Screenshot via YouTube / HBO
As comedian Kevin Hart is currently laid up in the hospital having suffered serious injuries to his back following a car crash a few days ago, he is likely unaware that a 57s long clip of an exchange with chart ruler Lil Nas X taken from HBO’s The Shop went viral and reignited discussion about his attitudes towards the LGBTQI+ community.
The Shop takes place in a barbershop, long heralded as a “safe space” for black men (and men in general) to speak candidly about themselves, the world and their place in it. Unlike “the locker room”, where men apparently go to be crude at best, misogynistic at worse, the barbershop has a different connotation. This is a place for, if not vulnerability, then at least honesty. There is an expectation that in the barbershop you can find camaraderie and support if you need it. In an ideal world, this is the perfect setting for a young black man suddenly in possession of incredible fame to discuss his sexuality – in particular how it felt to come out not just to family and friends, but millions of people around the world. Unfortunately, as 21-year-old Lil Nas X struggled to articulate the complex experience to his elders, he was repeatedly interrupted by a belligerent Kevin.
“‘Who cares!?!’ is the cry of someone who wants to tell a gay person that they, personally, do not have a problem with their sexuality, even as their shrill tone betrays their unacknowledged discomfort”
Taken at face value, Hart’s reaction is clumsy, but not malicious. “Who cares!?!” is not consciously harmful rhetoric – indeed, at its core, I believe it to be well-meaning – but despite the intent, to dismiss the coming out process for a gay person, particularly a young black man in the public eye, is an ignorant, privileged stance to take. There is an instinct, I think, deep within cisgender heterosexual people (cis-het) who do not have an academic issue with queerness, but are not often confronted by it outside of the media, to be loudly nonchalant about it.
“Who cares!?!” is the cry of someone who wants to tell a gay person that they, personally, do not have a problem with their sexuality, even as their shrill tone betrays their unacknowledged discomfort. It allows straight people to convey that they are not a threat to LGBTQI+ people without engaging with the many reasons that gay people have to be wary of such a threat. To blithely, arrogantly, state “who cares!?!” and in doing so tacitly ignore the fact that there are lots of people who do care, to the detriment of the LGBTQI+ community, absolves cis-het people of their complicity in a homophobic society.
It is difficult, however, to extend Kevin this same benefit of the doubt, given his previous record. In his 2010 stand-up special, Seriously Funny, Kevin “joked” about his biggest fear being that his son would grow up to be gay and how he would beat him for displaying “gay” behaviour. His failure to reckon with the backlash to this joke, or any of the other incidents of homophobia that have peppered his career and refusal to apologise sincerely to the LGBTQI+ community, later cost him his role as the host of the 2019 Oscars. In a sycophantic, pandering appearance on The Ellen Show a month after the controversy had died down, Kevin again refused to apologise in any meaningful way, insisting that “haters” were trying to bring him down.
“It is better for Kevin to act like none of this is a big deal because if it’s not a big deal then his own actions are inconsequential and he is absolved of any responsibility”
With that backdrop, Kevin Hart’s “who cares!?!” and his incredulous “WHY?” when Lil Nas X tries to explain the struggle that goes hand in hand with coming out, become less a well-meaning sentiment that falls short and more an attempt to derail, deflect and disassociate himself from the exact behaviour that Lil Nas X is talking about. “I’m growing up to hate this shit,” Lil Nas X said, speaking of the toxic masculinity that breeds homophobia, even within gay men themselves. The sort of toxic masculinity that manifests as “jokes” about battering your own child. The sort of toxic masculinity Kevin Hart has demonstrated no remorse for. Kevin is not interested in the details of Lil Nas X’s reality when the power dynamic is such that it is far easier for him to stick his fingers in his ears and la-la-la about it instead. It is better for Kevin to act like none of this is a big deal because if it’s not a big deal then his own actions are inconsequential and he is absolved of any responsibility.
Of course, when topics such as these become hot, and people take sides, it is easy to get lost in the irrelevant details. Virulent supporters of Kevin will say that detractors are weaponising his past against him. Those who take issue with his comments and behaviour over the years are unlikely to see past it when he has clearly not learned to treat the LGBTQI+ community with any measure of sensitivity. But this incident is not about Kevin Hart and Lil Nas X, it is about the reflection of society we see within it. It cannot be acceptable for straight people to gaslight LGBTQI+ people over their very genuine fears about living openly and authentically at a time when the progress made towards equality is being rolled back. Kevin Hart will keep being taught that lesson until it sticks, for everyone.