Profile: Giving Voice to Black Gay Men Through Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied

Marquis Bey

The poster for Tongues Untied (1989) dir. Marlon Riggs, distributed by Frameline & California Newsreel.

Marlon Riggs, a black gay documentarian and activist whose work was most prominent during the 1980s and early 1990s, released his classic film Tongues Untied in 1989. Riggs notes that it is a film “specifically for black gay men,” though its reception and praise has far exceeded this demographic.[1] Tongues Untied is a canonical film in the archive of black queer cinema, along with Riggs’s other work, namely Ethnic Notions (1986), Color Adjustment (1991), and Black Is…Black Ain’t (1994). Ethnic Notions, looks at racist stereotypes and caricatures of black people in the United States; Color Adjustments surveys forty years of black people in television; and while Black Is…Black Ain’t explores how multifaceted black identity is. Tongues Untied was a vanguard film because it was one of the first of its kind to explore the specificity of black gay identity.

The aim of this profile is to provide an analysis of Tongues Untied as a film explicitly about black gay identity and culture. This chapter also meditates on Riggs’s biography and relationship to the content, marginalized voices, black gay cultural practices, and the politics of sexuality within black communities.

Riggs himself was in many ways the subject of his films. He was born in 1957 in Texas and grew up during the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. Part of a loving family in a tight-knit black community, Riggs was a smart, athletic, articulate child. When he graduated high school and began college at Harvard University, he dated women while constantly trying to deny his attraction to men. For a while he tried to convince himself that men were ugly, disgusting, and that loving men was vile. But eventually he conceded his sexual attractions and began living life as a black gay man.[2] After entering into a long-term partnership with another man, he was compelled to bring his filmic talents to bear on his and others’ lives. Ultimately, Riggs felt the imperative to no longer remain silent about the plights and lives of black gay male identity, so he took to the reel. Unlike many documentaries at the time, he put himself in front of the camera. All of his films centered the lives of black people, and it was Tongues Untied that brought gay black people to the forefront.

He brings all of this to his films, and Tongues Untied can be understood as in part a representation of many things Riggs himself experienced throughout his life. Riggs was quite hesitant to make the film, remarking in an interview that

Everything within me was saying, “No, no don’t do it. Find somebody else who will talk about being HIV positive. Find somebody else who will talk about being an Uncle Tom. Find somebody else who will talk about being called nigger and punk and faggot and so forth.”[3]

Amid the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s when many people were dying from HIV/AIDS related illnesses (and of those were disproportionately black gay men), black queer film at the time sought to answer the questions of how to speak in the face of death and how to give voice to the dying. Even when not afflicted with deadly diseases, black gay men lived in the social conditions were not hospitable to their flourishing. They were marked as pariahs who, even if they were HIV-negative, were seen as always capable of infecting “innocent” (read: non-black and/or non-gay) people with their “deviant” lifestyles. To be called a faggot or nigger is an attempt to be silenced, which often worked. Many black gay men remained fearful of expressing their sexualities because of the verbal and physical violence they could be met with. This has been occurring for too long, too long has a racist and homophobic society disallowed black gay men from simply living as black gay men. So Riggs thought it absolutely necessary to break this silence.

As a film, Tongues Untied was one of the first to center black gay men and to speak explicitly about black gay life in ways that were not denigrated. The film features a wide range of other cultural producers of black art, featuring the music of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone and poetry by Essex Hemphill (who also appears in the film) and Joseph Beam. As well, it was defiant of categorization in its time—melding documentary, experimental filmography, poetry, and interview. Tongues Untied represented black gay men in ways that were unconventional in both content and form. It depicted more than a one-dimensional image of black gay life and conveyed not only the black man refused entry into the gay bar because of his blackness or the violent attack that left the gay man bleeding on the sidewalk; it also demonstrated the resilience of black gay male experience, from protest marches in solidarity with other struggles to intimate community through humorous “musicology” and Vogue dancing. All of this is groundbreaking, rarely depicted filmography.

The vast majority of the film is dark. Its background is pitch black as it faces black men speaking about their experiences. Many of the images shown are in black and white, muting colors that might have existed. The darkness of the film is symbolic of not only the blackness of the black men discussed, but it also symbolizes the profound void that the imposed silence onto black gay men creates. It symbolizes isolation, loneliness, the lack of voice. So what Tongues Untied does is, as its subtitle makes plain, “giv[e] voice to black gay men.” So often it is remarked that giving voice to the marginalized is important. But what does this mean? For Riggs and Tongues Untied it means “loosening the tongue,” as noted in the film. The tongue is a part of the body integral to speech, and its loosening marks a shift from voicelessness to being able to speak one’s truths. Racism and homophobia, or homophobic racism and racist homophobia, have shackled the voices of black gay men. And their silence is and has been killing them, disallowing them to ask for things they need or express their desires or convey the aspects of their lives. As black lesbian feminist poet Audre Lorde famously said, “Your silence will not protect you.” It is a silence imposed upon them, so to actualize liberation it is necessary for black gay men to reclaim their voices.

Moreover, the tongue is also an instrument of pleasure and sexuality. It is used to lick, a key component in sucking, integral to vocalizing lust and yearning. Non-heterosexual sex has been pathologized, and thus, to loosen the tongues of black gay men is not only about giving them a voice but also about allowing them to express their sexual desires more freely. Riggs, in the title of his film, breaks the silence of black gay men around sexuality as well as actual sexual acts.

Another prominent theme throughout is the complex culture of black gay men. This rich complexity is showcased primarily through three practices: voguing, snapping, and responses to homophobia.

A dancer voguing at the National Museum of African Arts.

Voguing is a stylized dance originating in the late 1980s and finding roots in underground ballroom scenes in the 1960s that were almost entirely queer people of color. It is inspired by the style of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and model poses in Vogue magazine. Voguers strike model-like poses in quick succession, integrating angular movement and holds with the arms and legs. The dance acts as a cultural site of expression in a world that routinely denies the unapologetic expression of black and queer livelihood, thus serving as a site of catharsis among these marginalized people.

In turn, snapping is, of course, snapping one’s fingers. But this practice takes on a larger meaning in black gay communities. Snapping is a sly yet profound retort to a number of things. The snap communicates in diverse languages and with varying connotations. It must, because black gay men have so long been silenced. Snapping acts as a way to speak beyond conventional means; snapping is a vital communication tool for black gay men who have been disallowed from speaking. There are a variety of different snaps, named in ways that describe their movement and purpose (e.g. classic snap, point snap). All of them, in different ways, communicate that “snaps can be for love and snaps can be strong,” as Riggs voices. So many dialects and languages in the brisk connecting of the fingers. It is, as said in the film, “more than just noise;” it is sound, voice, communication. For a demographic so violently silenced it is imperative that new forms of voice be created. Deprived of verbal voice, they can snap and say just as many things.

Encompassing both of these practices and the many others of black gay communities is how the broader world treats people who are black and gay. Riggs encapsulates this at one point in the film in which a medley of different voices spew various epithets used to foreshadow and do harm to black gay men—“punk,” “homo,” “faggot,” “motherfucking coon,” and “freak.” These are terms that solely serve to denigrate black and gay identity. Racist and homophobic terms such as these do not only speak badly of black and gay people; they are themselves forms of violence. As such, these terms negatively influence how black gay men in particular feel and behave in the world. For instance, especially in the 1980s—and still in the 21st-century—gay men had to often hide their sexualities for fear of homophobic violence (yet still subject to racist violence). If outed as gay they would often be met with physical and verbal forms of harm. These violent practices led many black gay men, and sexual minorities on the whole, to face a constant fear for their lives, unable to live publicly in affirmation of their gay identities.

To live in such constant fear necessitated an outlet. Quite often the only solace black gay men could find during the 1980s was other black gay men. Oftentimes communing with other black gay men was the only time one could be their full self. Viewers see an example of this in Tongues Untied when a group of black gay men are sharing a meal together, sharing anecdotes about their lives. They converse about encountering homophobic vitriol. The converse about confronting that vitriol and about strategies used to survive in its aftermath. Such moments are life-sustaining, and such moments allow for the tiny accumulation of boldness, acceptance, and love that constitute revolutionary acts.

What also weighed on black gay men, especially during the 1980s, is how other people in the black community forced an impossible choice, a choice voiced in the film as “Come the final throw-down, what is he first: black or gay?” This is an impossible choice for black gay men because it is impossible to separate the two identities—they are always, at the same time, black and gay. Recognition of this is perhaps the primary lesson learned by intersectionality: that the various aspects of our identities and oppressions converge and make up one another rather than being able to be separated out into discrete categories. That is, one is black and woman and faces bias on both of those grounds together, not one at a time. So, when the revolution comes, they will be black and gay first, because it could be no other way.

Black gay life is circumscribed by these violences, indeed, but it is not determined by them. There is, in other words, a rich social life that black gay men have despite these violences as well as in the face of these violences. Riggs finds the perfect consolidation of this tension in black gay men’s lives. Tongues Untied is then a film showcasing what one possible way of holding on to the pain and the joy might look like, and how holding on to these two things is revolutionary. Consider what Riggs says in an interview titled “Tongues Untied Lets Loose Angry, Loving Words:”

I really spoke of black men loving black men being not just a revolutionary act, but within the context of black male dynamics, the revolutionary act. It’s not the overthrow of whitey. It’s learning to love within all the conditioning of learning to hate ourselves. To me that’s truly a radical break from our past.[4]

Revolution happens when we radically depart from the current state of things, a state of things that rests on the foundation of white supremacist and homophobic violence. In this context, Riggs is arguing that black men loving one another is not just one revolutionary act among many others of equal weight; it is the revolutionary act. Because so much of Riggs’s world was structured by racism and homophobia, to love black men marked a way of inhabiting the world in a profoundly revolutionary way.

It cannot be overstated how profound black men loving black men is, especially in the context of 1980s black gay men amid the HIV-AIDS epidemic when there was an underground culture of “cruising”—men looking for illicit, often unprotected, sex with other men—during a sexual crisis. This practice affirms denigrated life. To clarify: for two black gay men to choose one another for unprotected sex, for pure pleasure and sexual autonomy, amid the HIV-AIDS crisis is not to be reduced simply to sexual irresponsibility or, even worse, ignorance. No, it is, rather, a commitment to living one’s sexual life as fully as possible despite how much one’s very identity has been pathologized. For two black gay men to have sex during this epidemic is an affirmation of closeness, of touch; of disregard for the various ways they have been told that their bodies and desires are disgusting and literally illegal. “I will not do what they have done to us,” the act says. “I will love every inch of you, every crevice.” And this is an unwavering love for those who have been said to be unlovable. Riggs, in giving voice to black gay men, is voicing precisely this sentiment.

Tongues Untied remains relevant today because there is still a lack of black gay male representation in film and media. Love between black gay men is still a taboo topic for films, only starting to change with the acclaim a film like Moonlight (2016) received. That Tongues Untied is still one of only a few films that explicitly take up black gay male life shows that there is still a lack of representation, which signals a larger silencing of black gay male experience in social life. Returning to this film could reassert the importance of black gay identity, hopefully ushering in a shift in the cultural imaginary.

All in all, the radical, revolutionary act is love, loving those who have been said to be unlovable. Tongues Untied is an ode to how breaking the silence and giving voice to the oppressed is revolutionary. So often in the 1970s was black identity and liberation understood as one thing, by the masculinist revolutionary calls of Black Power and Black Nationalism. But Riggs’s revolution is one focused on more than just “the overthrow of whitey”; it is one that is focused on how black men can learn to love one another. Real transformation, at least for Riggs, is in the ending of the silence black gay men have been forced to keep. When the silence—what is called in Tongues Untied “the deadliest weapon”—ends, perhaps black gay men can come together and love unapologetically and openly. And as said in the opening minutes of the film, through coming together—the coming together of “BGAs: Black Gay Activists”—“we can make a serious revolution together.”


I Shall Not Be Removed, a film biography by Karen Everett about Marlon Riggs.

  1. Marlon Riggs, An Interview with Marlon Riggs: Tongues Untied Lets Loose Angry, Loving Words, interview by Robert Anbian, March 1990,
  2. Karen Everett, I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs, 1996,
  3. Tongues Untied: Filmmaker Interview with Marlon Riggs | Season 4 Episode 5 | POV (PBS, 1991),
  4. Marlon Riggs, An Interview with Marlon Riggs: Tongues Untied Lets Loose Angry, Loving Words.