The history of queer televisual representation, just like any historical account, frequently grapples with the challenge of determining what to include or exclude. This selection process is influenced by factors such as researcher interests, technological advancements, and archival complexities.
In my ongoing projects, I’ve encountered the complexities of delving into the archives in search of queer representation within black ensemble sitcoms.
Television, historically speaking, has often been treated as the neglected child in the realm of archiving. In our cultural landscape, film tends to take precedence in archival significance.
This perception stems from the problematic division of high and low art, where film is regarded as high art, while television is sometimes labeled as vulgar or low art.
Even with the rise of DVDs as a means to preserve television content (primarily due to the revenue opportunities they offer for production and distribution companies), there are still historical blind spots within the archives. These gaps, in turn, contribute to historical omissions in our cultural memory.
Now, let’s delve into the current discussion. For a considerable period, my assumption was that the first appearance of gay black men on television could be traced back to Antoine Merriwether and Blaine Edwards, who featured in In Living Color’s “Men On…” sketches.
However, my perspective shifted when I came across Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of Dion Dion on Saturday Night Live. Both of these representations heavily relied on stereotypes that are often perceived as “negative” within the context of the gay rights movement.
These portrayals, enacted by black actors who identified as heterosexual (and, at times, harbored homophobic sentiments), depicted black gay men in a manner that many people found offensive due to their reliance on exaggerated effeminacy and overt sexual suggestiveness as defining traits of homosexuality.
These caricatures recurred in their respective series, leaving a lasting imprint on both the historical memory and the DVD archives.
Yet, in my exploration, I stumbled upon an instance of black homosexuality representation within a black ensemble sitcom that defied easy classification under the familiar stereotypes associated with villainy or lasciviousness.
The year was 1977. After a successful five-season run on NBC, Sanford and Son concluded its broadcast when the star, Redd Foxx (who played Fred Sanford), embarked on a new venture—a variety show for ABC called Redd Foxx.
However, contract negotiations between the network and actor Desmond Wilson (known for his role as Lamont Sanford) broke down, resulting in Wilson being replaced as the lead character for the new series Sanford Arms.
This spin-off series revolved around a diverse cast of characters who managed Sanford Arms, a boarding house owned by Aunt Esther, portrayed by actress LaWanda Page, reprising her role from Sanford and Son.
She also played a supporting role in this new series. Sanford Arms, in many respects, might be viewed as a relatively unremarkable show. It had a brief life, lasting only four episodes, before NBC canceled it due to low ratings.
What truly stands out about the series, however, is its introduction of a gay black character within the four episodes that made it to the airwaves.
In the third episode of the series, titled “Phil’s Assertion School,” the main storyline, or A-story, revolves around the series’ central character, Phil, making the decision to establish a school within the boarding house.
This school’s objective is to teach people how to become more assertive, as implied by the episode’s title.
Meanwhile, the B-storyline focuses on Phil’s daughter, who is involved with a lawyer named Travis. Travis is often described as harmless, primarily due to his chosen career path. However, during a humorous exchange, Phil quips that even Richard Nixon was a lawyer, drawing laughter from the audience or laugh track.
This contrast is particularly noteworthy, especially when you consider that the episode opens with Bubba (continuing his role from Sanford and Son) struggling to calculate the cost of a $12 double room for a three-night stay, even with the assistance of paper and pencil.
What’s significant here is that Travis’s profession, along with the level of education required to attain it, affords him a degree of middle-class respectability in the eyes of the characters and the audience, even before we meet him in person.
This respectability becomes particularly crucial when you consider that Sanford Arms charges $7 per day for a single room and $12 for a double room, yet in the series four aired episodes, there is never a single occupant within the boarding house.
In essence, the proprietors and workers at Sanford Arms don’t enjoy financial prosperity and appear to inhabit the same socio-economic stratum as Fred and Lamont Sanford—the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder.
Therefore, Travis, despite being unseen at this point, is “othered” through the way he is positioned in relation to the other characters in the series.
When Travis makes his first appearance in the episode’s second act, Phil initially seems to approve of Travis as a potential suitor for his daughter, Angie. However, Phil’s primary interest in Travis quickly shifts to his legal skills after one of his students from the “assertion school” threatens to sue him.
After Travis departs, there’s an intriguing scene where, somewhat inexplicably, Phil questions Angie about the specific area of law in which Travis practices rather than asking Travis directly while he’s still present.
This particular scene is where Sanford Arms aligns closely with the relevant programming of the 1970s. Spearheaded in part by Norman Lear’s All in the Family, relevant television addressed contemporary societal “issues” and aimed to offer clear-cut solutions to these concerns.
It sought to fictionalize current events in a manner that resonated with the changing socio-cultural and demographic landscape of America.
Through Angie, the audience discovers that Travis is a civil rights attorney who primarily focuses on advocating for the (perceived) gay community and their struggle for equal rights.
In what might be one of the earliest instances on television, this episode of Sanford Arms draws a connection between the black civil rights movement (often erroneously believed to have concluded in the 1960s) and the gay civil rights movement.
Particularly noteworthy is how the episode incorporates both of these struggles into black characters. In the popular imagination, and often reinforced by gay rights organizations, the gay rights movement is frequently depicted as a predominantly white male movement. Sanford Arms plays a pivotal role in inserting activists of color into this narrative.
However, Sanford Arms’ approach to addressing “the gay issue” isn’t entirely free of stereotypes and misconceptions. The script perpetuates the idea that if someone is actively supporting the rights of gay men and women, they must be gay themselves.
While the series firmly operates within the framework of 1970s black ensemble situation comedies with a focus on relevance, it’s Travis’s sexual orientation that becomes the target of humor (or at least, that’s where the writers and producers believe the comedy lies, given the addition of a laugh track to sweeten the scene).
In one instance, when Phil questions his daughter Angie about Travis’s sexual orientation, she responds with a hearty laugh and asks, “Is Travis gay?” Soon, Phil joins in the laughter, along with the audience and the laugh track, before Angie playfully reveals, “Of course he’s gay.”
Remarkably, Phil’s laughter transforms into tears, while the audience “laughs” in apparent approval of Phil’s emotional breakdown.
The subsequent scene highlights the generation gap in beliefs between the more traditional older generation and the younger, more “hip” generation. While characters like Phil and Bubba represent the older generation, they struggle to adapt to the changing times.
The younger generation, on the other hand, uses their teachings against them to expose their underlying hypocrisy. Phil’s 12-year-old son emphasizes the importance of judging people based on their kindness, drawing attention to the lesson he learned from his father.
In contrast, even entertaining the idea of homosexuality as a hypothetical question sends Bubba fleeing from the room, highlighting the stark contrast in perspectives.
In the end, Phil does eventually come to terms with Travis’s homosexuality, but this acceptance appears somewhat superficial. What Phil ultimately embraces is Travis’s queer contribution, which essentially serves as a means to keep him out of legal trouble.
In essence, Travis provides a service to Phil that revolves around his legal expertise. This notion of “acceptance” mirrors a tradition in which gay individuals are acknowledged primarily for their services, such as hairdressers and interior designers—professions that have often been stereotypically associated with them in early radio, film, and television.
In Travis’s case, his queer identity is employed for its legal acumen and is subsequently discarded within the narrative, never to be seen again. (It’s worth noting that the series only aired four episodes and shot an additional four that were never broadcast.)
Nevertheless, even as Sanford Arms fades from both the DVD archive and, in my view, the cultural memory, it should be remembered for its pioneering inclusion of a gay black man within a black ensemble sitcom long before such representation became trendy or fashionable.
The show attempted to shift away from “negative” stereotypes by employing transcoding strategies to portray this gay black character as just as good as, if not better than, the other cast members.
Travis did not conform to the fey stereotype, he wasn’t relegated to a sassy sidekick role, and his career existed beyond the realm of stereotypical professions for gay men in media.
It’s worth noting that the portrayal of lawyers as gay characters has become somewhat of a new stereotype for professional gay men, as seen in shows like Will & Grace, Brothers & Sisters, and Modern Family.
While characters like Antoine Meriwether, Blane Edwards, Dion Dion, and Luther (from Don’t Trust the B) offer representations with which some gay men can identify, Travis serves as a counterpoint through which other gay men can see themselves reflected in the looking glass of television.