Jerrod Carmichael’s coming out breaks a cycle of Black queer shame

The comedian is living freely for those who couldn’t.

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Culture

Jerrod Carmichael came out as gay in his new stand-up special, Rothaniel, which premiered Friday on HBO. The next night, he hosted Saturday Night Live. On America’s biggest comedy stage, the 34-year-old talked about the discourse around Will Smith’s slap, deftly weaving it into his own big news. Joking about how he “has so many gay things to do,” Carmichael joined a long line of Black celebrities — especially comedians — who have struggled with their private lives not matching their public personas. Carmichael, though, has already stepped out of the shadow so many others couldn’t.

In his third HBO comedy special, Carmichael contextualizes his coming out by first talking about deeply held family secrets. He recounts the men in his family who hid extramarital affairs for years — including his grandparents and his father, who kept his infidelity a secret from his mother all through his childhood. Carmichael reflects on how knowing this information about his father — but not telling him that he knew — weighed on him his entire life, as a child “birthed into secrets.” Carmichael may have waited until adulthood, but he eventually gave his father an ultimatum to reveal the truth, which he did in the end. This family drama laid bare puts the timeline of Carmichael’s own secret reveal into perspective.

“I’ve carried a lot of secrets my whole life,” says Carmichael in his oft-touching set, adding that when his father's infidelity was disclosed to the family, he felt like an outlier. “Once that was done, I was left alone feeling like a liar. Because I had a secret.” Carmichael admits that he was keeping his sexuality from everyone: his family, friends, and professional colleagues. Looking back to his network TV debut in 2015 on NBC’s The Carmichael Show, one of the biggest markers that he was hiding his true self is the plot itself, which featured a straight cisgender relationship between him and his eventual wife. After three seasons, Carmichael walked away from the critically acclaimed show, citing creative differences with executives. Whether or not network TV was keeping the all-Black version of a sitcom Ellen reveal from us, we don’t know, but we do know that Carmichael clearly didn’t feel the show represented who he actually was.

While all queer people throughout modern times have fought for the freedom to live publicly and equally, Black celebrities have typically stayed in the closet for much longer, even after other white stars came out en masse. Years of speculation around Queen Latifah’s sexuality dogged her in tabloids. And although Latifiah has since come out, other Black celebrities never got the chance.

R&B icon Luther Vandross, who died at age 54 in 2005, never came out publicly, although fans, other celebrities, and music journalists have found meaning in the dilemma in his lyrics. According to longtime friend Patti LaBelle, who spoke on Watch What Happens Live! in 2017, Vandross never came out because he thought it would hurt his mother too much and disappoint his legion of female fans. Today, more Black queer folks can work openly in entertainment and achieve the crossover success that Vandross never did, like Lil Nas X, who lives and loves without fear.

Still, even though comedians regularly push the boundaries of “polite society” to say something about the truth of human existence, Black queer comedians didn’t speak completely without boundaries until very recently. Starting in the 60s, Richard Pryor broke new ground by talking about the abuse he suffered, his extensive drug use, and the domestic violence of his brothel-owning parents. Pryor joked about just about everything, including his past queer sexual experiences in his early stand up and his autobiography Pryor Convictions: And Other Life Sentences.

Long after Pryor had passed away, legendary musician Quincy Jones ignited a media firestorm in 2018 by claiming Pryor had a relationship with Marlon Brando, which his widow confirmed. Even so, his daughter Rain pushed back at these claims, saying that people were trying to “drag her father’s name through the mud.” Pryor was a comedian who openly joked about setting himself on fire while freebasing, yet news that he might have beenpart of the queer spectrum was too much for his daughter.

Pryor is also a component in another Black comedian’s public drama: Paul Mooney, who was rumored to be gay and whose family dealt with posthumous accusations of sexual assault involving Pryor’s son. These accusations, while unsubstantiated, are also just messy and sad. Even worse, this unresolved rumor mill is just about all the representation queer Black folk have had until very recently. When more of us live out in the open, this kind of turmoil can hopefully be avoided.

Today, there are many queer Black comedians living their truths out and proud. Wanda Sykes just co-hosted the Oscars, bringing her wife to the red carpet on Hollywood’s biggest night. Carmichael also joins the ranks of Solomon Georgio, Jaboukie Young-White, Sam Jay, Dwayne Perkins, Sampson McCormick, and Punkie Johnson, who became the first openly queer Black cast member of SNL, proving every week that our comedy chops should never be questioned. Further, Carmichael starred in a skit with gay cast member Bowen Yang on Saturday, depicting what may be the first time an interracial gay couple of color has been in an SNL skit playing an interracial gay couple of color. It’s certainly the first time I’ve seen it.

Moments after Carmichael reaches the stage in Rothaniel, he tells the audience, “This only works if we feel like family,” and audience members listened — and spoke. People can regularly be heard talking back to his observations, but instead of derailing his standup set, what they had to say challenged him in his journey towards revealing his truth. He expressed the difficult time some of his family members have had, including his brother, who he wishes would “try harder” to accept him, and shares that he was most afraid, by far, to tell his mother. This is pretty familiar territory for me and for so many other gay folk.

As Carmichael described the somewhat fraught discussions with his mother about being gay and “going against God,” an audience member shouted, “Why don’t you give her some time?” Carmichael replied, “I’ve given her all the time in the world — I don’t know how much time it would take, and I don’t know how much time we have left.” This sentiment echoes through this history, and lives in the hearts of any of us who has held their true self inside.

Going back to his monologue on Saturday night, he joked about how people treat queer folk in big cities. “If you say you’re gay in New York, you can ride the bus for free and they just give you pizza,” Carmichael quipped. “If you’re gay in New York they let you host Saturday Night Live.” Considering how far we’ve come, that’s something to shout from the rooftops.