This year, the BET Awards telecast was uncharacteristically political. From Jesse Williams’ rousing, woke acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award to Usher’s anti-Trump jacket to several mentions of voting to stop Trump, it was arguably the most politically charged telecast in the network’s history.
There were powerful statements of blackness in Beyonce’s opening surprise performance of “Freedom” with Kendrick Lamar. The Prince tributes more than delivered. Especially Bilal’s sexually intense cover of “The Beautiful Ones”, Jennifer Hudson’s earth-rattling “Purple Rain”, Janelle Monae’s electric hits medley, and Sheila E’s return to form to close out the show. But even more powerful than all that was said-the silence.
There were only two references to Orlando throughout the night. Once during Terrance J’s plea for everyone to get out and vote. He referred to domestic terrorism at home without explicitly mentioning Orlando. Network president Debra Lee referred to the Orlando tragedy and used it as an opportunity to stump for gun law reform. But not once during the night did the words ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT community’ drop from anyone’s mouths. This is inclusive of out and proud Empire actor Jussie Smollett.
"But not once during the night did the words ‘gay’ or ‘LGBT community’ drop from anyone’s mouths."
Throughout the night, the network ran a commercial for their new reality series F in Fabulous, which features supremely flamboyant FIT student Stephon Mendoza. And all throughout June, the channel has been airing an ad for the Centric series Being: Sheryl Lee Ralph. In the promo, the actress discusses how a third of the original company of Dreamgirls was lost to AIDS. But still, even in a discussion about the plague that rocked our community, there’s no outright mention of gay people.
In 2016, how can black people still feel so afraid of homosexuality that they have to tiptoe around it? The attack in Orlando was an attack on LGBT people. And at that, it was an attack on LGBT people of color. And even more than that, it was a national tragedy. How could BET host a bloated program that lasted almost four hours and not offer a proper tribute to Orlando? It may not seem like a big deal to many. But to me, as a queer person of color who’s become accustomed to being left out of things, it was a glaring omission.
As an oppressed people, who are we to decide which struggle ranks higher in importance? How can we continue to campaign for more equal rights but deny them to our own people? It’s like…we’re invited to the party but we can’t have any of the food. We’re like a divorced couple that doesn’t want anyone to know that we’ve separated. BET is like an estranged parent that brags to friends about how great their gay children are, but doesn’t even include them on their Christmas card mailing list.
Furthermore, how can straight black people continue to steal from gay black culture without acknowledging our contribution? You can talk about how you slay and yassss queen all day. But those phrases came from the gay community. Sorry to break it to you, but Beyoncé didn’t make those up. And for the receipts, watch 1991’s Paris Is Burning.
BET is very aware of its audience’s ignorance. But instead of using its influence to push us forward as a people, they pander to it. Remember that anti-Obama, anti-gay marriage ad that ran on the network in select markets back in 2012? It was sponsored by the super PAC, Pivot Point Washington. It was a message of intolerance that appealed to BET’s core audience. I didn’t expect the channel to do a complete 180 in just four years. I’m not looking for them to host a float in the New York Pride Parade. But I am looking for some improvement. Network execs act as though their mouths will break out in blisters if they acknowledge the presence of gay black people. They value advertisers and viewers above inclusion. They give in to the herd mentality rather than working to build a better, stronger youth.
The same inclusion we want is the same inclusion this network and its award show want. Despite a stellar appearance from Beyoncé, many of the show’s A-list crossover success artists like Drake and The Weeknd don’t attend the show. The show doesn’t get recaps on Entertainment Weekly’s homepage. There’s no full red carpet review on the Today show. The award itself doesn’t carry anywhere near as much weight and prestige as other industry awards like the Oscar, Grammy, or Emmy. And surely, a more expansive mindset would lend itself to wider coverage. It is possible to show black pride without excluding everyone else.
Our current president of the United States is black. And guess what? He has been the biggest LGBT advocate in the White House in our country’s history. If our nation’s black leader can push for change, why can’t our nation’s black network do the same? Here’s a public service announcement to all black people: it’s okay to say the word ‘gay’. Your tongue won’t fall out. You won’t catch it like the common cold. You will survive.
To their credit, Debra Lee did pen an open letter in which she claimed BET stood in solidarity with the LGBT community. But which gesture would have had a bigger impact? Saying it on air or writing a letter that most viewers probably never read? BET also shared an article this past weekend about a mother who collapsed during the funeral of one of the Orlando victims. And last year, the network aired the controversial documentary, Holler If You Hear Me: Black And Gay In The Church. But still, none of this compassion and solidarity made it into the telecast.
"Queer POC aren’t recognized as worthy in our own communities."
The need for Black Pride events makes sense in the grand scheme of things. Queer POC aren’t recognized as worthy in our own communities. We’re barely celebrated in gay publications that are supposedly created for all LGBT people. We are left out of black celebrations. Where are we recognized and celebrated? We are largely ignored by most media and it’s fucking frustrating. We’re like orphan children that no one wants to claim.
That’s why zines like The Tenth are so important. Intelligent, poignant, top-quality expressions of queer blackness. We shouldn’t have to make our own publications and media. But when we do, this should be the gold standard.
But still the question remains: When will we start to move forward from this? When will black people realize that they can’t reach complete equality while still investing so much energy into blocking their own people from it? Equality can’t be conditional. It’s either all or nothing.