Lena Waithe's Coming Out Story Reminds The World That Being Black & Queer Still Isn't Easy
Sunday night at the 2017 Emmys, actor and writer Lena Waithe made an acceptance speech that struck a chord with the internet. She said, “Last, and certainly not least, to my LGBTQIA family, I see all of you. The things that make us different are our superpowers. Every day, when you walk out the door, put on your invisible cape and go out there and conquer the world, because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we're not in it.” She had just made history as the first black woman to win an award for comedy writing. It was her work co-writing Master of None's highly praised “Thanksgiving,” exploring Lena Waithe's coming out story through her character, Denise, that brought Waithe to the Emmys stage.
In “Thanksgiving,” the intersections of black womanhood and queerness were discussed with a frankness that only comes from experience. Often, it seems like black characters are written to satisfy a diversity quota. Representation doesn't end with the actor on screen; there is no level of academics, credit, or clout that can replace real life. When it comes to writing full-fleshed characters who break out of the default white, straight mode, it has been shown that they excel when written and portrayed by people sharing those same experiences.
It's why we see critiques of shows like Netflix's Atypical for its presentation of autism, and praise for ABC's Speechless, which follows the story of JJ, a teenager with cerebral palsy, who is portrayed by Micah Fowler, a teenager with cerebral palsy. Lena Waithe's Emmy victory is only further proof and a great example at how to excel when the concept of diversity is utilized less as a strategy for views, and actually implemented into the structure of a show.
Denise was originally scripted to be a straight white woman, but it was Waithe's influence that shifted the entire character. “All of us actors ended up playing heightened versions of ourselves,” Waithe told Vogue in 2015, recounting how casting director Allison Jones vibed with her while Waithe discussed love, relationships, and her girlfriend. It's no discredit to Waithe's acting abilities that Denise became, in part, influenced by her life, but a testimony to how lived experience work well to help shape a character who breaks away from the one-dimensional world that black, queer characters have been trapped in.
I re-watched “Thanksgiving” earlier, finding myself once again captivated by a story that seemed to take snapshots from my own experience. Early on in the episode, Denise realizes that Dev isn't black and discusses what it means to be a “minority.” “You a black woman,” her mother, portrayed by actress Angela Basset tells her, “so you have to work three times as hard. You're both gonna be disenfranchised.”
It was this same fear of disenfranchisement that influenced me while I was coming to terms with the fact that I was queer. I realized it late because there was no representation of queerness around me that went past white bodies. I made occasional appearances at my school's Gay Straight Alliance, where I was assumed and treated as straight, because what else would a black girl be? When I finally began to understand that black people are not a cis-hetero monolith, there was always the quietly choking fear that I was doing too much. My mother's side of our family already had a member come out as gay, which maybe should have acted as a buffer to help me feel more confident in sharing my own experience. To some, that was testimony to the fact that someone had already broken the mold and there was nothing to worry about with my family. But I was still different.
Like Denise's mother, I knew that to be a black woman was to be in a state of permanent disenfranchisement. My gay family member was, at least, still a white man. I was already the black sheep of the family because of the combination of my race and gender. For me, coming out as anything other than a good, straight girl meant just adding another, unnecessary check against myself. Later in the episode, when Denise sits with her mother in a diner after coming out as a lesbian, the line, “It's hard enough being a black woman in this world. Now you wanna add something else to that,” was a cruel rendition of what I had constantly told myself.
In the queer community, there is a loudly spoken expectation to come out and to then share that coming out story. If you don't come out, you are treated as if you are betraying yourself, somehow ashamed of your identity. I didn't come out until I graduated high school. It was largely an accident and it was done in my usual, avoidance style. I posted something mentioning being queer on Facebook and my mom read it. There was no big sit down, no big discussion, and I never bothered to have one with the rest of my family, either.
Some of them know. Some of them don't. I never bothered to tell my dad or his side of the family. There is no comfort of a blueprint to follow. I'm too tired after constantly fighting with half my family over my activism — being disowned every other day — to fight with the only blood relatives who understand even a fraction of me. For me, it's not a consistent coming out story; it's the lack of one. I fully leverage the unspoken, cardinal black rule while in my grandparent's house; if you don't see it, it doesn't exist. If you don't hear about it, we don't talk about it.
I'm not going to bother arguing that I'm not ashamed because sometimes I am. Sometimes, I wish that I was an easier child, that there was less of me to argue with, so the world could have an easier time with its consumption. I refuse to pretend that I don't find refuge in skirting on the sidelines, hiding in closets, shadows, and whatever else is around. I am open to attack from damn near every side as a queer woman, including my own “community.”
I converted to Islam after considering it for a few years. I would have converted sooner, but I was part of organizing around the police shooting of Jamar Clark. I lost much of myself in that space of time, only connecting to reality like it was a storyline an artist was showing me, something that I had no control or influence over. Much like my queerness, I kept my religious exploration to myself. I only told two friends when I decided to convert and I originally took my shahada, the official Muslim profession of faith, alone. I have always been an extremely private person; I had no desire to share another part of myself with people, especially when it was still so new to me. I held onto my Islam quietly, like a small token tucked into my chest pocket.
My new religion was hard for my family to process. I kept it hidden from the family I lived with, only putting my hijab on after I left the house and tying it into a turban before I came in. I felt the similar fear I had in high school, those whispers that I was doing too much again. Here I was, already black. Already queer. Already a woman. Islamophobic attacks happened throughout my city, a government-funded entrapment program was targeting youth and masjids. So why would it be another layer that I chose to add to myself? I had an uncle ask me at a comedy show why I would choose to be Muslim, when they treated queer people the way they did. Never mind that I was part of this “they” and Islam had been integral to, and shaping, black activism for generations.
It can be hard to remember how to just be when so many of my identities are regarded as "incompatible" with one another. Even at Pride, commemorating Stonewall — which was started by trans women of color — I couldn't shake my feelings of being an outsider, as my hijab was called out by counter-protestors. I struggle to understand what community means and what it means to be queer when my hijab alone projects me into a two-dimensional reality where I am not read with the nuances afforded to most humans. I am nothing but a stock image, a disenfranchised character.
It is writers like Lena Waithe who give me some kind of hope, because they remind me that my complicated, black, queer reality exists. And that reality is worth celebrating.