Journalist Diane Haithman filed this report for Deadline about last night’s Writers Guild of America, West, meeting for all leaders in the entertainment industry deeply interested in the realistic portrayal of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender characters that also happen to be black:
I expected a short RSVP list for WGAW’s Tuesday night panel Flipping the Script: Beyond Homophobia in Black Hollywood. It doesn’t take a demographics expert to notice that, in the mainstream Hollywood product, there just aren’t a lot of African American LGBT characters waiting to be discussed. (FYI: I am black though not gay.) But flip that script: A capacity crowd packed the room for this lively discussion, proving there are plenty of people in the industry who not only know that LGBT is not the acronym for some new cable TV network, but want to explore the ways that biases toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Hollywood are further complicated by race.
Writer and panelist Jasmine Love (The District) doesn’t much like the term homophobia, preferring the term “heterosexism.” Phobia, she said, means fear, and “it’s easier for people to think that they are afraid” than biased. Heterosexism, she said, is like racism — an institutionalized bias that affects jobs and advancement: “It means: ‘You can’t write heterosexual stories,’ or ‘You can’t work here,’ ” she said.
Producer-director Paris Barclay (The Treatment) said that, despite the presence of sympathetic gay characters on popular TV series including Glee and Modern Family, he is disturbed that young industry players think the phrase “That’s so gay” – read, “That’s so lame” – is just the funniest.
The rest of the panel: Quincy LeNear and Deondray Gossett (writers-producers-directors, The DL Chronicles); Maurice Jamal (writer-producer-director, Chappelle’s Show); Tim McNeal (vice president, talent development and diversity, Disney/ABC Television); Tajamika Paxton (GLAAD director of entertainment media) and last-minute panel addition Wilson Cruz, perhaps best known for his portrayal of a bisexual teenager on My So-Called Life and a recurring character on the gay-themed cable series Noah’s Arc. Sheryl Lee Ralph, one of Broadway’s original Dream Girls, moderated.
Admittedly, there was some preaching to the choir; the fact that the meeting was a joint effort of WGA’s committees for black writers and gay writers provided a virtual guarantee that many attendees would be LBGT, black, or both. And any panel of successful Hollywood players is bound to attract wanna-be’s who fit whatever category that panel represents, jostling to hand over their business cards at the end. Still, the issues raised Tuesday night could apply to any aspiring writer/director/producer/actor who isn’t young, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied and, as panelist McNeal pointed out, actively networking and socializing on the Westside. “Move to the Palisades. Move to Malibu,” McNeal said bluntly. “We’re not invited to those [parties]…we need to infiltrate that world where the power resides.”
Jamal seconded the notion that Hollywood success is not just about money, but about breaking into a club whose members are comfortable doing lunch with people who look like themselves. “It’s not just about the bottom line,” he said. Fox, the CW and UPN all built their success on urban programming, Jamal said, but “as soon as they got the numbers that they needed, they dumped those shows and put on Gossip Girl. ”
The panel notably featured more males than females, which led to a discussion about which is tougher in Hollywood – being gay and black, or lesbian and black. Well, probably lesbian, acknowledged LeNear. “I call it the glass closet,” he said. But apparently not as tough as being a transgender character on screen: writer Love quoted the statistic that transgender characters are 16 percent more likely to be murdered on screen than the rest of the population.
In an industry where it’s difficult for anyone – even the YWMHM community (that’s young-white-male-hetero-Malibu) – to get a foot in the door, the big question of the evening seemed to be whether you should come out before you break in. Most of the panelists seemed to think so – even if their agents sometimes tell them otherwise. “It’s about coming out,” insisted Cruz. “Take it from someone who knows; it will inform your art…it becomes less masturbatory. It’s not just for yourself.”
Barclay, an industry veteran at age 53, said he has become more adamant about being “out” since he began connecting with young people via the Internet who are seeking role models by Googling the search phrase “gay and black.” “There’s this little mixed-race kid in England who always finds me,” he joked. “If I ignore him, he’ll kill himself.” And if being out costs him a job, Barclay said: “I don’t want to help their asses anyway.”
Love was more cautious – something she attributes to being a woman in Hollywood, which, lesbian or not, puts her “on a more precarious economic limb” than her male counterparts. Encouraging industry professionals to come out “comes from a place of privilege,” she said. “We don’t have a right to ask people to come out, because we don’t know their stories.” (Photo #2 from left: Wilson Cruz, Tajamika Paxton. Photo #3: Maurice Jamal.)