When I finally got around to watching the show (thanks to the coronavirus quarantine), I couldn’t believe how long it took me to get to Sex Education, a Netflix coming-of-age series which revolves around the sexual awakening of a group of teenagers.
The story focuses on Otis (played by Asa Butterfield), who is not only sexually green, but also hates masturbation (in the first season anyway). And while Otis is a fantastic character, his best friend, the British-Nigerian Eric Effiong, is the show’s biggest hit. Played by British-Rwandan actor, Ncuti Gatwa, Eric is a funny, enthusiastic, kind, openly gay teen, who is really just trying to live his very best life.
And boy, what a life his living gave me as I consumed the show, episode after episode.
I was initially startled by and then appreciative of how the show totally eschewed any struggles Eric might have had with coming out, instead making him out and proud, hence giving room for exploring more nuanced subject matters like Eric’s struggles to find a place in the world, the way many young people have to, making me really relate to him.
Ncuti Gatwa, who has received praise for his scene-stealing portrayal of the gay black teen, plays Eric with a sincerity and honesty that made him a clear and immediate standout. Instead of being just the show’s comic relief, he ends up being one of the most fully formed Nigerian characters I’ve ever seen on TV.
As someone who is currently undergoing a transformation into being unapologetically gay, I was very drawn to Eric’s boldness. It’s as though he has so totally skipped the part where he entertains doubts about who he is and is now as fiercely gay as the bright colours he wears to school.
One scene that snatched my breath and left me gasping with thorough enjoyment of it was when Lily Iglehart, the awkward girl who writes alien erotica and who is determined to lose her virginity as soon as possible, visits Eric for Swing Band practice. Once ensconced in his room, she drops her clothes and shocks Eric with a proposition for them to have sex. Eric’s complete astonishment will forever remind me of the horror I felt the first time I was cornered inside a room by a “girlfriend” who wanted to have sex with me. But unlike me, who hemmed and hawed and fumblingly struggled to keep the girl’s hands from my privates and the sex from happening, Eric resoundingly shuts down the situation by declaring to Lily that he is gay.
Clearly, Lily didn’t know this, and when she responds with a surprised, “Fuck, really?” Eric replies with an answer that gave me life: “Yeah! Properly!”
Another aspect of the development of Eric’s storyline that initially surprised and then delighted me to no end was in realizing that his immigrant father was not just another homophobic, angry black parent. Mr. Effiong is a compassionate father, who genuinely fears for his son’s safety, even when he clearly has no problem with Eric being who he is. He is a concerned parent whose only worry is that his son’s “difference” not be so much. Not because it embarrasses him, the parent, but because he fears that it can only bring Eric hurt in a world that refuses to let difference be.
The scene where the man walks in on Eric and Lily wearing makeup and looking all frilly is the first time the show makes us confront the relationship the real Eric has with his father, and I was actually bracing myself for the man to become the stereotypical bigoted father who would hit Eric or raise his voice at him or mete out some form of punishment on him.
And again, the show surprised me by revealing a parent who struggles with accepting his son, not because he detests who he is, but because he fears for his safety out in the world.
And so, no scene was near as powerful as the one where Mr. Effiong accompanies his flamboyantly-dressed son to the school dance, all the while trying to reason with him to not be “so much”.
“You are so different, it makes me feel scared for you,” the man says almost pleadingly. “I don’t want you to be hurt.”
And yet again, Eric reveals an almost pragmatical wisdom that is startling in a teenager, that I myself only just got to possess in my adulthood, when he says: “Look, I’ll be hurt either way. Isn’t it better to be who I am?”
The fact that this interaction created room for a father to learn from his son was the pinnacle of all the feels the scene had me in.
The impact Eric Effiong had on my psyche was made more profound because of the fact that he isn’t just a gay character. He isn’t Simon Spier from Love, Simon, nor is he Damon Richards from Pose. He is much more Me than these other gay characters. He is openly gay, from a religious family, and black with a Nigerian background.
And so, whether he is giving a sassy retort to something a friend has said or getting giddy and breathless over the fact that a boy likes him, whether he is wearing his fabulousness on him with his makeup and high-heeled shoes or owning his sexuality by telling a female friend how “properly gay” he is, whether he is struggling with the vulnerability of reconciling his family’s religious faith with his sexuality or torn between his affection for two boys who are crazy about him – everything he does means so much more to me and makes me want to be a much better, stronger, bolder homosexual than I am because he has become all that and more.
Written by Pink Panther