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12 min

Black, sexual and gay

Noah's Arc is to black gay maledom what The Cosby Show was to mainstream America

'THERE'S NOT A LOT OF MY PEOPLE AROUND TO EAT.' Playwright Berend McKenzie is very attracted to black men but says it boils down to a lack of opportunity in Vancouver. Credit: Courtesy of Berend McKenzie

“You interrupted my four-gy for this?” a more than exasperated Ricky protests as his best buds Noah, Alex and Chance summon him to a conference call.

Noah, the sensitive, artsy, romantic of the lot is having yet another Am-I-With-Mr-Right crisis.

“Now is really not a good time,” Ricky complains as he does his best to guide the groping hands and wandering mouths of two of his hook-ups, while flicking away the enthusiastic ear nibbles of the third.

“When is it ever a good time for you, Ricky wit’ your ’ho-ish ass?” counters Alex.

Ricky, Alex, Chance and Noah form the fulcrum of the ensemble cast that drives Noah’s Arc. The Logo/OutTV show is billed as a comedy about drama — an all-black-gay-male comedy about black-gay-male drama, that is.

What The Cosby Show did for heightening the visibility of straight black middle-class America in the 1980s, Noah’s Arc does for black gay maledom.

It’s a celebratory vehicle that makes the lives and sexuality of black gay men visible to mainstream North America in general, and to African-Americans and the broader queer community in particular.

The series is groundbreaking even if the acting is at times artificial and its presentation of black gay male lives utopian. (Most of the men are muscled eye candy; apart from a Latino or two, the LA that plays backdrop to the Arc is unbelievably bereft of ethnic groups other than African-American; there are all-black gay clubs, not unheard of in New York, Chicago, Atlanta or Detroit, but certainly a completely foreign concept in a city like Vancouver; and Noah, the supposed starving artist of the group, is always at his haute-couture best, while tooling around in a too-cute convertible).

Shortcomings aside, Noah’s Arc manages to treat several issues almost never addressed through the vehicle of black skin in the media: colourism, body image, phobia of effeminate men (cleverly dubbed effemina-phobia in the show), gaybashing, HIV/AIDS, monogamy, non-monogamy and being on the down low.

“There were no shows about black men so I really wanted the focus to be on black men — clear and clean,” says Patrik-Ian Polk, the series’ creator/producer.

“In however many years of Queer As Folk — five, six years of Queer As Folk — they never really had any significant characters of colour and no one seemed to bat an eye,” he points out.

Noah’s Arc is “about a clique of friends,” he explains. “Certainly, gay men do tend to form these groups, these sort of makeshift families and support systems that maybe they’re lacking at home, or maybe their families aren’t as accepting, or even if they are accepting, they really can’t share their lives completely, because they’re not completely comfortable.”

Feedback about the series is constant, he says.

“It’s just become a part of the culture. I’ve seen our fan base grow steadily just based on the mail that we get and the people that come out to see us when we do appearances.

“Young guys saying, ‘You helped me come to terms with who I am, you helped me come out to my family. Or older guys saying, ‘I’ve been out to my family for years but by showing my mom your show we can actually talk about my lifestyle for the first time because she saw some examples of it on your show,” Polk recounts.

“So there’s a lot of that, the show serving as a tool for people either becoming more comfortable with their sexuality or helping others become more comfortable with their sexuality, or just making the decision to tell other people about their sexuality.”

***
 

Christopher Hunte (aka Vancouver drag sensation Symone) got hooked on Noah’s Arc while vegging on his sofa nursing arm and foot injuries last spring.

He says the show gave him insight into gay pop culture in a way he hadn’t seen tackled before.

“The character development was not woe-is-me. These were strong black characters that were either fashionable, funny, were pieces of meat — and to look at that [made me] realize we’ve come a long way from the stereotypical Flip Wilson to strong black gay characters that gave me a sort of male gay identity.”

“I liked the fact that the characters were all black and didn’t stray away from that.

“It was very important because we had Queer As Folk that had all-white characters. We had Friends. They were making a million dollars an episode and they only decided [to add] a black character — a supporting black character — in their last season.

“To see an all-black cast, doing all-black things, going to all-black clubs — it lets people know we’re here,” Hunte contends. “It’s not about black power; it’s about education and giving middle America or middle Canada or white Canada, insight into what it’s like in blackdom.”

That the characters are highly sexual gay men is another huge plus, Hunte says.

In the world of Noah’s Arc, black men of all different shades and hues are hooking up: Alex, the dark-skinned gossip queen who dabbles in drag is nesting with the light-skinned, over-the-top muscle-bound porn star, Trey; Noah, a shade or two lighter than Alex, gets play from black men across the spectrum but his heart belongs to a man similar in skin colour to him; academic, finicky Chance is also involved with a lighter-skinned man, and Ricky, the slut, sleeps with anything with colour.

The Arc’s idyllic, black gay male landscape and Vancouver’s actual scene couldn’t be more markedly different — a contrast that is visually and figuratively black and white.

“Here in Vancouver, when two black men approach each other,” Hunte says it comes as almost a shock.

“It’s, ‘Oh, hey, how yuh doin’?’ Heads up. You chat, because oh-my-goodness, guess what, we’re black people who are talking to each other. It doesn’t happen in this city,” Hunte says, because there are so few.

Hunte remembers going to Numbers one evening and seeing seven black people on an off-night.

“What I mean by an off-night, it wasn’t a Saturday night where people may have come up from Seattle. It was like a Wednesday night where, all of a sudden, it looked like there must be a movie in town because there’s some black people here — and it was beautiful to see,” he recalls.

“We were all like, ‘Hey guys!’ It was like a social club as opposed to okay, well I’m usually the black guy, there’s not a lot of black guys here.

“It wasn’t that,” he says. “It was the brothahood was up in the house.”

Hunte wishes that were the case on a regular basis, but says the unfortunate reality is all the black gay men in town know each other, so it’s a friendship or an alliance — not a cruising zone.

In Toronto, he says, it’s a different story. People can be “stush.” The feeling is, ‘Okay, you’re a black man who’s coming in on my territory.’

“I get what we call cut-eye, and that’s like, ‘Oh, who’s this black guy? More competition. Great. Now I’ve got to cock my feathers here because someone else is stepping in on the territory,” Hunte explains. “Here in Vancouver, it’s camaraderie. It’s like, ‘Hey, another black person’s here.’”

***

 

Needless to say, dating is “a bit of a situation” for Hunte in Vancouver.

“I happen to be a triple threat because I am black, gay and a drag superstar.

“When I threw it out there, I said I need a man who likes sushi, red wine, understands that drag is a business not a lifestyle, who is sportsminded or can throw a football and who can make me laugh. Recently, I did get that,” he reveals, but says the combination often means he’s at a disadvantage.

“For the most part men that I date happen to be men [who are] not from this city, or back in a city where they are comfortable with a black population.

“That doesn’t happen here,” Hunte points out. “Here you’re great if you are white, you’re great if you’re Asian and of late if you’re a brown boy, but not a black man, because there’s that situation where people say, ‘I’ve never been with a black man before, maybe I should try that because I hear black men have big dicks.’

“Is that the reality? It is for me!” Hunte laughs.

“I can only speak for myself and I do not want to be a petting zoo, nor do I want to be a science experiment, so any Afrophiles, also known as chocolate queens, are not for me,” he says matter-of-factly.

But Hunte unreservedly says he’s a hypocrite. “I too am a chocolate queen. I just gravitate to white chocolate.”

He recalls one of his hottest pickups ever involved a white man. It started on a Toronto subway and resumed in a bar later the same day.

“I used to work at King and Bay, which is the financial district, so I was working my best 9 to 5 suit,” he begins, warming to his tale.

“I had got on to the subway and I just found this man who was athletic. He was, as I like to call, in financial district drag. I could see him looking at me, I could see him noticing me, and I thought, ‘Let me play this.’

“We got off at the same stop and I followed him. During the cat-and-mouse play, I got all the way up to where he was going, which was the gym. I thought, ‘Okay, let me just wait for him. So half an hour went by and I thought, ‘Okay, this is just silly. I’m not doing this anymore.’

“So that evening I went home, showered, I changed and I go to the bar. I’m there with some friends and feel this hand on the upper part of my leg. I turn around and it’s this man who was the man that I cruised on the subway and followed to the gym. A white guy who said to me, ‘I really enjoyed our play today.’

“I don’t see myself as a hard-bodied black man. I see myself as a regular run-of-the-mill black man and I ended up taking this man home and it was one of the best sexual encounters that I’ve ever had.

“It went from foyer to kitchen to the back deck to the backyard to the bathroom, to the bedroom — and what made it even hotter was that it was one-off,” says Hunte.

“It wasn’t a ‘Oh, I want to date you.’ It was ‘this is what this is’ and that is it.”

Hunte readily admits he doesn’t “eat his own people.”

His friends tell him that he thinks he’s white — which he denies. That may have been the case during adolescence, he concedes, but not now.

“I think a lot of the black men that are here grew up going to either private white schools, where they’re the only game in town,” he observes. “That is what they gravitated to; they gravitated to the majority not the minority, so being that, you don’t look for other black men,” he contends.

***
 

Vancouver-based playwright Berend McKenzie has also been accused of not wanting to eat his own people.

He’s very attracted to black men but says it boils down to a lack of opportunity.

“There’s not a lot of my people around to eat.”

The black men he fantasizes about are of the celebrity kind. His ideal man? Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson — with a complete overhaul on voice and personality, McKenzie quickly adds.

When he was about to get it on with his first black man, McKenzie’s revelation that he was HIV-positive quickly shot that opportunity down.

“That stopped it. We went and held hands on the beach, and he didn’t want to kiss me again so that never happened. We were all excited that he was going to be my first.”

When he skims his mental rolodex of successful steamy encounters, he remembers the time with a ripped white guy, complete with generous smile and heavily tattooed upper arms, in the West End Community Centre one Pride. That his eventual hookup had a boyfriend almost derailed the moment.

“He said, ‘My boyfriend and I have an open relationship and anybody that knows him and me know that we fool around. So if you’d like to, I’d really like to get together.’ I said ‘Me, too.’ We didn’t have a place to go, so he took me into the bathroom and fucked me in the handicapped stall.

“He had a Prince Albert and everything. It was awesome!”

McKenzie says the black men he knows that are out and aren’t ashamed of being out are very much like him: it’s an approach he describes as don’t get in his way when he wants what he wants because he’ll do whatever it takes to get what he wants.

“My experience has been one of making people take notice of me. If I’m not acknowledged, I demand to be acknowledged.”

But getting to that place hasn’t been a smooth or quick ride, McKenzie notes. He hasn’t always celebrated being black and gay.

“I saw very few black people on TV, never saw black people kissing on TV and when I saw black people kissing I felt uncomfortable. I felt that it was wrong. I was adopted into a white family and everything around me was white; a lot of adopted children in my family were mainly white.”

The result, he says, is that he has not always felt comfortable around other black people.

“I always felt that I wasn’t really black enough. I don’t have the lingo, I don’t have, you know, the walk, slapping the hands, the ‘hey bro’ kinda stuff. No, no, no. I’m more like a white woman,” he laughs.

He also feels that other black people are looking at him and thinking he’s not one of them.

He describes the scenario that plays in his head.

“I feel the black women thinking, ‘You’re betraying us because you should be with one of us, not with a man.’ They may not be [thinking that] but that’s what goes through my head at different points. And I think of [black] men, they go, ‘Hey, bro,’ and I go, ‘Hi-eee!” and they go, ‘Oh, I know exactly where you are,’ McKenzie says.

“The realization I was gay in my teens brought an immense amount of shame and guilt and self-hatred,” he continues. “And again the same thing: if I saw men kissing on screen or two women kissing on screen I would just shrink inside and just wait for the word fag to be yelled out in the theatre, or someone in front of me to say something really mean about what they were seeing.”

At one point in his life, McKenzie recalls feeling that he was supposed to be a woman because he was so effeminate, which compounded his confusion about his sexuality.

“I thought God had made a mistake. I had a lot of trouble getting laid. A lot of the men ended up being shocked when they’d seen my dick,” he recalls. “They said, ‘What the fuck! Holy shit, and what the hell is that?’ and I’d be like, ‘We were just necking in the bar; you picked me up at a gay bar.’

“And they’re like, ‘I didn’t know. I was there with my friends, I thought you were a woman.’ It was very, very confusing for me. Totally a Crying Game experience,” he says. “Not just one, but many, because I was so androgynous-looking and because I dressed so androgynously, so I didn’t get laid a lot.

“I was afraid to put myself out there. I was ashamed of sex, so I didn’t put myself out there.”

He credits a second adoption — into a family of drag queens in Edmonton — for giving him the life tools and permission to own being gay.

“A lot of them didn’t have family so we made our own family, and it really did run as a family. You did have the person that lied all the time, you did have the clown, you did have the caretaker, and so within this group of queer crazy people, we found ourselves.

“It was predominantly a white group but it was a queer group — and for me queer is a spectrum, everything from straight to transgendered, interested, not interested, tried it a few times — that’s sort of what that family was like.”

McKenzie eventually hoped that his being black and moving to the west coast would lead to a successful foray into “a healthy, active, dirty sex life.”

“I got dirty, I had some sex, but I wasn’t the big hit I expected to be,” he reveals.

He attributes this partly to what he considers Vancouver’s bizarre dating and cruising scene. Guys don’t want to have sex with you particularly but they won’t object to a blowjob, he says. Or they won’t be looking for a boyfriend, but they’ll want to spend every moment with you.

“I have to be completely honest, I’ve done the same thing. I picked up those behaviours,” he admits.

***

Like McKenzie, actor Denis Simpson, who grew up in Scarborough, Ontario, says he was typically the only black person in his circle.

There was the “whole thing of wanting to be accepted,” and going “where most people are to be accepted, and that was in the white man’s world,” he points out.

“To me, exotic was Caucasian — the blonde-haired blue-eyed guy.”

He too has been told he isn’t black enough.

Apart from not having a critical mass of other black folks to call intimates as he grew up, Simpson, who is now in his 50s, says it doesn’t help that advertising agencies and media still churn out images that not only dictate who and what is beautiful and sexy but also determine what roles certain people are supposed to play.

“It’s what we see on television over the years. It’s been said to my face by people I’ve worked with, ‘Well, you’re not black enough,’ meaning I speak the Queen’s English.

“I actually went to an audition once and they said, ‘Could you speak something other than the Queen’s English?’ And at the time, I wanted the job so I didn’t respond. I just went, ‘Oh, oh, okay.’

Simpson appreciates the visual empowerment of Noah’s Arc for black gay males but finds its emphasis on just-black content exclusionary.

“We live in an inclusive continent so start behaving accordingly,” he suggests.

McKenzie, who has only seen part of an episode of Noah’s Arc, says the storyline it presents is long overdue. He compares its arrival to the time cosmetic giants Revlon came out with makeup for black women.

“It was as if black women just showed up and they realized they needed different colours for women of colour. [Noah’s Arc] is kind of like that for me,” he notes.

He too believes it’s time to move past the all-white Queer As Folk and the all-black utopia of Noah’s Arc and showcase contemporary multicultural environments.

That’s what his existence in Vancouver is about, McKenzie asserts.

For his part, Hunte wonders why there can’t be a Queer As Noah, with a juxtaposition of white gayness and black gayness.

“We all know that it’s there. Why do we need to polarize it? If we look at the table of life,” he says, “shouldn’t it be about all the colours?”