It was 1994, and I can't remember if I'd come to DC for Black Gay Pride weekend or was simply in town to go clubbing, but I do remember a group of us going to Lambda Rising bookstore. Someone in the group mentioned the novel Invisible Life, which I wasn't familiar with, and the conversation became animated. I was the only one who had neither heard of the book, nor read it, and the premise sounded fascinating, an exploration of the world of black gay men.
I read half of the book in the car on the way back to Richmond (I've always been a rather fast reader of fiction; with history, I make it a point to take more time); it was a captivating read. The protagonist was the good looking, middle class, future second generation attorney Raymond Winston Tyler, Jr. Through an encounter with a fellow college student, Tyler discovered that he was not entirely straight, and the novel follows him to New York City where he deals with Columbia Law School and a struggle to accept who he is.
E. Lynn Harris' books provided me with a break from my studies in history in the mid '90s and early 2000s. Harris brought to life a world of upwardly mobile gay and bisexual black men, a world virtually ignored in both African American and GLBT fiction. Harris' books reminded me that I was not alone out there, and explored the difficulties that can come when black and gay are housed in one body.
Harris became wildly popular with black women, and I have to admit that I was always puzzled by that. Perhaps it gave women a window into a world that they really didn't know existed. Harris created characters who were dealing with both men and women, some openly, many more secretively. Harris' popularity with black women came pretty close to the popularity of Terry MacMillan (and both interestingly and sadly, MacMillan's life seemed to become something akin to a Harris plot, when her husband revealed that he was gay himself).
Harris brought to the forefront the lives of black gay and bisexual men; he provided a window into a world that so many seem either to ignore or dismiss. He certainly caught my attention. Harris made me laugh with his constant food descriptors for his characters. There was one who was biscuit brown, another who looked like a Barbie doll dipped in chocolate, and another who was honey brown. At the very least, I was convinced that Harris loved food.
Though I haven't read all of his works, I've read and enjoyed many. E. Lynn Harris will be missed greatly, and I think that a fitting legacy to his effort to show us the world of black gay and bisexual men would be for someone finally to bring Invisible Life and the second novel Just As I Am to the big screen.