The Story of My Life: Too Gay? Too Black?

On writing what you know and embracing who you are.

I have a four-year anniversary coming up on Sunday, two days before Election Day. November 4, 2014, the day after I started a new job in my then-new homebase of Sydney, Australia, and the day of the last U.S. midterms, was also the day I self-published my first book, Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World.

I guess you could say I found inspiration in a big black penis. It was the one dangling so freely, in all its veiny, oversized glory, in Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1980 black and white photograph “Man in a Polyester Suit.”

I first heard of Mapplethorpe in September of 1989, six months after his death from AIDS complications at age 42, when a nude photo he had taken of Susan Sarandon graced the cover of Esquire magazine, which I subscribed to at the time.

I wouldn’t become familiar with more of his work, though, until circa 1992-93 when my first boyfriend, Derek, took me to an exhibition of his photos in New York City. The collection featured selections from his series of black and white shots of black men in various states of undress (usually undressed), eroticized and, some have said, objectified.

I was kind of impressed and kind of appalled. After nearly two and a half decades of having white beauty shoved down my eyeballs, it was a welcome change to finally see black beauty represented in art, but did it have to presented exclusively in such a highly sexualized way?

Could we not be beautiful with clothes on, too? Back in the ’70s, I saw a movie on TV in which the black heroine described the black male antagonist as “a piece of meat with eyes.” I kept thinking of that scene as I walked through the exhibit. Was that all black men were to Mapplethorpe (and to so many other gay white men): pieces of well-done meat with eyes?

My introduction to the “Man”

Of all the black men in black and white that I saw that day, I can’t recall any being the one in the polyester suit, which was just as well. Given that I was probably more kind of appalled than impressed by Mapplethorpe’s meat market, I doubt I would have been happy to see him.

I never might have gotten to see him were it not for my brother Alexi, who emailed the image to me one morning while we were brainstorming ideas for the cover of the book I already had been working on for the better part of a year.

Although I still had issues with Mapplethorpe’s representation of faceless black male beauty, I couldn’t get the “Man” out of my head. The photo was graphic, cheap (literally — polyester has long been synonymous with low-budget tacky), and crude (objectification at its most anonymous — the model was a “Man” without a face). Yet, it perfectly captured so much of what had been weighing on my mind and grating on my nerves since I left New York City for Buenos Aires in 2006.

That one photograph encapsulated the title of my book, which satirized the question that gay men — and occasionally women — abroad were most likely to ask right after “Where are you from?”: “Is it true what they say about black men?”

For a while, I considered using the “Man in a Polyester Suit” image for the cover of my book and even requested permission from Mapplethorpe’s estate. They denied my request, explaining that they granted use of Mapplethorpe’s images only for pamphlets and fliers promoting exhibitions of the photographer’s work.

In hindsight, that was probably a good thing. Once I found a Cape Town-based photographer to shoot my then-yet-to-be-decided-on cover image (I was impressed by the fantastical quality of his work, which, at its most compelling, looked like an interplay between photography and animation), he concocted a concept that paid homage to Mapplethorpe’s “Man” without copying him, while accurately and colorfully illustrating the title of my book.

He nailed the humor in it, pushed the envelope toward the edge, and still left enough to the imagination for my book to avoid being banned for indecent exposure.

But that’s so… gay

After the book cover was shot and designed, the majority of people I presented it to immediately got the joke (and every single person I showed it to in person laughed), but there was one recurrent concern: “Is it too gay?” Interestingly, the majority of people who asked were gay, which made me wonder. If my presumed primary audience was questioning my good judgment, was everyone else just being too politically correct to say anything?

Was it too gay?

Next question: What exactly is “too gay”? Someone said the cover model’s metrosexual attire. Perhaps. Others mentioned the title, as if the black myth that spawned it only applied to gay men. I believed they all were bringing their knowledge of the author to their perception of the cover image and the title. I wasn’t convinced that people who didn’t know me would have immediately seen it the same way.

The “Too gay?” question reeked of internalized homophobia and perhaps even the slight stench of heterophobia. It was condescending to so-called “gay” things (Does anyone ever accuse anything of being “too straight”?) while underestimating the ability of straight people to think outside of their own box.

It echoed the sort of thinking that led TV and film studios to ignore homosexuality for years, even after it was no longer taboo. “Straight people aren’t interested in gay stories,” Hollywood execs probably declared during pitch meetings. That’s as ridiculous as saying that white people don’t want to see black people onscreen. If people only wanted entertainment that reflected themselves, there’d be no such thing as zombies.

And what would have been the alternative to “too gay” anyway? Is It True What They Say About Black Men? was a memoir written by a gay black man. Should I have tried to sell it as a straight memoir so that readers could have been surprised in chapter one when I woke up in bed with a handsome male lawyer in Buenos Aires?

Should I have toned down the race element, starting with the title? After reading the book (and admitting that she didn’t make it to the end), one friend, a white woman, said that by regularly returning to the topic of racism, the book came across as preachy. I wondered if she would have said the same thing about a white female traveler/writer recounting her numerous encounters with sexism and misogyny abroad.

Fact: Many white people don’t want to hear about racism. That much I knew. Would they want to read about it? Would they be afraid of having to face their own guilt, or their own denial, or their own racism. Should I have whitewashed my story in order to make them more comfortable, to get them to keep reading to the end?

I decided that the comfort of white readers wasn’t my concern. Just like women telling their #MeToo stories today shouldn’t edit themselves to protect the feelings of poor, beleaguered, misunderstood men, I couldn’t edit my story so that white people would have an easier read.

More than a gay, black book

A few friends voiced a more legitimate concern. By offering such a literal visual take on the title, did the fact that it wasn’t just a gay story or a black story but also a love story as well as a travelogue get lost? If people didn’t bother to read the subtitle — Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World” — would they get that it was more than a gay, black book?

I wasn’t 100 percent convinced that they would, but in the end, I decided to throw the chips in the air and let them fall where they may. I opted for a cover with a single strong image rather than a cluttered one that tried to be so many things that it ended up being nothing at all. (Someone suggested a collage of passport stamps on a map of the world.) At the very least, the title and cover image’s send-up of both the black myth and “Man in a Polyester Suit” would grab people’s attention, which might encourage them to investigate further.

And maybe, I thought — hoped — that the gay and black angle would be strong enough selling points to attract mainstream (i.e., straight and white) readers? Did the movie studio and director Ang Lee try to market the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain as a straight love story? The movie poster accurately reflected both the film and the 1997 Annie Proulx short story on which it was based, and it still went on to gross $178 million worldwide.

Brokeback Mountain
proved that if you tell an engaging story, people will respond to it, regardless of the sexual orientation of the main characters. Spinning a gay tale with universal appeal might not have been as easy as creating a straight love story — say, Romeo and Juliet — that resonates with gay readers, but that didn’t make it an impossible dream.

The mainstreaming of gay

I’m not saying that Is It True What They Say About Black Men? is comparable to Romeo and Juliet, or to Brokeback Mountain, or even to Moonlight, which, like my book, explored being black, being gay, and being in love. And it still won the Best Picture Oscar over the straight white romance La La Land!

What I am saying is that transparency and honesty can be well-received, though that wasn’t as apparent four years ago as it is today. Gay is more integrated into the mainstream in 2018 than it was in 2014, as the successful reboots of Queer Eye and Will & Grace prove. Unless you’re courting straight-acting on Grindr, “too gay” is rarely a thing anymore.

While 2014 was a different world, one in which being popular and gay often meant being able to pass for straight, for me, being out and proud required truth in advertisement. How could I have called myself a proud, gay, black man if I was afraid that a book about my own life was too gay, or too black?

How could I hold my head up while hiding behind a whitewashed book cover, trying to pass for straight, trying to pass for white, and trying to be as neutral as possible while praying that nobody would mind when they found out who I really was on page one?

“Too gay” could have been a turn-off, but “not gay enough” could have gotten my first book lost in the shuffle on Amazon. Meanwhile, pushing the travelogue angle to the forefront with a collage of passport stamps on a map of the world might have meant being lumped into an oversaturated market.

Ultimately, it was a crapshoot. I could neither predict nor control how people would react to the cover any more than I could have influenced how people would react to the contents within. What happened after I sent the book out into the world would be up to everyone but me.

What happened before that, however, was all on me.

“Go big or go home,” my photographer kept repeating while we were shooting the cover. Maybe he was talking about the sock that was enhancing the crotch of his model (me!), but I thought it also might apply to the book cover, the book title, and the book itself. If I had to do it all again, I might go even bigger.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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