The impetus for the Guardian’s republication of the article, Richard Pryor: meltdown at the Hollywood Bowl, excerpted from Scott Saul’s new Richard Pryor biography is likely the current brouhaha raised by an alleged gay mafia’s response to Kevin Hart’s having been offered the hosting gig for the Academy Awards in the wake of the homo-reactionary disposition he espoused in his standup routines and tweets over the last decade. Curiously, little or nothing was made of Hart’s homophobic quipping by mainstream gays until the Hollywood elite offered him Hollywood’s biggest and most politically important stage. One wonders, might this be because they had been relatively unsullied up to this point, inasmuch as, when Hart had smacked homophobic, his public homonegativity was generally directed at African American homos, and at them, perhaps, only by association.
In any event, a marked, indeed stark difference between the halting Hart apology tour for such slights and epithets as he’d leveled at same gender loving (SGL) folk, and Pryor’s excoriating his white liberal Hollywood Bowl audience a generation ago was that, Pryor had nothing for which to apologize. Hart’s “gay” jokes, like any jokes which target marginalized people, are thinly veiled hate speech. And, hate speech by public figures is among the most dangerous kind of bullying, dehumanizing people who are different, as it does, and thereby potentially inciting hatred or, at least, intolerance of the subordinate group. Before he dismissed the largely white liberal Hollywood Bowl audience as hypocrites, Richard Pryor had publicly affirmed and uplifted homosexual affection and sex as no comic, politician or other public figure had in history of the country.
And, lest we miss an exceedingly important point about the danger of conflating what might otherwise be construed as political interest groups with grassroots movements for human rights for all, it was in comments like, “Richard Pryor, you just committed professional suicide!” or “Kiss your ass, hell! I’d like to put a hot poker up it!” amid the largely jeering and taunting crowd that made clear who the audience and the producers of the Hollywood Bowl fundraising event really were. And moreover, why Pryor became so incensed at the hypocrisy into which he sensed he’d waded. As biographer Saul put it, “[h]e felt the victim of a bait and switch…he’d originally been asked to perform for a human rights rally,” and wound up having to ask himself, “How can faggots be racists?”
Eighteen years after Stonewall, and nearly thirty years after the founding of the Mattachine Society, the organization which formally commenced the movement for gay liberation in America, the Hollywood Bowl event was a fundraiser for the Gay Liberation Movement, presided over by a so-called newly emerging Gay Mafia. Where Saul suggests, “It was hard to tell where Pryor’s allegiances lay,” he might seem to have missed the point of his own story. As Pryor told the predominantly white gay audience, “I came here for human rights,” but, “devilishly attuned to the hidden dynamics of the moment,” as Saul asserts Pryor was, and witnessing the organizers’ racist treatment of the African American dance act on the bill, he could not but reveal “the fault lines of the gay rights movement.” “When the niggers were burning down Watts,” Pryor reminded them, “you mother fuckers were doing what you wanted on Hollywood Boulevard, didn’t give a shit about it.”
And, as the one SGL African American cited in the article remembered, “[b]eing a black homosexual and living here practically all my life, I can say that the California homosexual is the most extreme of bigots. He hates blacks, fats, women, and himself most of all. Pryor’s actions were crude, but sadly true. If one refuses to believe, let any person who is fat, black, ugly or female try going to a gay club alone.”
And, whether or not he has evolved in his capacity for acceptance, respect and empathy around sexual diversity, it was this insight of Pryor’s about the Gay Liberation Movement’s schizophrenic relationship to “human rights” (along with the need for damage control), that may inform some of Kevin Hart’s grudging apology to white gay America for his past insults to SGL folk.
Three years since the legalization of marriage equality, many same gender loving (SGL) African American men express dismay at the elusory experience of committed romantic relationships. The conundrum here may be tied to the new commonplace notion that one must love one’s self before he can love anyone else. And, for our acknowledgement of this sentiment almost everyone affirms, indeed insists that he loves himself.
Something we may be missing in this dynamic is that, in the same way one must love one’s self in order to be able to love others, one must also love one’s self in order to be able to receive love from others. In this respect, charity begins at home and self-love is key to being lovable.
As it happens, love is an act of courage. Beyond anything one may say, self-love is demonstrated in observing the courage to live in one’s truth, including being open and honest about one’s sexuality everywhere and with everyone in one’s life. In any context in which one withholds or conceals essential parts of himself, he is withholding love, and in turn, blocking his capacity to receive love.
Where love is chief among basic human needs, the extent to which we mask or secrete vital facets of ourselves is the extent to which we love ourselves conditionally, indeed, marginally, standing outside of the bounds of love. As we do, we consign ourselves to living on the margins of our own lives. Of course, standing in one’s truth is much easier said than done.
This is particularly so because we have been socialized to believe that we are intrinsically unlovable because of both, our Africanness and our sexuality. And because, marriage equality and all the extraordinary human rights gains of the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement notwithstanding, SGL African descended men still navigate countless demeaning and threatening messages prohibiting expression of our multiple stigmatized identities every day of our lives.
The degree to which it is unsafe for us to be open about any facet of ourselves is the degree to which we are still not free. Freedom is most lovable. We are most lovable as we muster the courage to defy the repressive messages and dare to acknowledge our whole selves; as we are free. We can no longer permit ourselves to be robbed of our freedom – our right to be fully who we are.
If we will seek love successfully, we must risk being vulnerable and open to receive love by being open about who we are wherever and with whomever we are. If we will be such powerful men as we can be, or simply live such rewarding and fulfilled lives as we can, we must muster the courage to risk being fully present in every facet, aspect and sphere of our lives. Towards these ends, there is something like an exquisite balancing act we must navigate between the necessities of vulnerability and self-preservation. Courage is a muscle that requires repetition and practice to build. Let’s learn how to flex it together.