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Interview

Making Black Gay Lives Matter: A Conversation With Darryl Stephens on the Impact of Joseph Beam (and Noah's Arc)

December 11, 2017

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DS: For even those of us who were not necessarily as fabulous as those characters, those of us who were a little more toward the middle of the spectrum from hyper-masculine to super-fabulous, I feel like [it] even [gave] us permission, the rest of us permission, to sort of be comfortable in those so-called sissified moments -- if we're just a little drunk and a "girl" comes out of our mouth; it was OK, finally, to be that guy.

That element of it, there was really no way I could see [it] coming. I didn't really even recognize it until probably a year afterwards, or sometime in the year after the show aired, when I really started interacting with people, particularly young people, particularly people who were, you know, closer to the fabulous side of the spectrum.

One of the first people whom I interacted with after the show aired was this kid named Chocolate. I was in New York. I was in the Village. And this person, whose gender was not clear -- but I would say they were identifying as female, I'm assuming -- they were so excited to see me.

And, you know, people would be like, "Oh, you're on that show!" I'd experienced that. But this person freaked out. This person was jumping up and down, kind of losing [their] shit.

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Yeah. I was in my own little world. And this person stopped me and was running around in circles, around me and my group of friends, screaming about how powerful it was that they finally saw themselves on television. And for years after that, I couldn't tell the story without getting emotional. Because it didn't even occur to me that there were people who were just completely invisible in the media.

I mean, we had Will & Grace, at that point; we had Queer As Folk. I want to say even Keith on Six Feet Under was somewhere around that time. So, we had a black man who was gay for a while. That was crazy. We had the characters from Rent. But, if you weren't seeing musicals on Broadway and you didn't have cable -- you know, HBO -- at that time, or even if you did and you didn't quite relate to Keith, there was really no one else, no one else there, right?

KF: Right. Or if they were on TV, they all had white boyfriends, or non-black boyfriends.

DS: Or they were in the hair salon, and they were snapping, and they were doing -- you know, they had jokes -- but they weren't people. They didn't have stories. They didn't have love lives or families, right?

Even if you look at the timeline -- I mean, I'm not going to take credit for this, give the show credit for this, necessarily, but really, black gay men in the media, with reality shows, and housewives, and all that shit, became a lot more open and free. I'd say that they obviously existed that whole time. We were always there. But there was definitely a new appreciation, and a new, almost like a celebration of gay men, who were not trying to hide it. I feel like the timing of that with our show is kind of uncanny.

When the show first came out, no shit, we got a lot of shit from the hyper-masculine gays, or the conservative black gays, who felt like we were doing a disservice to the community.

KF: I cursed a number of people out on your behalf in those days.

DS: Yeah.

I was playing the character as he was written and as I understood him. But the fact that all of us were on the spectrum of fabulous, it didn't even occur to me that that was going to upset so many people -- that we weren't hiding.

I'm out and gay in my life. I'm doing what I want to do. I'm not necessarily wearing midriff tops and giant flowers on my neck. But, you know, in college I was doing versions of that. You know what I mean? I sort of came through.

KF: I was very familiar with the crop top, before they had a resurgence among straight boys. My friends love to remind me of that now.

DS: To your credit. But, yeah. There was a period when I was probably not quite as, but close to as, fabulous as these characters and didn't really think of it as being that crazy. Because obviously I was in the Bay Area, and it wasn't that crazy. We could do what we wanted at Berkeley.

But many people in the country were not exposed to that culture, were not exposed to that permission, even. I think that it was really, really gratifying, and also empowering, for me to experience that firsthand -- people responding with that firsthand -- because that opened my eyes to how much work we still have to do. How much. How many people still need to be reached and saved -- not saved, but encouraged to save themselves.

KF: Yeah. And I think you all should; I think you should take credit for that. I do think that there are things in pop culture that actually do change -- things that happen that actually do move the needle in a direction, right? And that can be for better or for worse. I think, in this case, for better. And I think you all should absolutely take credit for that.

DS: Thank you.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Kenyon Farrow is the senior editor of TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Kenyon on Twitter: @kenyonfarrow.

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