Each day in February, BET has been posting a photo of a different black LGBTQ creator on Instagram as part of its monthlong #29DaysOfQueerExcellence social campaign. The beautifully shot portraits, featuring the kind of color-polarized lighting pioneered by queer Insecure cinematographer Ava Berkofsky, feature a wide range of black queer writers, filmmakers, activists, performers and more.
With February being Black History Month, it’s unusual to see an entire social campaign with a daily rollout that focuses on the LGBTQ community—something brands typically reserve for June. Especially one that features the in-your-face motto “Queer As F**K!” prominently on each portrait. But according to BET’s senior director of social media, Ryan Sides, the digital campaign is part of a growing effort within the network to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community.
BET hired its first-ever LGBTQ Pride month guest editor, George M. Johnson, in June 2019, according to Sides, who had just started at BET in April. They were among an influx of high-level 2019 editorial hires like Amber Payne (former executive producer at Teen Vogue) and Angela Burt-Murray (former deputy editor at Glamour) who all wanted to see more LGBTQ inclusion from the brand.
The “Queer As F**K!” franchise’s first installment was a three-part documentary series on the ballroom scene’s eminent House of LaBeija family, followed by a video for Trans Day of Remembrance, both in November. Sides said February’s Queer Excellence series was the brainchild of freelance social producer Empress Varnado, and they worked together to innovate a new approach to Black History Month that would set BET Social apart from the network’s traditional programming.
“Empress took that charge and said, ‘Alright, we want to make sure we have X amount of black trans women, gender nonconforming people, black gay men, black lesbian women, people that are queer allies.’ … She wanted there to be a really robust mix,” Sides said. “We wanted to highlight some newer people, newer voices.”
“We shouldn’t be confined to being acknowledged only during Pride Month. Black history is our history as well,” added Amira Shaunice, creator of the scripted webseries New York Girls TV, a grittier, urban black equivalent to The L Word with over 12 million views on YouTube.
Shaunice added that her social following and views have increased since BET featured her on Feb. 23.
Johnson, the former Pride Month editor whose portrait was posted on Wednesday and who is producing a forthcoming digital series on the HIV epidemic in the black community for the network, said BET is making strides towards being more LGBTQ-inclusive.
“Historically, BET hasn’t been a space for black queer people to tell our stories, and has been properly challenged on that,” Johnson said. “We still have a far way to go, but this is certainly a step in the right direction to tell the full story of blackness in its totality. It’s important that when we root for everybody black, that includes our black queer family in every way.”
Besides the 29 Days of Queer Excellence portraits, LGBTQ leaders are also featured prominently in the network’s other major Black History Month digital campaign, the Black Excellence Trilogy. Each day in February, a different trio of people in the same field are featured together. The Feb. 22 trio noted for their work, “On the Front Lines Fighting for Equality,” includes queer heroes Alicia Garza (co-founder of Black Lives Matter), Marsha P. Johnson (gay drag queen and participant in the Stonewall uprising) and Blair Imani (bisexual Muslim author and activist).
The network is also rolling out an increasing amount of LGBTQ-focused or LGBTQ-inclusive content, with two new series (Twenties, Boomerang) helmed by Lena Waithe that feature queer and gender nonconforming lead characters. There’s been an increase in coverage of LGBTQ news on the editorial side, too.
But the queering of BET hasn’t been without growing pains. Sides said the team steeled itself for pushback and possibly ugly responses, and as expected the majority of complaints have come from the “older, more conservative core of the following that BET has, having strong feelings about what Black History Month and the black family unit looks like, and parroting thoughts about the gay agenda and masculinity within the black community.”
Some pushback also came from within the black LGBTQ community, with comments “about how BET has not necessarily always shown up in ways that are supportive or healthy for black queer people.”
Filmmaker Sekiya Dorsett, featured in the Queer Excellence series last week, said that while she grew up watching BET, “I didn’t see myself at all” on the network.
“Things are different now. I didn’t think the same network I watched after school would feature me, but time is changing,” Dorsett said. “We are a part of the fabric of America, and our people are finally recognizing us. It’s a big deal.”
Overall, the response has leaned positive—which shows that BET’s base is growing into a more LGBTQ-inclusive one along with the culture at large.
“The backlash has been significantly less volatile than what I was expecting,” Sides said. “More often than not, people say, ‘It’s about time, we’re so glad you guys are doing this.’ The response to 29 Days of Queer Excellence has been overwhelmingly positive.”