E. Lynn Harris, who introduced millions of readers to the “down low” lifestyle of black gay men, died Thursday night in Los Angeles while on a tour to promote his eleventh novel, Basketball Jones. His health had declined, but details of the cause of death are unavailable. Harris wrote novels that exposed readers to “black, affluent gay men who were masculine, complex and, sometimes, tormented” characters who had rarely been depicted in black literature. He encouraged the black community to talk frankly and candidly about homosexuality in books like Invisible Life, A Love of My Own, and his New York Times best-selling memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. He pretty much invented a new literary genre about black gay men living double lives. Although he wrote primarily about black homosexual men, some of Harris’ biggest fans were black women. In 1991, the former IBM executive began selling his first book out of the trunk of his car to black beauty salons and bookstores. Harris went on to become a very popular writer, selling an estimated four million of his books in print.
His work didn’t lack for criticism, however. Some said he had discovered a winning literary formula, but was just a mediocre writer. To which he would respond, “‘I’m not a James Baldwin,’” said a friend. But most of his criticism came from within the black community. Some black gay men thought he wasn’t providing an accurate portrayal of their lifestyle, whereas others thought he was exposing too much. Another friend and fellow author Tananarive Due said Harris took away some of the pain regarding homosexuality in the black community with his novels and life. He resisted becoming a gay rights advocate, saying that his homosexuality was only a small part of who he was. “It’s what I do when I’m with my partner that puts this label on me,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2003. “Most of my friends are straight. I tend to have a regular life, if you will.” [CNN, Black Voices]