Charles Stephens: E. Lynn Harris and black gay reflections

Every black gay man I know, around my age at least, has been significantly impacted by the novels of E. Lynn Harris. Our coming-out experience, if one can describe the journey of sexual self-awareness as “coming out,” was profoundly shaped by novels like “Invisible Life” and “Just As I Am.”

In high school, we passed E. Lynn Harris’ novels back and forth among ourselves like sacred texts. “Just As I Am,” in particular, which was published 20 years ago, was the novel that most of us read. At night, when we talked on the phone, we were giddy with excitement describing our reactions to the various scenes and characters Harris depicted. Those books were magic for us.

Reading his work was, for my generation, the first time we encountered texts with characters that even remotely resembled us. This was before most of us had read “Just Above My Head” by James Baldwin, and we did not yet know about Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill. We were so desperate for a reflection, any reflection, of ourselves, our world, our experiences, that we practically inhaled his words off the page. We were Southern black boys desperately searching for a reflection, if not a blueprint, and through the novels of E. Lynn Harris, we thought we had discovered it.

His work did not shout. It did not plead. His work always had a conversational and at times confessional tone. This is why many of us would later accuse him of writing his novels for heterosexual women, manipulating their fears and anxieties for profit.

Harris did not have the same intellectual or political tools as Beam and Hemphill. That was never Harris’ project anyway. He did, however, grapple with similar questions: the black family, HIV, coming out, romantic love, desire, racism, faith, and loneliness. At the same time, the pathologization of bisexual black men and the HIV stigma so prevalent in his work place him in a different category altogether.

In the years following his death, I stopped hearing about his work as much. I was surprised, if not a bit amused, to discover a few months ago that his first novel, “Invisible Life,” was being made into a musical. This itself was like something out of an E. Lynn Harris novel. That the musical features a score by Ashford and Simpson and the first performance was on the eve of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality only add to the very Harris-esque nature of it all.

I met E. Lynn Harris only once, very briefly, several years ago. I was maybe 16 or 17 at the time. He was speaking and doing a book signing at the Shrine of the Black Madonna over in the West End. I walked up to him, book in hand, and asked him to sign my copy of “And This Too Shall Pass.” He looked at me and smiled. “How old are you?” he asked, seeming shocked and yet tickled that someone my age would be at his book signing.

Charles Stephens is a writer and activist. He is the Executive Director of Counter Narrative and co-editor of the anthology Black Gay Genius: Answering Joseph Beam’s Call.