By Nathan James
In February, Kathryn Shattuck penned a listing of 14 TV shows that broke ground with gay and transgender characters in The New York Times, intending to depict the progress the LGBTQ community has made in becoming more visible in popular culture. The article, admittedly limited in scope, cites such programs as Ellen, Queer As Folk, and Orange Is The New Black, all true milestones in the inclusion of gays, lesbians, and transgender people on the small screen. Each entry on Ms. Shattuck’s list is, as she points out, a defining moment in “a turbulent 45-year trajectory from television movies to single episodes involving secondary players to fully fleshed-out characters central to a show’s story line.” However, even among these important developments in our community’s long march towards equality, Ms. Shattuck has rendered one nearly iconic LGBT TV series conspicuous, by its absence from the story. That would be Noah's Arc, which was a great gathering of “firsts” in its casting, theme, and delivery. Conceived and developed by Patrik-Ian Polk, an accomplished screenwriter, producer and director whose career has been defined by his devotion to the stories of Black gay characters, Noah’s Arc made an immediate and lasting impact upon all who were fortunate enough to watch it on LOGO.
That this program found its home on LOGO is just one of many reasons I believe Noah’s Arc should occupy a prominent place in any pantheon of game-changing LGBTQ-oriented, or LGBTQ-friendly TV shows. LOGO was, and is, the first purpose-built TV channel designed and operated for America’s too-often invisible same-gender loving (SGL) and transgender viewers. Noah entered LOGO’s initial programming lineup, when the network began, and sent shockwaves through the SGL community of color. The series, which follows young writer Noah Nehemiah Nicholson (Darryl Stephens), was the first to depict a group of Black gay men, as they contend with their daily struggles with the trials of life in an intolerant, homophobic society. Mr. Polk wove his dramedy carefully, revealing the true humanity of his characters. The rest of the ensemble cast, comprising Jensen Atwood, Doug Spearman, Rodney Chester, and Christian Vincent, gave new meaning to a segment of the larger LGBTQ community that has historically been minimized or ignored outright.
It’s difficult to overstate what Mr. Polk and Noah’s Arc accomplished. Its portrayal of Black gay men in their real, sometimes poignant authenticity, the series gave to its audiences a glimpse (albeit fleeting—just 17 episodes aired, despite the show being among LOGO’s highest-rated) of themselves, for the first time. In a very concrete way, Black gay viewers could finally see relatable personalities on a network willing to present them. It was certainly no easy move for the network’s executives—the LGBTQ community of color is a subset of an already small demographic—but nevertheless, a bold one. I clearly recall a season when I couldn’t enter a Black gay household without seeing a picture of Noah and Wade (Atwood) displayed somewhere. An absent Noah, I submit, highlights the ongoing problem Black gay culture faces to this day, its invisibility.
Yes, today we see the occasional RuPaul, Don Lemon, or Laverne Cox, and it is perhaps iconoclastic of me to say they are but drops in the enormous ocean of the entertainment industry, but this just highlights what a major, emergent entity Noah’s Arc really was. In 2005, the year this show premiered, we were just 2 years removed from Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court decision that finally “legalized” homosexuality nationwide, and marriage equality was still a mere pipe dream. Gays and lesbians couldn’t serve openly in the military, and the covert gay romance film Brokeback Mountain was considered so unacceptable that it was banned in Utah. Amidst this hostile environment, Mr. Polk and LOGO took their courage in their hands, and gave us five unforgettable men that told us there was a better tomorrow on the way.
For these reasons, I therefore resolve that no discussion of “groundbreaking” gay and/or transgender moments in TV history is ever quite complete, however abridged, without the inclusion of Noah’s Arc. Ironically, with the current backlash against the LGBTQ community and other vulnerable minorities, Mr. Polk’s California friends and lovers might just be more relevant today, than they were a dozen years ago.