E. Lynn Harris

The author who wrote about gay black men

E. Lynn Harris


Many Americans first learned of black men “living on the down low”—secretly having sex with other men while being publicly heterosexual—from E. Lynn Harris. In his 12 books, which sold more than 4 million copies, his characters led glittering lives that contrasted sharply with their inner conflicts.

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Harris grew up in Little Rock, Ark., said the Los Angeles Times. He knew he was gay before he entered the University of Arkansas, where “he was the first black yearbook editor and first black male cheerleader.” A sales representative for IBM for 13 years, he quit in 1990 to self-publish his first novel, Invisible Life, about a closeted black man who leads a gay life after college. “In a textbook case of self-promotion, he began hand-selling his 5,000 printed copies.” Often, Harris would leave copies “in black beauty parlors with a note inserted between the pages saying, ‘If you like this book, please go to your local bookstore and ask them to order it.’” His “unorthodox marketing methods” worked: Doubleday took notice, reprinted the book as a paperback, and contracted for a sequel.

The characters in such Harris books as Just as I Am and Any Way the Wind Blows were usually “macho men who just happened to love other macho men: football players, basketball players, highly paid executives,” said TheRoot.com. They had “lots of hot, tormented sex while wearing designer duds and generally living the glamorous life.” Harris inspired African-Americans to “talk about gay issues, from the beauty parlor to the barbershop.” Ultimately, he “normalized gay life for a community that had long been in denial” about it. Previously, he noted, “If you were an African-American and were gay, you kept your mouth shut and you went on and did what everybody else did. You had girlfriends, you lived a life that your parents had dreamed for you.”

Harris is survived by his mother and three sisters. He died of unknown causes; the Los Angeles County coroner’s office is conducting an autopsy.

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