How BET Made Black History Month ‘Queer As F**K!’

America's original black cable network strives for LGBTQ inclusivity

8 portraits of black queer creators who were featured on BET
A different black queer creator has been featured every day of Black History Month on BET's Instagram account. Jocelyn Prescod for BET
Headshot of Mary Emily O

Key insights:

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. 

View this post on Instagram

#29DaysofQueerExcellence Meet: @asanniarmon, Founder of @ForTheGworls . . . I am the founder of For The Gworls (@ForTheGworls), a collective that helps BLACK transgender people pay their rent and gender-affirming surgeries. We help Black trans people obtain these bare necessities through two methods: (1) by bringing the community together to fundraise through rent parties (2) using our burgeoning social media presence to crowdfund for Black transgender people that reach out to us with an immediate need. Over the last 6 months, we've helped raise over $28,000 for Black transgender folks in need. For The Gworls began as a means of helping two Black, transgender women and femmes that we knew faced eviction if they didn’t raise money for their rent. I decided to host a party on the 4th of July where all proceeds would go towards their housing, and in less than three days, I was able to exceed this goal. It was then that I decided to make this an official monthly gathering! My goal is to create space, pay for housing, and help fund gender-affirming surgeries; as these are a reality for a large part of our community. I've recently started using our growing social media platform to crowdfund for those who need immediate assistance. In this way, we can help anywhere between 4-16 people a month, as opposed to 1-3 people with just one party. Please feel free to follow us on @ForTheGworls (on Instagram) and @4TheGworls (on Twitter) to plug-in. This work is important because we put money directly into the hands of Black transgender people to make sure they remain housed. We don't deal with bureaucracy; we simply fundraise and make sure our community stays off the street. #BETQueerAF . . . Photography by: @jocelyn_prescod Makeup by: @fabfacesbyaigner

A post shared by BET Networks (@bet) on

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.”

View this post on Instagram

#29DaysofQueerExcellence Meet: @Amirashaunice, Founder of @newyorkgirlstv . . . I impact the Black Queer community by providing a platform exclusively for LGBTQ content. In 2014, I created the 1st lesbian web series based in NYC: New York Girls TV (@newyorkgirlstv). Since then, NYGTV has blossomed into a network. I’ve produced a podcast, reality series and will be adding five more scripted series to the network in 2020. Storytelling makes me happy and it’s been a creative outlet since I was a child. It wasn’t until recent years that I asked myself how do I take this and put in service where I can make a difference? I’ve realized that my writing is important because it allows me to inspire others to live in their truth. My work has provided undiscovered actors with opportunities. I am creating powerful LGBTQ characters while the industry denies these same actors because of their sexuality or appearance. My work spans across 20 countries. NYGTV has exceeded over 12 million views with over 100,000 YouTube subscribers and counting! I moved to New York with $300 and a dream. I was the only person in my family to go to college. I didn’t have someone who was knowledgeable enough to guide me which is why my authenticity and visibility is important. Whether it’s tips, advice or a platform for queers to showcase their talent, I am giving the next generation hope and opportunity to follow their dreams. #BETQueerAF. . . . Photography by: @jocelyn_prescod Makeup by: @fabfacesbyaigner

A post shared by BET Networks (@bet) on

“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.”

View this post on Instagram

#29DaysofQueerExcellence Meet: @iamgmjohnson . . . As a writer, my center is on Black queer people. I'm a firm believer in the fact that there is no such thing as a Blackness without queerness. Blackness is inherently queer and I live my life that way for that reason. In April, my memoir "All Boys Aren't Blue" will debut. It will be one of the only Black queer memoirs listed as Young Adult. I tell my story for the world to see as a way to let people know that we exist. A way for kids and teens to know that they are seen and that someone is out here fighting for a better existence for them. I identify as non-binary and I use my Twitter platform to tell that story and many others. Having nearly 62,000 followers, I'm able to tell our story in seconds and have it seen all over the world. I also use my platform to intentionally follow and share the stories of other queer people to amplify their voices to a much larger audience that needs the content. I am also an HIV activist and very passionate about sharing my story and life in the fight to end the epidemic. I try to be the best me in all I do, and I do so by living my life unapologetically queer. Our story has been erased for far too long. Only told as an anecdote or part of our greatness. We have seen so many queer revolutionaries only have their identity discussed long after they were gone. We have had so many queer revolutionaries who never had the opportunity to publicly live as queer people. We watched them be silenced and live in silence, and those who chose to live publicly be shamed for it, at times by their own community. We have a chance to be the blueprint for a lot of generations that come after. So it is even more important that we live out loud, not no normalize queerness as much as showcase the totality of the Black and brown community. We don't walk out of our homes every day as parts of a person. My being Black is seen first, but trust within a few seconds of getting to know me my queerness is very present. That is something I'm not willing nor should be required to hide. #BETQueerAF . . . Photography by: @jocelyn_prescod Makeup by: @fabfacesbyaigner

A post shared by BET Networks (@bet) on

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.”

View this post on Instagram

#29DaysofQueerExcellence Meet: @sekiya_dorsett . . . If you’ve ever taken a swim, there is the moment you go underwater and there is the moment you emerge and you take your first breath. It’s refreshing. You take in all the oxygen. It’s a moment when you feel alive because you made it. That’s how I felt when I first was able to express my sexuality freely. It’s a moment of complete exhilaration. It’s so powerful when you see yourself on screen because like rising out of the water, it gives you a burst of oxygen. That is what I am trying to capture when I create. When I fell in love, almost 15 years ago, I created a short experimental doc, “Wisdom and Understanding” about my now wife and it ended up getting into New Fest. Since then, I have just been trying to capture through my movies what I feel within my soul. With The Revival Movie (@therevivalmovie), my first feature doc, I wanted to capture the first time I walked into a room and was surrounded by the love of black women doing their art & living free. After screenings around the world, we screened at the Brooklyn Museum during Pride month and even won an award in Australia. After the screening, someone wrote to me on Instagram, “thank you for creating this”. That’s the power of film. A girl from the Bahamas can tell her truth and it can show around the world. With Stonewall 50, for @nbcnews, I was not only excavating a queer history that I had only heard in pieces and in names but also finding where the people of color fit into all of it. That is my ultimate goal in creating to ensure that POC's are always represented. I’m nominated for a GLAAD Award with the Stonewall 50 documentary which captures LGBTQ history. My biggest hope is that I am creating a history that the next generation will see and they will be able to continue writing the pages. We can’t stop living out proud and free. Supporting black queer voices for me is about representation but it is also tangible. It is about supporting with my money. As a creator, I ensure that I support fellow creators that buying their art and Kickstarters. #BETQueerAF. . . . Photography by: @jocelyn_prescod Makeup by: @fabfacesbyaigner

A post shared by BET Networks (@bet) on

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.”

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.
Publish date: February 27, 2020 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT