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 …what the end will be is about the lives of three generations of Black, queer men in one family: 74-year-old Bartholomew Kennedy, his 54-year-old son Maxwell, and Maxwell’s 18-year-old son, Tony. While the Kennedy men have much in common—or, as Bartholomew says, “I guess apples don’t fall too far from the tree”—each has a different personal experience of being gay and being Black. Bartholomew married a woman and stayed married until her death, at which time he, in his words, “invited the love of my life to move in with me and we closed the curtains.

Maxwell, divorced from Tony’s mother, is married to a man, but hides it from his colleagues and employer. Tony, the youngest Kennedy, is a high school football star and insists that “Nobody comes out anymore. You just like who you like.” These differing attitudes are likely influenced by the eras in which each came of age. This article explores the social and political events that may have impacted each character in his adolescence.

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Bartholomew Kennedy is 18: 1965

Bartholomew was born in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball as the first Black player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before Bart’s birth, Black Americans were still working to gain legal recognition of their rights and economic stability after the emancipation of slavery. Through numerous legal proceedings they sought to receive equal protection as articulated by the United States Constitution. Court cases like Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 continued the justification of second-class treatment of Black Americans with “separate-but-equal” practices that became a foundation for the Jim Crow laws of the South.

During his grade school years, Bartholomew would be witness to the battle of Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in public schools (1954), the lynching of Emmett Till (1955), the Montgomery bus boycott (1955), the integration of Central High School (1957), and Loving v. Virginia, the court case that eventually struck down state bans on interracial marriage (1958).

In 1960, at the onset of Bartholomew’s teenage years, the sit-in movement began, heralding an intensification of non-violent civil rights protest in the United States that would culminate in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The Black Panther Party, established in 1966, brought an ideology of Black nationalism, self-determination, and self-defense into the national conversation. Leaders of the civil rights movement, like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, used many different tactics and approaches all to achieve the same goal: freedom for Black Americans. Bayard Rustin, an openly gay Black man, had an active role in planning major non-violent civil rights protests, including the March on Washington. But before the end of the decade, Fred Hampton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and other Black civil rights activists were assassinated. The landscape of Bartholomew’s formative years would be dizzying, habitually traumatic, yet still progressive.

Bartholomew also came of age during, and fought in, the Vietnam War, a complicated conflict between North Vietnam and South Vietnam that began in 1954 when French colonial forces that controlled the region were defeated. During the Vietnam War, the North was supported by China, the Soviet Union, and other communist countries, and the South by the United States and other anti-communist nations. Over 8.7 million Americans served in the U.S. military during the conflict, 2.2 million of whom were conscripted, or forced to serve. Between 1964 and 1967 (the first three years of U.S. direct combat involvement) Black Americans were drafted, served in combat, and killed in the war at disproportionately higher rates than other racial groups, though as the war dragged on the discrepancy narrowed.

Woven into Bartholomew’s experience as a Black man in America was his life as a gay man in a heteronormative Christian society. The criminalization and persecution of homosexuality in what would become the United States began with the Puritans. Without legal protection it was, in effect, legal to discriminate and commit hate-crimes against homosexuals. For example, sodomy was a felony in all states until 1962. Anti-sodomy laws prompted police and vigilantes to search for gay men engaging in sexual activity in public bathrooms or parks and to arrest or physically assault them. Police also used threats of raiding known gay and lesbian bars to extort money from bar owners. In 1952 homosexuality was classified as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” by the American Psychological Association, a label that persisted until 1973. To be openly gay in the 1960s could result in being fired from your job, sent to a psychiatric institution, arrested, or killed.

In an event known as the “Lavender Scare,” which spanned 1950 to 1973, over 5,000 United States government employees were fired for being gay. At the time, homosexuals were thought to be a national security risk, much like supposed communists or communist sympathizers. These firings radicalized many gay people to join the fight for legal rights and protections under the law, a cause that had significant connection to Black Americans' fight for civil rights. The gay rights movement coalesced in 1969 after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village. The Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activist Alliance, and the first gay pride parade all came about as a result of what happened at Stonewall, closing a difficult decade on a hopeful note.

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Maxwell Kennedy is 18: 1985

Society’s relationship to homosexuality shifted drastically when the AIDS epidemic struck in 1981. Until the development of the drug AZT in 1987, a diagnosis was essentially a death sentence. Gay communities were decimated, and an entire generation of queer men and their stories were lost. Maxwell would have come of age in this era, a time when gay men were stigmatized and villified on the nightly news.

AIDS (which would eventually be found to be caused by a retrovirus known as HIV) became associated with the gay community because many of the earliest cases known cases were among gay men in large cities. While AIDS can infect anyone, public messaging around this new disease was deeply influenced by homophobia. Public health campaigns and political discourse focused on the perceived morality of those who became infected, driving home the suggestion that having multiple sexual partners would result in AIDS, and that those who became infected through sexual contact had brought the disease upon themselves and were dangerous to everyone else. For example, in July 1983 Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority Report newspaper ran a cover image of a white family, all wearing medical masks, with the headline “AIDS: Homosexual Diseases Threaten American Families.” This resulted in stigmatization of gay men: some politicians even advocated for banning them from occupations like teaching. It also contributed to a rise in violence against homosexuals, known at the time as “gay bashings.” Being openly gay in this time period could be dangerous.

Across the political spectrum, the government directed few resources towards the AIDS epidemic that was hitting the gay and bisexual male community, as well as the Black and Latinx communities, the hardest. Communities of color were further disproportionately impacted due to inequalities in access to healthcare. Gay men and others impacted by AIDS, frustrated by the lack of government action, organized to demand change. The most well-known organization, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) coordinated a series of creative and effective protests against the Food and Drug Administration, pharmaceutical companies, and others, all designed to draw attention and resources towards the AIDS crisis and encourage development of effective, affordable treatment.

This climate of fear of the 1980s persisted into the 1990s. In 1993, the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was implemented, reversing the ban on members of the gay community joining the military, as long as they did not share their sexuality. This policy did not prevent members from being harassed and discharged if they were discovered. The message to gay men from mainstream society was clear: if you want to live a comfortable life, free from discrimination, keep your sexuality private.

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Tony is 18: 2021

Tony, the youngest of the Kennedys, is a member of Gen Z, the cohort born between 1996 and 2012. The 21st century has seen many strides forward for the queer community, which may contribute to Tony's more fluid/open attitudes towards his own queerness. A 2016 report by Walter Thompson Innovation Group found that a member of Gen Z is far more likely to know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns than any previous generation, and that only 48% of 13-20 year-olds identified as straight, compared to 65% of the previous generation. This is undoubtedly influenced by a result of the changed legal and cultural landscape in which they came of age.

“Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was repealed in 2011, granting the queer community the right to openly serve in the military. In 2015, same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that all state bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional. While there is no federal law preventing discrimination against individuals on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, 20 states and many smaller municipalities have their own laws that do so. LGBTQ+ Americans serve, love, and work more freely than ever before, though there is more progress to be made.

Gay characters have been television mainstays for over 20 years, beginning in the late 1990s with shows like Queer as Folk and Will and Grace. 2010s shows like The Fosters and Modern Family depicted mainstream American families with same-sex parents. Shows like POSE and RuPaul’s Drag Race brought positive depictions of drag culture and queer culture to the masses. 2020s hit Euphoria features gay, trans, and other teenagers navigating modern life in ways related, and unrelated, to their sexualities and gender identities.

To give further context into the cultural landscape that exists for queer Gen Z teenagers, the 2010s have seen music artists in historically straight genres like R&B, rap, and country navigate coming out, from Frank Ocean’s 2012 open Tumblr letter describing that his album Channel Orange was partially about his past relationship with a man, to Lil Nas X’s coming-out tweet on the final day of Pride month in 2019. Musicians and social media influencers are on the forefront of pushing the boundaries of “masculine style” for both gay and straight men, and this flexibility in fashion is being matched by an increase in identity flexibility.

Social media apps like TikTok, Instagram and Twitter are platforms for young, queer artists to gain followings. They’re also a space for young people to experiment with their sexuality and gender presentation. Lil Nas X moved from “Old Town Road” taking off on TikTok to writing gay anthem “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” in just a few years time. Since TikTok’s specific algorithm links users to people with shared interests and identities, rather than people they know in real life, it has become a safe place for many queer Gen Z teenagers to talk openly about their sexualities and genders.

Each Kennedy man has a unique lifetime of experiences as a Black, gay man that inform his understanding of himself and the world. He brings these understandings to the family home, where they overlap and influence the other Kennedy men, providing each with a sense of history and the possibilities for the future for them and those like them.

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