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

Senior Editor
Joseph Beam
Joseph Beam
Philadelphia Gay News

Nearly 30 years after his death from AIDS, black gay writer and activist Joseph Beam is inspiring a new generation of black gay men. In fact, a new organization, Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), used his name as inspiration. On Dec. 14, BEAM is hosting an event in Los Angeles honoring his birthday with a public reading and discussion of his work. Actor Darryl Stephens, best known for playing the lead role in Logo TV's landmark series, Noah's Arc, will be among them. TheBody.com's senior editor Kenyon Farrow spoke to Stephens about how they both discovered Beam, as well as the importance of making black gay lives matter.

Kenyon Farrow: Tell me about your relationship to Joseph Beam's work and why it is important to you to participate in the upcoming event.

Darryl Stephens: Well, quite honestly, Yolo Akili really brought him into focus for me. I was aware of Joseph Beam years ago. I went to school in Berkeley in the early '90s. And I would say that there was still a very present and significant, I would call it, poet-warrior presence in Berkeley, probably largely rooted in Oakland, but a lot of queer people of color doing poetry.

Joseph Beam came up at that point. But when Yolo started talking to me about this, and I did some research, I became fascinated by what, in many ways, I had really taken for granted. I came up at a point when the conversations were probably already happening. This was in the Bay Area in the early '90s, so we were already talking about prevention at that point, and detection, as opposed to the mid-'80s when it was all about "what the fuck is happening?" And "how are we going to -- ?" "Who is going to save us?" And "what is the government doing?"

Related: Untying Tongues: A Conversation With Darryl Stephens on Joseph Beam, Black Gay Men, and Ending HIV Stigma

We had already sort of mobilized -- we, meaning, they, because I was a child. But folks had mobilized around prevention and detection. And so, there was already this conversation about queer people of color happening that I sort of assumed had always been happening.

So, I kind of took for granted that they were always there and didn't really know -- didn't have a historical context for when they had started and who had been instrumental in bringing them to the fore.

So then, Yolo approached me a few weeks ago and mentioned Joseph Beam. I said, "Yeah, I'm familiar with him. I remember Joseph Beam." But I hadn't really done enough research, in terms of recognizing his role in curating all of this gay black literature. So, I'm learning with the people who are coming to the show, really.

KF: Yeah. It's funny. The way I came to Joseph Beam's work -- I'm from Cleveland, born and raised. When I was in high school -- I think you and I are the same age, same year, in fact. So, like, early '90s, like, '91-'92, I think my junior/senior year in high school, I went to the library, Cleveland Heights Public Library, to get some books out on Zora Neale Hurston for a thing I was doing for my African-American history class.

I'm in the aisle of black people's books at this library, and I saw the title In the Life. And I knew what that meant, even then. And it was kind of like buying condoms out of CVS for the first time.

DS: Yeah. For sure. Absolutely. Absolutely.

KF: I was like looking around, like, "Oh, I want to get this book." So, you know, [I] pulled it off. And then right next to it was Brother to Brother. That was already out at the time, too. And then I got the Zora Neale Hurston books I wanted and then, like, got the nerve to go up to the counter. And I had In the Life and Brother to Brother stacked under the Zora Neale Hurston books.

Darryl Stephens
Darryl Stephens
Logan Alexander

DS: Oh, my God. That's like when kids buy porn in the store, at like 7-Eleven, and they put comic books on top of it.

KF: It was exactly like that. And then I went home, and I put those two books in between my bed, the mattress.

DS: Yes. Wow. You are talking much earlier than I did. I would say I was not really exposed to it at all until I got to college. You jumped in at the end of high school.

KF: Yeah. I guess, thank your local public library. Because it was really that kind of random. I had actually seen Tongues Untied, but I didn't make the connection. But that's a whole 'nother story, how I saw Tongues Untied at, like, 14 years old.

DS: How did you see Tongues Untied in high school? Why was I so sheltered in my upbringing?

KF: Well, OK. Some of it has to do with my mom. My mom, first of all, was very politically active. So, we always had to watch every PBS documentary -- you know, all of them, Eyes on the Prize, all 100 hours of it, and everything else.

DS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We watched that. We watched that. But nothing touching on anything gay.

KF: Yeah. So, Tongues Untied, when it premiered -- I want to say on PBS in '89/'90 when I was like 14/15 -- I think two reasons [led to my seeing it]. One is, my mother had a bunch of gay friends and lesbian friends, or whatever. And pretty much, in my extended family, queer folks were around, and there was no secret as to the fact that they were queer and whatever. So, I kind of grew up around a bunch of queer folks. So, there was that. Two: My mother, she knew I was one of the children. And so, I think she also, on the sly, was like, "Let me get some resources for this honey over here, sitting, perched, watching All My Children all day."

DS: I mean, you recognize, obviously, now how powerful and how valuable that is, right?

KF: Yeah. I do recognize, totally, how powerful it was. So, I think the other reason: One of my mother's best friends, my uncle Roger, growing up -- actually, he had died tragically a few years before. Literally was found dead by his brother (who was also like an extended family member of ours) on Easter Sunday, shot dead in his apartment five times. Same story we hear about black gay men and trans women all the time: no signs of forced entry, etc., etc. Right? And so, I think my mother was still, in hindsight, kind of also just grappling with his death. And also, just being this political person, responding to the big political storm Tongues Untied had created. She was like, "We're going to watch this."

So, we watched it. I say all that to say Joseph Beam's work is in Tongues Untied, but I didn't know it at the time, so then two or three years later, when I was older in high school, then I came across the actual writing, through trying to sneak in. Which also sounds ridiculous, to tell you that my mother sat us down, and we watched Tongues Untied -- me and my two sisters and my mom -- but I'm still trying to sneak.

DS: And then, you're sneaking the literature.

KF: And also trying to sneak the literature. Like, what did I think I was doing? Anyway.

DS: That's funny.

KF: This book that came out a few years ago, Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam's Call, one of the things I learned [was] from one of the editors, Charles Stephens, who said in an interview that Joseph Beam said to Essex Hemphill in a letter, right when In the Life was about to come out, that he felt like he was sort of idolized in the community for his work but didn't feel like people really dealt with him as a person.

And so, I'm just curious for you to talk a little bit about your experience in that respect. You were one of the few people, around 2005 when Noah's Arc first premiered on Logo, [who] I think really helped make actual black gay men visible -- we actually aren't just on the DL and we actually have lives.... I'm just curious about how you've had to navigate that role, both being somebody that is sort of hyper-visible in the community, but then, how you negotiate people also recognizing you as a multifaceted person.

DS: I would say that, for the first few years, it was really challenging for me. I didn't necessarily anticipate the reaction that the show would get. I mean, you really can't, right? You don't know how people will receive it.

And we were also being very bold. Patrik [-Ian Polk], the creator, was being very bold, in terms of having the sort of hero be this soft-spoken, so-called sissy, essentially, right?

As you mentioned, at that point, 2005, DL culture was everything. If you were black and gay and not wearing saggy jeans and a fitted cap, you were not really on the radar.

KF: Tell me about it.

DS: Really? Right? It's like, like, we were invisible.

KF: Right.

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.

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.