“‘Being born gay, black and female is not a revolutionary act. Being proud to be a gay black female is.’” Why I’m so thankful for Lena Waithe.
We are only a few months into 2018 and Lena Waithe is already having a career defining year. The award-winning writer, actor and producer is the cover star for this April’s Vanity Fair. The Ready Player One actor’s cover was accompanied by a beautifully written interview by fellow black queer writer Jacqueline Woodson. The cover is undeniably powerful and noteworthy because Waithe, an out queer black woman is on the front cover of a magazine that has been graced by the likes of Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson and Naomi Campbell. Not only that, but Waithe appears, bare faced, wearing dreads and with a white tee looking like a stud. There are so many aspects of Waithe’s cover that need unpacking to understand their significance. Firstly, she appears with very little-no makeup on the front of a fashion magazine, in a society where the media is constantly trying to trick women into believing that they are unattractive and will be unsuccessful if they do not wear makeup. The stigmatisation surrounding hair is something black women are all familiar with, as school children we are expelled and adults fired for dreadlocks because they are considered dirty, distracting and unprofessional yet an Emmy award-winning writer adorns them on the cover of an international magazine. One of the most important aspects of the cover that cannot be ignored is that there was no attempt to disconnect Waithe from her queer identity. She isn’t femmed up and unfamiliar, which is the fate that many queer women go through when presented to mainstream media.
This cover, amongst many of Waithe’s ever-growing accolades, made me realise how much of an impact she is having, not only in my life but also in Hollywood as one of the few queer black women living out and proud. Earlier this year, Waithe was honoured at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood dinner where she announced that “Being born gay, black and female is not a revolutionary act. Being proud to be a gay black female is.” In a society that severely undervalues black women and queer people, living in the intersection of both is difficile and dangerous. Marielle Franco, a queer Brazilian activist who was murdered in a targeted assassination this year, is unfortunately just one of many examples of black women whose decision to not live life in the closet and be silenced has cost them their lives. Waithe is unapologetically queer, black and proud and she is proving to be revolutionary. Waithe is breaking the mould, changing the game and disrupting Hollywood. Waithe won her Emmy for her writing for “Thanksgiving” an episode of Master of None which made her the first black women ever to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Through this episode, Waithe presented a side of queer black life that has rarely been seen before. Too often the queer women we see are white, wealthy, high femme drama queens or sanitised butches. This episode was a counter to that. It didn’t shy away from the intricacies of navigating life as a queer black woman and so eloquently depicted the various stages of coming out to yourself and to your family. I cannot help but think about how valuable it would have been for me to see this episode when I was trying to piece together my sexuality. To see someone living their life as a black queer woman and being successful while doing so. To understand that you could be black and also be gay. That being queer wasn’t a sentence to live life on the sidelines drenched in shame.
Waithe is a shining example of what it means to use your platform to make life better for the future generations and her Essence speech is a rallying cry for others to stand up and do so, particularly in this horrendous political climate. I’m so grateful that she uses her voice like this and I hope that it encourages others to do the same. Even as more and more women and people of colour begin to take up space, the success of films like “Love, Simon” and shows like “Queer as Folk” remind us that there is still a lack of black queers in the in the media and even less black queer women.
In a recent Guardian article comedian, Romesh Ranganathan commented on the fanfare surrounding Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle in Time” because while “it is an important moment for women of colour but the incessant fanfare undermines its significance”. This makes me think about my little gay black self who couldn’t reconcile the feelings I was having with what the world was telling me was possible. I want the fanfare around Waithe to surround everything she does because I needed the fanfare and the celebration when I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality because I’d barely seen a lesbian on TV let alone a black one.
Lena Waithe is making sure other young black queers will not face this struggle by actively working towards changing the invisibility of black queerness in Hollywood and Waithe is set on bringing other POC voices to the table. Waithe is co-chair of the Committee of Black Writers at the Writers Guild and she mentors aspiring black writers. She is breaking boundaries and winning awards by simply being her black queer self, and I’m so thankful that she is.