Lena Waithe’s ‘Twenties’ Signals LGBTQ+ Progress at BET and Beyond
The new show will be the first on the network to be led by a queer person
Growing up, Carmen Phillips didn’t know that Black people could also be LGBTQ+. Such an assertion may sound absurd, but in addition to not knowing any out members of the Black queer community in Detroit where she grew up, when she looked to television, Black media didn’t have many LGBTQ+ characters of note.
“I watched Black television on BET and The CW. I even watched the reruns of ‘90s Black TV because no one was making Black TV 10 years ago,” she said. “And in none of those stories did I ever really get to see anybody who was queer and Black. I was definitely in my twenties before I realized that I could be queer and Black.”
Some 15 years later, BET is putting a Black queer woman front and center of a scripted show. With Twenties, the new series created by Lena Waithe premiering March 4, it’ll be the first time in the network’s 40-year history that a program is led by a LGBTQ+ character. It’s a move that comes after a history rife in what Black LGBTQ+ people remember as stereotypical characterizations, cursory inclusion, and fraught representation.
Founded in 1980 by Robert “Bob” and Sheila Johnson, Black Entertainment Television was intended to be Ebony magazine for TV. A 24-hour programming service aimed at Black Americans, the network initially aired mostly reruns of sitcoms like The Jeffersons and Benson and already-produced music videos from primarily Black artists. Within five years, the network was profitable. As it became more successful, BET launched original programming including BET News in 1988, with Ed Gordon as anchor, and the youth talk show Teen Summit in 1989.
Still, the bread and butter of the network was its shows focused on Black culture in the form of music videos. Perhaps one of its most notable programs was Video Soul, which ran from 1981 to 1996 and was reportedly created in response to MTV’s unwritten policy that restricted videos from Black artists from airing. It was like the Soul Train of yesteryear, but for younger generations, said Marlon Moore, a professor of English at the U.S Naval Academy whose ongoing research expertise is in Black lesbian representation…