Long before the secret world of closeted black gay men came to light in America, bestselling author E. Lynn Harris introduced a generation of black women to the phenomenon known as the “down low.”
Harris endeared such characters to readers who were otherwise unfamiliar with them, using themes and backdrops familiar to urban professionals, conditioned by their upbringings, their church leaders or their friends to condemn and criticize homosexuality in the African-American community. A proud Razorback cheerleader at the University of Arkansas who struggled with his own sexuality before becoming a pioneer of gay black fiction, Harris died Thursday at age 54 while promoting his latest book in Los Angeles.
Publicist Laura Gilmore said Harris died Thursday night after being stricken at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, and a cause of death had not been determined. She said Harris, who lived in Atlanta, fell ill on a train to Los Angeles a few days ago and blacked out for a few minutes, but seemed fine after that.
An improbable and inspirational success story, Harris worked for a decade as an IBM executive before taking up writing, selling the novel “Invisible Life” from his car as he visited salons and beauty parlors around Atlanta. He had unprecedented success for an openly gay black author and his strength as a romance writer led some to call him the “male Terry McMillan.”
In 15 years, Harris became the genre’s most successful author, penning 11 titles, ten of them New York Times bestsellers. More than four million of his books are in print.
McMillan had just spoken to Harris about a week ago, to tell him she would pay tribute to him in her upcoming book by having a character read one of his titles, “And This Too Shall Pass.”
“He was thrilled,” McMillan said. “I loved his spirit and generosity. I loved that he found his own niche in the world of fiction, and I’m grateful to have known him. This just breaks my heart.”
He went on to mainstream success with works such as the novel “Love of My Own” and the memoir “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.”
Harris’ storytelling fell into several categories, including gay and lesbian fiction, African American fiction and urban fiction. But he found success in showing readers a new side of African American life: the secret world of professional, bisexual black men living as heterosexuals.
His readers, many of them young black, professional women of dating age, were fascinated and shocked to learn that the men in their lives could be attracted to other men. Harris’ vivid storytelling — at least somewhat grounded in his reality and of others whom he knew — pulled back the curtain for some and held up the mirror for others.
“He was a pioneering voice within the black LGBT community, but also resonated with mainstream communities, regardless of race and sexual orientation,” said Herndon Davis, a gay advocate and a diversity media consultant in Los Angeles. “Harris painted with eloquent prose and revealing accuracy the lives of African American men and the many complicated struggles they faced reconciling their sexuality and spirituality while rising above societal taboos within the black community.”
For years, he was alone in exposing the “down low,” but the phenomenon exploded into mainstream culture in 2004, a decade after “Invisible Life.” That year, J.L. King’s “On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of ‘Straight’ Black Men Who Sleep With Men” hit bookstores and the author appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show.
Harris’ 1994 debut, “Invisible Life,” was a coming-of-age story that dealt with the then-taboo topic.
“If you were African American and you were gay, you kept your mouth shut and you went on and did what everybody else did,” Harris said in an interview last year. “You had girlfriends, you lived a life that your parents had dreamed for you.”
Harris was born in Flint, Mich., in 1955 and raised in Little Rock, Ark. He attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville where he was the school’s first black yearbook editor, the first black male Razorbacks cheerleader and president of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He graduated with honors with a degree in journalism.
Harris worked in corporate America for 13 years at IBM, Hewlett-Packard and At&T before quitting a career in sales to become an author. He was not living as an openly gay man when “Invisible Life” was published, and could not acknowledge the parallels between himself and the book.
“People would often ask, ‘Is this book about you?’ I didn’t want to talk about that,” he said. “I wasn’t comfortable talking about it. I would say that this is a work of fiction.”
Harris said that the courage readers got from the book empowered him to be honest about himself. He continued to tell stories dealing with similar issues, to tell black middle class readers about people they knew, but who were living secret lives.
Tilia Parks read “Invisible Life” as a 16-year-old and was moved by the struggle of someone so close to her own age.
“I loved the truthfulness of it,” said Parks, now 26, of Atlanta. “I’d never heard that point of view, of a guy finding himself and his sexuality at such a young age.”
Parks had looked forward to the next plot twist for the book’s main character, Raymond Tyler, who reappeared in subsequent titles has not been in Harris’ more recent works. With Harris’ death, Parks is saddened that his story may be gone.
“Loyal readers were looking for that,” Parks said. “I’m so sad. I was waiting for him to come back around and start talking about Raymond.”
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.