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Michael K. Williams Changed the Way Black Gay Men and America Saw Themselves

Before Michael K. Williams and his paradigm shifting performance as Omar on The Wire gay Black men were virtually invisible except as outré caricatures. “Williams was a possibility model for so many young, Black gay and queer kids to see themselves on screen played with so much life, love and passion,” said NBC News.

NBC News: [Willams] best known for his role as Omar Little on the award-winning HBO drama series The Wire, from 2002 until the show’s end in 2008. Omar was a terrifying stickup man who stalked the streets of Baltimore fearlessly robbing drug dealers while wearing a billowing duster concealing a sawed-off shotgun. But he was also an unashamedly open gay man with a moral “code.”

After The Wire, Williams went on to portray other gay characters, such as the Vietnam veteran Leonard Pine in 2016’s Hap and Leonard; the HIV-positive activist Ken Jones in When We Rise in 2019; and, mostly recently, Montrose Freeman in 2020’s Lovecraft Country. His role as Freeman earned him his fifth Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series.

LZ Granderson wrote: What made Williams such a compelling force on screen was his ability to challenge viewers to see the humanity in a character who struggles to show humanity toward others. It’s a remarkable gift — the ability to woo an audience into accepting villainous actions as heroic. With each episode of one of his shows, especially The Wire from 2002 to 2008, our moral compass was tugged toward Williams’ magnetic portrayals.

David Simon, creator of the show, once told me that whenever someone asked him why he made Omar gay, he would respond: Why did we make the other 19 characters straight? It’s a brilliant counterpoint, one that confronts without antagonizing, while touching on the theme of the first LGBTQ equality march on Washington, back in 1979: We are everywhere.

That includes the ‘hood.

We just didn’t talk about it.

But for people to accept the premise that the most feared man in one of Baltimore’s most dangerous neighborhoods was openly gay, the actor portraying him had to first breathe life into an asphyxiated version of Black masculinity. A version being snuffed out in most retellings of Prohibition America and the Harlem Renaissance, which scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. said was “as gay as it was Black, not that it was exclusively either.”

From Gladys Bentley and Ethel Waters to James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, the contributions of open Black LGBTQ people are present to this day, even though their sexual orientation and gender identities were shoved in the closet decades ago.

“What was really amazing about Michael K. Williams was that he was unafraid of playing Black gay men in Hollywood,” Emil Wilbekin, former editor of Vibe magazine, told NBC News. “That was taboo then and still is today. He was willing to play those roles and push back against heteronormativity in Hollywood.”

Wilbekin told NBC News that Williams’ passing reminds us of the power of media and the importance of diverse, on-screen representation.

“Williams was a possibility model for so many young, Black gay and queer kids to see themselves on screen played with so much life, love and passion. He made it not stigmatized,” he said. “That’s why we see so many people touched by his death. When someone is a real artist and gives so much to their work, we as fans and as TV lovers, we will miss that.”

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