E. Lynn Harris
By Dionn McDonald
E. Lynn Harris was a prolific American author of popular fiction. Harris’ characters often portrayed the lives of closeted Black gay men. His novels were semi-autobiographical, as they depicted experiences in his own life and those of his friends. Harris was groundbreaking in that he was the first to tell the difficult stories of closeted gay men in a way that crossed over to a heterosexual audience. Widely popular, all of his novels were NewYork Times best sellers. Harris was a huge commercial success and his writing positively affected the lives of many people who saw themselves on his written pages.
Everette Lynn Harris was born June 20, 1955 in Flint, Michigan. He was raised in Little Rock, Arkansas by his mother Etta Mae Harris and his stepfather Ben Harris. He was the oldest, with three younger sisters. Life was difficult for Lynn and his mother, who were subject to physical abuse from Ben Harris. Although Lynn had early experiences that caused him to question his sexuality, he knew that he needed to keep this part of himself hidden. Lynn retreated into his imagination and was an avid reader. After his parents divorced, his mother moved the family into a middle-class neighborhood, where Lynn became increasingly aware of class and skin color difference. He spent his high school years trying to gain acceptance from his white middle-class peers. Lynn ran for a seat on the student council and participated in a summer program for teenage boys with political aspirations. It was during this program, which was held on a university campus, that Lynn began to understand that there might be some other world where he could be attracted to the same sex. Education, Lynn believed, was the means by which he could leave Little Rock. Leaving Little Rock seemed to be the only option for survival.
Harris was awarded scholarships and grants to attend the University of Arkansas Fayetteville. In addition to having political aspirations, while in junior high he had worked on the school newspaper. Thus, he pursued a B.A. in Journalism. In 1977, Harris was acknowledged by Jet magazine for being the first Black student to serve as editor of a publication at his university. He was also noted among the list of Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities. Throughout college, he was active in political and social organizations, including a Black fraternity. Although he was popular and had an active social life, he still struggled with feeling as though he didn’t measure up to the expectations of others. Navigating through a homophobic fraternity life added to his feelings of difference. Although he still displayed some interest in women, Lynn engaged in closeted and tumultuous relationships with other young men on campus. Riddled with low self-esteem, he found life’s emotional losses difficult and wrestled with attempts at suicide. These losses fueled his desire to leave Arkansas for something better.
Although Harris considered attending law school after graduation, he accepted a position with IBM in computer sales and relocated to Dallas. While his position afforded him a middle class life, his insecurities remained. He lived beyond his means and found it difficult to maintain healthy relationships. Although he found a gay social life in Dallas, it was still the South in the late 1970s. Many of his sexual affairs were with other closeted gay men. Frequenting both gay and straight nightclubs, he observed many closeted gay men intentionally living a heterosexual life. With these observations informing his view of himself, he imagined that he too could have a heterosexual life with extracurricular pursuits. These observations would later serve as the material for his novels. His family and the people he met were reflected in his writing.
As before, emotional loss fueled a desire to escape to New York City, then to Chicago and Washington, D.C. In these more cosmopolitan cities Harris found an open and vibrant gay nightlife, yet his personal conflicts continued. His romantic failures were compounded by the loss of friends. During the 1980s, the lives of many around him were taken by HIV/AIDS. His battles with depression, coupled now with alcoholism, grew stronger. After a long rough period he found some hope through the realization that he wanted to write. With the financial assistance of his friends and family, he ended his career in sales and became a writer. He poured all of his energy into his writing. Harris found comfort in writing about his college experiences and finally beginning to tell his truth. Once his first novel was complete, he sent his manuscript to publishers and literary agents. While he received encouragement along the way, no one was willing to take him on as a client. After several rejection letters Harris decided to self-publish, and he set up an office in Atlanta, where he was living.
Invisible Life was self-published in 1992 and the launch parties, in both Little Rock and Atlanta, were a great success. Harris sold many books through these events and news traveled fast, with orders coming in afterwards based upon word of mouth. He also received a great deal of support from AIDS organizations, who used his novels as ways to educate their clients. By the end of 1992 he sold 5000 books through mail order, beauty shops and independent bookstores. The debut of his first novel served as a “coming out of the closet” for him and was met by broad and positive support from family and friends. Semi-autobiographical, Harris’ fictional characters came to life on the page and he created them with the intention of revealing previously hidden experiences. His main character, Raymond, attends a southern university where he begins to discover his sexuality. What ensues is his struggle between attractions to men and to women. The impact of AIDS was also introduced in this first novel. After a highly successful launch, Invisible Life was commercially published by Anchor Books in 1994. The sequel, Just As I Am (1995), was named Blackboard’s Novel of the Year. Both Invisible Life and Just As I Am were optioned for film adaptation.
Harris’ fourth novel, If This World Were Mine (1998), centers around a group of friends, both gay and straight. In addition to sexuality, this fourth novel incorporates themes of racism and was awarded the James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence. If This World Were Mine and A Love of My Own (2003) were both nominated for an NAACP Image Award. Any Way the Wind Blows (2002), tells its story from the perspective of a career-driven woman, Yancey, whose former fiancée is bisexual. A Love of My Own (2003) places a group of friends amidst the historical events that took place in New York City in 2001. Harris’ inclusion of heterosexual characters and current events increased his popularity and the diversity of his readers. Although Harris wrote his fiction from his own experiences, he offered a more complete version of his life in his autobiography, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted (2003). It revealed the details of the personal struggles that began in his childhood and followed him through most of his adult life. Harris spent much of his adulthood suicidal and looking for love and acceptance from others, all the while not feeling as though he were deserving. He was at last able to heal by focusing his energy on writing his truth. Through his commitment to writing he maintained celibacy and sobriety. Once he learned to love and accept himself, he was able to find a long-term relationship with another. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted is a story of triumph.
Harris’ depiction of the lives of gay men not only served as popular fiction, but also informed the public of the difficulties experienced by gay men of his generation. His works also address the intersections of sexuality, homophobia, class and race. Harris saved his own life through his writing and the lives of so many others. In his writing, he addressed issues that few others were talking about in literature—closeted gay men and HIV/AIDS. He received an abundance of positive correspondence from readers. This warm reception from fans was tempered by critics. He received some harsh criticisms regarding his common vernacular. However, it is the accessibility of his writing that has also contributed to his popularity. Harris was also not well received by some gay men, who felt that the depictions were stereotypical and not widely representative of their experiences.
Harris’ writing has been featured in countless magazines, including Essence and The Advocate. E. Lynn Harris’ popularity elevated him to celebrity status and earned him a place on many red carpets. He appeared on Broadway, narrating a performance of Dreamgirls. Shortly before his death, he completed a screenplay for the remake of the 1976 film Sparkle. He started the E. Lynn Harris Better Days Literary Foundation to aid aspiring writers in realizing their dreams. Harris was an English professor at his alma mater, the University of Arkansas Fayetteville. He was also a guest lecturer at more than twenty educational institutions, including Harvard University, Morehouse College and Carnegie Mellon University. As recognition for his contribution to the lives of others, E. Lynn Harris was inducted into the Arkansas Hall of Fame. His name has also appeared on many notable lists such as Ebony’s “Most Intriguing Blacks” and New York Magazine’s “Gay Power 101.”
E. Lynn Harris died suddenly, July 23, 2009 from cardiac arrest, while visiting Los Angeles. There are more than 4 million copies of his novels in print.
Harris, E. Lynn. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted: A Memoir. Doubleday. 2003.