By: Julian J. Walker, Communities of Color Associate Director and Kayla Thompson, Communities of Color Junior Associate
Fans were first introduced to the daring Tom Swift on the CW’s Nancy Drew, and the rest has been Black queer television history.
Amidst growing anti-LGBTQ legislation, rhetoric, and discrimination, and alongside looming and ongoing health crises, the CW’s Tom Swift has been a reason for celebration and a symbol of progress.
The spinoff series follows the adventures of Tom Swift, a genius inventor and billionaire, as he is suddenly thrust into the world of sci-fi conspiracy and unexplained phenomena following the shocking disappearance of his father. Tian Richards was cast to play the character, and is the first-ever Black gay lead on network television.
In addition to featuring the first Black gay lead on network TV, the show thoughtfully and expertly weaves together action packed missions and the world, and worldviews, of LGBTQ+ people, and brings to life stories that haven’t yet graced our television screens.
Tom Swift is, undeniably, a celebration of black queer existence, a one of a kind “first” for network television, and a historic achievement for its crew, cast members, and creators.
Throughout the show, Tom is carefully watched and protected by the eyes and ears of the various members of his team, one of whom is Issac Vega, a character brought to life by Marquise Vilson. During this season, we’ve witnessed Isaac’s feelings for Tom simmer and build, although they never clouded his duty or loyalty. In a deft move, the series’ writers allowed each of Tom Swift’s characters to authentically live in a world where their sexual orientations weren’t the main focus. This mindfulness allowed Isaac to safely reveal that he’s a transgender man.
In this way, the show not only shares the authentic stories, lives, and experiences of Black queer characters, but exhibits a distinct care for them as well. Tom Swift highlights the power of Black queer stories and the possibilities they open up (for viewers and cast members alike) when they receive the support and opportunities they deserve.
As Marquise writes below: “Tom Swift, is paramount to the forward movement of Black Liberation, which must include Black Trans/Queer Liberation.” The show’s dedication to unapologetically honoring Black queer existence will leave behind a lasting legacy.
Although it hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season, the future remains open, and the initial season of Tom Swift will be preserved as a testament to the power of Black queer stories, as well as a beacon of hope for those who most need to see themselves represented in television and entertainment.
To celebrate Tom Swift and its groundbreaking representation of Black LGBTQ characters, we caught up with stars Tian Richards and Marquise Vilson. Check out our chat with Tian and Marquise below:
GLAAD x Tian Richards:
GLAAD: We have to begin by saying how proud we are of you, how does it feel to play the first black gay lead on network television?
Richards: Thank you so much man! I genuinely appreciate that. I felt honored. It came into my life at the right time. I got to the opportunity to make break through a glass ceiling and make my contribution to the Black diaspora and queer community. No matter what, that will stand the test of time.
GLAAD: Do you have a favorite episode or scene that’s stood out or was especially meaningful?
Richards: Yes, it’s coming up in Episode 9. It highlights the effects & trauma that comes with having your identity denied in the most horrific ways.
GLAAD: Tom Swift beautifully told the story of a tech genius who just so happens to be a black gay man. During the first episode, the topic of sensitivity and identity is discussed between Tom and his father (insinuating Tom’s sexuality is the reason ). Can you speak on the importance of overcoming such challenges ( with family ) and how sensitivity / empathy can be seen in most spaces as a strength rather than weakness.
Richards: Most men, Black men especially are taught masculinity as a survival tactic and default. We must know that the more sensitive and feminine aspects of ourselves are just as important to our survival. It is our portal to human connection and lives within us all. And I’m a big ole Cancer so I feel it double time.
GLAAD: What advice would you share with Black LGBTQ+ actors, as they embark on their own journeys within the entertainment industry?
Richards: Most times you will be told your identity will put you in a box or limit your options in your career. Being LGBTQ+ is not a “character choice”, it’s someone’s identity. The same as gender or race, it’s just not always immediately apparent. It shouldn’t be seen as a bag of tricks, you can pull out or turn off, but rather explored to show we are more than just a slew of stereotypes. So live fully in who you are and know that everyone’s journey to self-actualization is different. Who you are is your strength and unlike anyone else in the same ways. So use it as a superpower, not a weakness.
GLAAD: What has Tom Swift, and the experience of being on the show, meant to you, or represent for you?
Richards: It has shown me so many things in life. But most of all, it taught me that I could lead and make it this far by showing up and looking as I do in the world. It gave me the permission to know that it’s possible.
GLAAD x Marquise Vilson:
GLAAD: What is it like to be part of a show that authentically and unapologetically centers Black LGBTQ stories and experiences (when such representation / diversity is still sometimes lacking on-screen)?
Vilson: It’s been a dream to be a part of a show that centers Black LGBTQ stories. That’s not something we get to see everyday. Tom Swift is the first show with a Black gay character as a series lead on network television. For me, Tom Swift has proven just how possible it is to share Black stories, specifically Black Queer stories, when the intentionality and care is there. As a Black trans person myself, to have this kind of encounter, in network television no less, has been just what I needed. There’s a certain kind of liberation I have felt while working on set primarily due to fact the lead ensemble is made up of a Black cast, as is the hair and make-up department, in addition to a Black cis woman leading the costume department. Having Cameron Johnson, a Black cis gay man, as co-creator, showrunner and one of the EP’s has certainly contributed to the authenticity and unapologetic feel that Tom Swift has.
GLAAD: What did it mean to you to be able to play Isaac Vega and bring that character to life?
Vilson: It meant the world to me to play Isaac Vega namely because of the reach the show has to Black audiences. One of the main reasons I’ve chosen to be an actor and tell stories through my Black trans body is because I believe there’s an opportunity to humanize the experiences of trans people by doing so. Seeing who Isaac is, what he’s been through, for audiences experiencing a display of Isaac’s emotions, that has the potential to allow a viewer to get a little closer to the person at the core of their humanity. On Tom Swift, there’s a relationship being built between Black trans/queer people and Black cis het folk, something I think can help to chip away at the invisible wall that has kept Black communities divided, as a whole. Bringing Isaac Vega to life has been extremely important for me as I lay down the foundation for my career and the kinds of stories I want to be a part of telling as a Black Trans person. Bringing this entire world to life, Tom Swift, is paramount to the forward movement of Black Liberation, which must include Black Trans/Queer Liberation. That, I’m here for.
GLAAD: Do you have a favorite Tom Swift episode or scene that’s stood out so far or is especially meaningful?
Vilson: Episode 6, “..And The Benefits of Bondage”, really stood out to me, from the very moment I read the script. It is one of my favorite episodes because it addresses the way in which Black women are often failed by the healthcare system. I think it’s a topic that doesn’t get talked about enough, if at all. There happens to be a huge distrust of medical professionals for many Black folks, and statistics prove that distrust is warranted especially among Black women. Studies have shown that Black people who are able to give birth experience miscarriages, still birth, preterm birth and infant deaths at higher rates than their White counterparts. One way to shift this narrative and create change is to talk about it, as this episode does. It’s the start of a much larger conversation around the lack of care for Black bodies in the healthcare system.
GLAAD: Has the show’s dedication to representing, and celebrating, a variety of Black identities impacted how you’ll navigate the entertainment industry and future opportunities?
Vilson: Absolutely. I would say there’s a standard of care in every element of production that’s been set by Tom Swift that makes me desire more of it. I want every production set, I am fortunate enough to work on to be a space that celebrates all Black identities and bodies, especially trans, femme and queer bodies. To be fully present, on every set, as Black trans person, that’s the goal. What I have seen with Tom Swift, as well as B-Boy Blues, No Ordinary Man and Disclosure are models for what can exist. The world I want to see is there – if I build it. I don’t have to wait to be invited to someone else’s table, when I can build my own.
GLAAD: What advice would you give to upcoming LGBTQ+ actors or producers as they embark on their journeys in television and film?
Vilson: Share YOUR truth. There is someone out there waiting to hear your story, so they can finally feel and be seen. The cool thing about this is that the person gets to be you and so many other people out there who’s experiences mirror some of your own. Storytelling can truly be healing when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.