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Harris, E. Lynn (1955-2009)  
 
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Gay men and beauty shops form a persistent stereotype: aren't all male hairdressers gay? In a twist on that cliché, African-American author E. Lynn Harris's remarkable literary career was launched within the nurturing, gossiping community of the black beauty shop where black women go to transform themselves. In the do-it-yourself spirit of African-American author Terri McMillan (whose career Harris's most closely resembles) Harris, a former IBM computer sales executive, hit the road and began to sell and distribute his self-published first novel, Invisible Life (1992).

He brought the book--about a man torn between loving a woman and another man--to black book stores, book clubs, and, interestingly, to beauty shops, where his clientele was largely straight, black women and gay men. The strategy was successful; Anchor Books soon acquired Invisible Life, which quickly became a best-seller. Nine novels followed; Hollywood optioned some of Harris's gossipy, sex-laden books for possible motion pictures; and a musical based on Not a Day Goes By (2000) toured nationally in 2004.

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Harris was born Everette Lynn Jeter in Flint, Michigan on June 20, 1955 to unmarried parents. When he was three, he moved with his mother to Little Rock, Arkansas, where she worked as a housekeeper. She soon married Ben Odis Harris, who helped raise him and whose name he took.

Harris's mother and Ben Odis Harris divorced with he was 13, but until then he endured years of abuse at the hands of his step-father.

Harris attended the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville in the mid-1970s. He became the school's first black cheerleader and its first yearbook editor. He earned a B.A. in Journalism with honors in 1977.

After graduation, Harris pursued a career selling computers, moving to such cities as Dallas, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. For many years, he remained in the closet, which led to depression and heavy drinking. In August 1990, while living in Washington D.C., he attempted suicide. After sobering up, he began to manage his depression with medication and therapy. He also started writing, which proved therapeutic.

Harris's writing style is extremely easy to read and accessible. He produced the kind of page-turning books that can be read in a single sitting, and that appeal to a broad and diverse audience. Perhaps most significant, his work exposes bisexuality and homosexuality within the black middle class—in the fraternities, among professionals, amidst a segment of the population with whom the subject of homosexuality is rarely broached.

Harris's novels are romantic and upbeat. At the same time, however, he did not shy away from the explicitness and sometimes even the ugliness of homosexual relationships, as evidenced in his casual, almost brutal depictions of anonymous "trade" picked up in seedy adult bookstores. The recurring character of closeted football player John "Basil" Henderson chronicles one man's inability or unwillingness to form solid relationships with other black gay men, while using them for sex.

Although Harris documented the paranoia and fear that cause gay men to hurt themselves and one another, he also presented exceptionally grounded, proud, gay male lead characters, such as the drop-dead-gorgeous, too-good-to-be-true Zurich Thurgood Robinson in And This Too Shall Pass (1996). These characters make their choices with little hesitation and no apologies.

Within the African-American community, resistance to gays and lesbians has remained strong. It is significant, however, that Harris was enthusiastically embraced by this community--in large measure due to the accessibility and honesty of his portrayals. Harris was surely the only out gay man who could have been featured in a contest such as "Win a Dinner with E. Lynn Harris" in a national black women's magazine, as he was in Essence in July 2000. His sexuality was not an issue. His appeal was his success, which he achieved both because and in spite of the fact that he was a gay, black man.

Harris received numerous awards and honors for his work. Abide With Me (1999) was nominated for an NAACP Image Award, and he received the 1999 Distinguished Alumni Award from his alma mater, the University of Arkansas.

In 2003, Harris returned to the University of Arkansas to teach literature and creative writing. In the same year, he published a moving memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.

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