When The Wire premiered on HBO in 2002, the public was immediately captivated. The gritty crime drama focused on the seedy underbelly of Baltimore, Maryland and introduced viewers to a variety of identities and situations that were previously non-existent on American television. The writers and producers sought to create a hyper-realistic depiction of urban life while avoiding the sensationalist approaches normally taken by such subject matter. Audiences of varying backgrounds identified with and reacted to the smartly drawn and nuanced characters and for queer people of color in particular, The Wire, represented a pivotal development in media representation. The Wire featured several queer characters, all of whom exist outside of the normative perception of what is acceptable for a queer television character because they exist in a highly marginalized area of society without qualification. One character in particular, Omar Little, lives a life that can only be described as a comprehensive deviation from societal expectations. Omar is an anomaly in almost every facet of his identity. Omar is The Wire’s archetypal Robin Hood and to some extent the heart of the show. Omar and his crew frequently rob street level drug dealers and use the money to support themselves while simultaneously cleaning up the streets. Omar presents as a hardened street criminal but adheres to a strict moral code which includes abstaining from profanity. Most notably, however, Omar is an openly gay, hyper-masculine African American male living in an urban center. While that combination of contradictions should most certainly read unrealistically, Omar comes across as fully realized and not simply a vehicle for some socially righteous agenda.
The difficulty of presenting a character like Omar Little stems from the inherent lack of any precedent for such a portrayal. Prior to the time that The Wire aired, American television tended largely to facilitate diversity through flatly non-threatening depictions of minorities. The history of both queer and African American television representation has been marked by a tendency to strip characters of their cultural context and to place them in the most normative possible environment. This has often meant that such characters have been relegated to sitcoms or to minor or trivial roles on dramatic series. Omar Little’s existence as a queer black man in a major role on a dramatic television show completely deviated from that tendency. In one of Omar’s first scenes on the show, he is depicted sleeping in bed with his boyfriend when he hears a noise, grabs his gun and goes to investigate. Not finding anything, he goes to the kitchen for cereal. In one very short scene, a compounded notion of identity emerges. The audience is at once presented with an image of a young black man who is homosexual (presumably comfortably so) and traditionally masculine enough to casually use a gun, while being domestic enough to keep a clean organized home. Overt masculinity has long been associated with heterosexuality and Omar’s life as a dangerous street criminal most certainly plays into those assumptions, so much so that it tends to color other men’s notions of his identity. Omar is feared and respected amongst the other men that he interacts with who are mostly heterosexual. This contradicts the typical notions of gay men as less than straight men because they are assumed to be less masculine and therefore non-threatening. Traditionally, Omar’s position as a gay man would be central to any straight male he interacts with on the show and likewise would be central to his character development. One of the more innovative qualities of Omar’s portrayal is that his homosexuality is presented as fact without the necessity of patronizing humor or an overtly sympathetic narrative. Throughout the series, Omar engages in romantic relationships with men and his sexuality is treated as something inherent and thus there are no flashbacks explaining his coming out or depicting his struggles with reconciling his identity. Given the stigma associated with queerness in the African American community, this is particularly progressive because it could be assumed that Omar would have a great internal struggle with his sexuality due to societal expectations. Instead, Omar appears to be very comfortable with his sexuality which is depicted through his romantic relationships. Where gay men and black men are often depicted as over-sexualized beings, unable to reckon with the concept of monogamy, Omar enters into three committed and monogamous relationships over the course of the show’s five seasons. Much like Omar’s character himself, depictions of functioning, minority queer relationships on television were a fairly progressive move on the part of the show’s producers.
The concept of black gay men in America is highly complex and informed by expectations and pressures related to masculinity, fear, and suppression. Ron Becker uses an example from another American crime drama, Law & Order, to illustrate the institutionalized stigmas that have informed the way media deals with black gay men. In his essay “Guy Love” Becker describes an episode of Law & Order where a white District Attorney is murdered by his African American lover who is also an attorney (Becker 129). While the District Attorney is out of the closet, his lover is married and on the “Down Low” which is a term for the subculture of black men that present publicly as heterosexual, but engage in homosexual sex secretly. Becker draws connections between the proliferation of these kinds of narratives and the notion that homosexuality in African Americans is often associated with immoral, deviant and often violent behavior which is a product of an inability to come to terms with a sexual identity that is largely understood by White America. Omar highly contrasts other images of gay black male characters on television because his homosexuality is not presented as a debilitating condition which consumes his identity. Furthermore, Omar is depicted as someone who is comfortable with his sexuality within his own environment which suggests a mental dexterity that is not often afforded to similar characters. Omar’s life is complicated by his criminal activities and by his relationships and not by fear of detection, of disease, or of emasculation. These complications serve to disconnect the idea of masculinity from sexual identity. Within the context of the show, Omar never appears to be unsafe or in jeopardy because of his sexuality and that reinforces the idea that a gay man can be strong and independent without living in a completely queer world.
As a black male character, the characterization of Omar is particularly important because, while his monogamous behavior contradicts traditional notions of promiscuous homosexuality, it also allows for the development of emotional depth which helps to deconstruct the concept of the black male body as a purely sexual and violent object which has been a significant issue in both the gay male community and American society as a whole. The fact that these compounded contradictions were able to inhabit one television character on a non-queer driven television show without the need to engage in assimilationist de-contextualization or sensationalization is remarkable. The subversiveness embodied in Omar’s sexual and gender identity is indicative of the subversive nature of his character and of the show as a whole. The Wire was groundbreaking for suggesting that some of the most marginalized members of American society had a compelling story to tell and that there was more to be derived from their existences than voyeuristic intrigue and pity. That queer people of color represent more than the sum of their circumstances is a notion that continues to struggle toward acceptance and while there is no formula for perfecting representation, one thing is clear: television needs more Omars.
Becker, Ron. “Chapter 7: Guy Love.” Queer TV: Theories, Histories, Politics. Ed. Glyn Davis and Gary Needham.121-40. Print.