Thank You, Uncle Clifford
A discussion about a fictional gay character left me shaking from anger last night. In the middle of Midtown Atlanta—one of the gayest neighborhoods in the city—I found myself embroiled in a discussion with two other Black gay men about whether or not characters like P-Valley's Uncle Clifford (acted brilliantly by Nicco Annan) should exist on television, and by proxy, other Black gay men who dare to defy gender norms in real life.
On the surface, it was a decades-old argument about stereotypically flamboyant Black gay characters being overrepresented in television and film. But the disdain this one particular self-proclaimed "masculine" Black man reserved for Uncle Clifford and Katori Hall, the critically-acclaimed Black woman writer who created the character, quickly became hostile.
As an openly gay journalist, I've become accustomed to combating homophobia in the abstract or being on the receiving end of it via my inbox or on social media, but it is an out-of-body experience when it's thrust upon you in person, specifically by another Black gay man who at the very least, should be sensitive to other marginalized folks within our community, if not already doing the work to rid himself of his own internalized homophobia.
"I just want to understand why it's necessary to have him on that show."
"They're trying to force this shit on us."
"It's on every TV show now."
"It's a ploy for ratings."
"He's not even attractive"
"He doesn't represent me."
"And they have some masculine dude fuc***g him! Yeah, right."
Deep breath. Lubricate. Read that bi**h.
I wish I could say that at that moment I was able to channel my inner Elektra from POSE, but my inner Professor Chance (Noah's Arc reference for Gen Z readers) showed up as I attempted to explain the importance of diversity in terms of how Black gay characters are presented on screen. Uncle Clifford may not reflect the experience of all Black gay men, nor do I believe it was Hall's intention when developing the character. And while the experiences of the people who form the Black LGBTQ community are not monolithic, one thing that I am certain of is that Uncle Clifford is allowing countless nonbinary, effeminate, androgynous, queer and trans Black folks to feel seen, while also hopefully giving those often closeted, DL, and traditionally masculine men who love them in secret the courage to love them openly.
I stood there in disbelief, regretting my decision to even attend this outing, as he continued to berate all the Uncle Clifford's in our community while upholding his version of (toxic) masculinity as a goal we should all be working to achieve. The vitriol that rolled off his tongue would have been par for the course for any of the countless raging homophobes posted online in viral videos with a confederate flag in the background and a Trump bumper sticker on their car. But he is none of these things. However, he is someone who has (somewhat) mastered the art of performative masculinity in order to elevate himself on a community hierarchy that rewards it, whether authentic or not and seeks to
undermine femininity however and whenever it shows up.
Let's be clear: he is not alone in this way of thinking. It permeates so many areas of our lives as Black gay men, from how we interact with each other, to the criteria we set for dating and physical intimacy, to the sexual labels we either accept or reject based upon the accompanying stigma. But I want us to also be clear about the necessity of fictional characters like Uncle Clifford and the real ones who walk in her heels every day that have historically created the kind of good trouble that has allowed the traditionally masculine among us to enjoy the freedom (or the shackles of their self imposed closet) and liberation that they currently do.
“I have all of these hyper-masculine, heterosexual Black men around me, and it is a normal situation,” Annan says in an interview with Essence Magazine. “We all talked about it. It isn’t something that is like a fairytale utopia. Katori wrote that because she’s writing from her true experiences from living in Memphis and her imagination and showing us as viewers and our audience a way that is possible. I think it’s important to highlight that because it exists [and] I don’t think we get to see this healthy intersect as often.”
"...a way that is possible." Sit with that for a second.
Hall is showing us that a 6'3, Black, nonbinary, head-bitch-in charge can run a successful business in the heart of the Mississippi Delta surrounded by hyper-masculine Black heterosexual men without her backstory (so far) relying on typical Hollywood tropes of rejection, substance abuse, suicide or life-threatening illness and still be respected in the community that she serves. If that isn't boss shit then I don't know what is. We all deserve to see ourselves reflected in media.
And maybe, just maybe, if the oppressed can refrain from becoming the oppressor long enough to take their foot off a Black femmes neck, we can unite in the fight against the real enemy who couldn’t give two f*cks that you’ve mastered the art of performing masculinity, he hates the core of who you are and what you represent, and your masculinity will not save you.
Maybe one day I’ll get to interview Katori Hall to dig deeper into the creative process that went into creating Uncle Clifford. But for now, I’m following my intuition, which is what I should have done from the beginning by blocking his number.