicated role of Leonard, an out same-gender loving man that (along with his friend Hap) couldn't seem to keep themselves out of trouble.  He was part of the cast of R. Kelly's revolutionary Trapped In the Closet.  He played Ken Jones in the series When We Rise that documents the evolution of LGBTQ rights in America.  And again in the HBO series Lovecraft Country, he brings to life another complicated, queer character.  I swear it seems that almost every character he plays is queer or queer adjacent.  How this man has never received a GLAAD award is beyond me.  It was a very surreal moment for me when I learned about his passing.  It was a selfish thought but my immediate first reaction was "wow, I won't get to see him bring these phenomenal characters to life anymore."  But this moment was bigger than that.  I think for many black queer folks, we took this loss personal because for many of us, we saw ourselves on the screen when we saw him in many of the roles he took on.  RIP Michael.  Your work will always be treasured and you will always be remembered.

2021 also took the life of a black gay icon - Reverened Carl Bean.  Bean was the founder of the Unity Fellowship Church, a congregation that was welcoming to and embracing of black LGBTQ folks. Let's not downplay this.  The church is singlehandedly responsible for most  of the harm done to members of the queer community.  If we talk about institutionalized homophobia, social stigma and spirtual violence, the root of them all is the church.  Carl Bean created a space for black queer folks to embrace their spirituality and if we're being honest, this probably saved a few lives.  But before he started the church, Bean was a singer in the disco era.  If you ask anyone about the gay anthem "I Was Born This Way" they will immediately think about the hit by Lady Gaga.  But if you want to hear a real gay anthem, listen to the hit with the same title by Carl Bean.  His version of the song came out in 1975, over a decade before Stephani Germanotta was even born. Don't get it wrong, Gaga's version is great.  But Carl Bean's version has my heart.  This loss was another phenomenal loss for black queer folks.

The loss of bell hooks was the loss of a big voice.  Author.  Professor.  Activist.  hooks spoke and wrote on issues of race and gender and intersectionality and capitalism.  As a professor, she taught at some of our nation's most prestegious campuses including Stanford and Yale.  She has countless book titles under her belt.  Some of them include And There We WeptAin't I A Women: Black Women and Feminism, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, and Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood I feel like bell hooks has always been far ahead of the curve.  She was not reactionary when it came to how we see and discuss issues of race and gender and sexuality, she was was the voice that was generating theory and creating the narrative and the space for thinking critically about these and all social issues.  The loss of bell hooks is a loss for the African-American community, the LGBTQ community, the feminist community and the academic sphere.

The Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  What can I say about this global phenom that was not said by the rest of the world when he died?  He was the living embodiment of compassion and empathy and love and peace.  And he wanted these things for ALL.  He  was not a queer person but he once said "If I go to heaven and find a homophobic God, I will tell him I prefer the other place!"  He believed in equal rights for the LGBTQ community.   I think my favorite quote of his is "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppresor.  If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."  This is why white voices cannot be neutral regarding the Black Lives Matter movement.  This is why cis men cannot be silent regarding the Me Too movement.  Neutrality and silence helps the oppresor and hurts the marginalized.  Desmond Tutu - you have left a void in the world that no one can fill.

I shared earlier that one of the roles that Michael K. Williams played was that of Ken Jones in the series When We Rise.  That role was based on a real person.  Ken Jones was a Navy vet that served three tours in Vietnam.  After he left the military in 1973 and he moved to the Castro and began working for San Francisco Pride.  He would lead this organization for some time and would only leave in 1991 to focus on police reform after the police beating of Rodney King.  He was an activist for the LGBTQ community, he educated folks on HIV/AIDS, and he was a loud voice on the issue of police reform.  I am an activist for the LGBTQ community.  I have educated folks on HIV/ AIDS.  I believe we need reform in many different areas of law enforcement and the judiciary process.  As I learned about this man's story, I saw myself.  Ken Jones passed away on January 13, 2021 at the age of 70 following a battle with bladder cancer.  The loss of Jones was another significant loss for the black queer community.

2021 is over.  2022 is here.  2021 was horrible.  Who knows what this year will bring.  For LGBTQ African-Americans, we have lost some big voices.  Michael K. Williams, you potrayal of black queer men was always an awe to see.  You brought to life some characters that me and my peers will revel in and reflect on for many years to come.  Reverend Carl Bean, thank you creating a space where black queer folks that believe in God can go and worship and not feel ashamed or ostracized or villified. bell hooks thank you for your voice and your pen and your time.  When it comes to addressing social issues critically and simultaneously living your life authentically, you are the prototype.  Archbishop Tutu, you never hesitated to raise your voice for everyone and specifically said the world should be a welcoming and safe place for LGBTQ folks; and you did this while existing in a space that historically has demonized queer folks, and for this I say thank you.  And Ken Jones, in you I see myself.  Your story of putting your life on the line on behalf of your country while serving in the Navy, then transitioning to working on behalf of queer folks and people living with HIV/AIDS while living in San Francisco, and then to recognizing the harassment and abuse of black folks by the police and working tirelessly for police reform - you sir were a force to be reckoned with and again - for the black queer community - what a loss.  

All of these individuals are personal heroes of mine.  But as I close I now find myself asking this question - who is going to fill these shoes?