These days are ours / Share them with me / These happy days are yours and mine / Happy days …
When the legendary Garry Marshall died last week, I immediately remembered a childhood in my hometown of Milwaukee watching Happy Days. My Milwaukee was vastly different from the lives that Richie Cunningham and his friends led: White flight took white families to the suburbs that couldn’t be reached by black families on public transportation. I grew up in the same area where Jeffrey Dahmer killed young men of color as the police did nothing to investigate their disappearances. Still, I found the show comforting. Its themes of friendship, of family, resonated with me, even though I wasn’t personally represented in the show.
But then again, the history of black families and television involves taking a few crumbs from the table of joy when someone produces a show with black cast members while subsisting on a diet of mostly white television. My grandmother watches The Young and the Restless, initially lured to it by Victoria Rowell’s portrayal of a strong black matriarch, and has stuck around, even as much of the black Winters family has been decimated over the years. So when Looking debuted on HBO in 2014, I looked forward to seeing the show’s black and Latino supporting characters among the sea of gentrified San Francisco. After all, if you want to watch a television show that features gay black men, your only options are DVDs of Noah’s Arc or RuPaul’s Drag Race.
But then a funny thing happened. The show, with its lived-in moments and characters, became universal. Much like some gay men find themselves in caricatures like Carrie Bradshaw and her crew, I found myself connecting to Patrick’s naïveté. It reminded me of coming out as a black male in a largely white community, where I was still in the dark about what it truly meant to be gay because I had no one to really explain it to me. I connected to Agustín and his constant fucking up. I connected to Dom and his fear that he might never get to chase his dreams. Looking performed what it needed to do. It was never perfect, but it was a show about gay men examining friendship and romantic relationships, and in a time when the GOP platform involves gay conversion therapy, that’s a goddamn act of revolution.
The trouble is, Looking had detractors. And not just detractors, but vitriolic detractors. It’s not strange to look at social media and see that most content directed toward gay men can often get torn to shreds. There’s always the party line that magazines like Out and The Advocate need to focus on more substantive stories and people of color, but beefcakes, pretty white faces, and straight men gay-baiting — or divas on Ryan Murphy shows — are the things that get praise on social media. Perhaps that’s what’s afforded when you have representation as a white gay male: You have the opportunity to see white maleness as the face of the gay movement everywhere — from magazine covers to television shows to historical films like Milk and The Normal Heart and even Stonewall, which should’ve starred nary a white male but somehow did.
When you’re a gay person of color, however, you look at a television show at face value. Is it entertaining and can I relate to it, even if I’m not represented? In the same way I related to Happy Days, I could relate to Looking. It was a light, frothy, sometimes emotionally resonant and politically aware show that shied away from the darker edges of the city it was set in. And in that sense, the Looking movie wins by focusing on Raúl Castillo’s portrayal of Richie Donado Ventura. One of the peculiar things about watching the show as a black man was seeing how much depth Castillo added to a character that needed to be plumbed more.
Gay communities are just like straight communities in that we’re often grouped together by race. The majority of black men date black men, Latino men date Latino men, and white men date white men. To be involved in interracial dating in America always requires an examination of your own culture and the culture of the person you’re dating. I understood Patrick’s attraction to Richie, but I never quite got why Richie went from Patrick to Brady, two argumentative white boys, while Castillo instilled Richie with the weight of a man who was very proud of his heritage and quick to call Patrick out on casual, liberal racism the first time they met, when Patrick fetishized the fact that Richie might have an uncircumcised penis.
It’s why I was thankful that the film, in wrapping up the series, put Richie front and center. The film is a set of well-constructed, meaningful looks from Richie gazing in at a life he doesn’t know how to take. Wrapped up in homophobia from his father, his feelings for Patrick, and going through the motions with Brady, we’re able to finally see who he is as a character. As he stands and witnesses a scene where Brady and Patrick argue over what it means to be gay and how to correctly portray the life of a gay man (no doubt director and writer Andrew Haigh’s clapback at the show’s detractors), we see him push past their bullshit and decide to follow his heart. The politics of gay men will always have a push and pull between the white majority and men of color who fight for their place to be recognized. In Looking, Richie finally demands to be recognized, and the lead, our white hero, becomes his support system. It’s a gift to fans who never expected to be represented by Looking, but somehow found a place for it in their hearts.