On a recent episode of the Fox breakout hit Empire, the gay character Jamal Lyons, played by the über-talented (and newly out) Jussie Smollett, finds out that he could potentially be a father. The mother of the child is played by Raven-Symoné, who surprises Jamal with the news and child. We find out quickly that this child was conceived when Jamal was only 18 and struggling to find a way to live his truth as a gay man.
As I’m raising two teenage boys as a single parent and identify as gay, this storyline immediately grabbed my attention. I was on my feet in anticipation to see if the show’s writers would take the stereotypical Maury Povich path of having Jamal protest “I’m not the father!”or would it play more true to the authentic narrative of what truly happens when young gay people of color find out that they are parents.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the latter. This character, faced with every fear that comes with the realizing that you must now guide a child’s life, took responsibility for his actions and began raising his child. He stepped up to the plate with clarity, and like a fan in a crowded stadium, I began screaming at the top of my lungs with excitement and joy in my living room.
But my excitement quickly wore off as I realized that this is one of very few storylines in the media that depict parenting by queer people of color, which, as I know from personal experience, takes place in thousands of homes across our country. But why? Is it that the media would prefer to perpetuate the negative narrative of “deadbeat parents in communities of color?” Or is is that we as queer parents of color don’t tell our stories more often, so the media is unaware we exist?
You could turn on your television at any point over the past five years and be greeted by two white gay men raising a child. The media would have you believe that is the “new normal,” though its it not completely the truth. According to the Census Bureau sampling known as the American Community Survey, African-American or Latino gay couples are twice as likely as whites to be raising children.
In 2007, I discovered I was a father to a little boy who I did not know about. After being on MTV’s The Real World and traveling the world, I was greeted by a stack of papers on my doorstep informing me that I had a child. Of course, my initial reaction was shock, but immediately I knew what I had to do. With the permission and support of his mother, we met and bonded, and I eventually received custody of him that same year. Then, years later, I received custody of my son’s little brother, making me a single father of two. But as this was happening, at no point did I think that I should share my story, though I had a national platform to do so. I immediately went into “daddy mode” and began raising my children as a parent should. It is only recently, as I have begun hosting for OWN and HLN, that people have become increasingly curious about and amazed by how I went from reality star to single father overnight.
My experience reminds me of Kordale and Kaleb Lewis, the Atlanta fathers who documented on Instagram their morning routine of getting their daughters ready for school, only to find the posts go viral. The image got over a million shares, and people were amazed by what they were seeing. Two strong gay men of color raising their children in suburban America. But these men aren’t celebrities or TV personalities. They are just normal parents who wanted to share their truth with their friends. But their truth is so powerful, just as mine is, that people immediately wanted to see and know more.
Indeed, the world needs to see more images of queer parents of color in the mainstream. But for it to happen and to successfully penetrate the psyche of America, we have to do our part. We must be vigilant in sharing our stories and our truths as queer parents of color at every chance we get if we hope to see art imitate real life. Just as James Ross IV, better known as Tyra Sanchez, the winner of the second season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, has done with his movie Drag Dad. He has made it a part of his mission to show that being a successful drag queen pales in comparison to his duties as a father. That no matter what obstacles he faces or negative opinions he hears when it comes to being a queer parent of color, he continues to show the love and truth of being a dad.
Hollywood will catch up and tell our stories. Lee Daniels has proved that to be true, as he has made sure to incorporate a queer parent of color storyline in one of the biggest shows on television to date. But it is not up to Hollywood alone. We must do our part to make ourselves visible to the world. Let everyone see that being a queer parent of color is normal and happening right next door to them. Share your truth so that your children and their friends can see images of families that look like yours on social media, which will eventually translate to the general media. Encourage your friend and family member who are queer parents of color to post their stories and share it with the world. It’s time for us to be seen.
KARAMO BROWN is a former cast member of MTV's The Real World and the proud father of two sons. Follow him on Twitter @KaramoBrown