Are Black Queer Women in Hollywood About to Shatter Another Glass Ceiling?

by Darian Aaron

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Sunday June 20, 2021
Originally published on June 19, 2021

Gina Yashere
Gina Yashere  (Source:Courtesy of Gina Yashere)

"How come we overcame and nobody told me?"

It's a question that will forever resonate in television viewers' minds, not only for actress Marla Gibbs' pitch-perfect delivery as Florence, a domestic to an upwardly mobile Black family in the groundbreaking series "The Jeffersons," but for the pilot episode's memorable writing. Gibbs' line reading articulated stark class differences within the African American community in 1975, eleven years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination in public places, integrated schools and made employment discrimination illegal. It appeared Black people were, indeed, "Movin' on Up."

In 2021, the same can be said for Black queer women on the big and small screen. Blockbuster films such as Netflix's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and Hulu's "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" have attracted millions of viewers and garnered a SAG Award for Viola Davis and a Golden Globe for this season's breakout star, Andra Day, for their portrayals of Black queer musical icons Gertrude "Ma Rainey" and Billie Holiday, respectively.

Andra Day on the set of
Andra Day on the set of  (Source: Hulu/Takashi Seida)

Are decision-makers in Hollywood finally taking diversity seriously? And are mainstream audiences ready to embrace Black queer characters as part of the human experience on screen? After more than a century, the glass ceiling may finally be shattering for Black queer women in the entertainment industry.

Historically, Black queer entertainers like blues legends Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith often used their art as a vehicle to reflect the truth about their offstage lives as women who preferred the company of other women, unknowingly laying a blueprint for other Black queer artists to live their truth decades before it was legal or socially acceptable.

Rainey, in particular, made her affection for women explicitly clear in the 1928 recording "Prove It on Me," where she unapologetically belts, "Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. They must have been women, 'cause I don't like no men." Not to be outdone by Rainey, Smith, whose relationships with women were an open secret, also crooned about lesbian desire in her music.

In 2015, Black lesbian filmmaker Dee Rees showed the impact of having Black queer people in positions of power to shape narratives as director of the HBO biopic "Bessie." Culture critic for The Undefeated and Pulitzer Prize nominee Soraya Nadia McDonald notes a stark difference in the representation of Black queer characters, for example, in Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of queer author Alice Walker's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel "The Color Purple," released in 1985, and "Bessie," released 30 years later.

"The relationship between Celie and Shug Avery was politely alluded to, whereas, films like "Bessie," and "Billie Holiday," and "Ma Rainey," those things are allowed to exist explicitly, as opposed to like, we're just going to sort of gesture toward this queerness," says McDonald.

"I think part of that comes from Black queer women, Black queer people having the power to tell their own story," says McDonald. "Also, generally, I would say that theater tends to be more progressive on that front. And so we have a director like George C. Wolfe, who directed "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," who is a giant in the theater world, he's going to bring that sensibility with him."

Lee Daniels, another Black queer filmmaker and director of "The United States vs. Billie Holiday," gives further credence to the importance of having a queer sensibility behind the camera and in the writer's room, specifically to address Holiday's bisexuality.

"It's important to show Billie as a multidimensional human being. Her bisexuality was as important for me to depict as was her kicking off the civil rights movement with her song 'Strange Fruit,'" said Daniels in an interview with The Advocate. "It was also important for me to show the multidimensional life of an artist. Of a singer. Of a Black woman. Of a bisexual Black woman. Of a Black woman that was fighting the system to sing a song."

While Billie Holiday used her art to push back against the threat of FBI surveillance by using the lyrics in her song "Strange Fruit" to highlight the lynchings and dehumanization of Black people in the South, McDonald notes Holiday's portrayal as queer in Daniels' film or any LGBTQ character before 1968 would have never existed under the early grip of film industry conservatism.

"In the same way that you have policies that were created in the 1930s about what studios could show on screen in terms of sex, in terms of interracial relationships and miscegenation, all these things that fall under the Hays Code," says McDonald, referring to a set of guidelines that effectively censored Hollywood movies from 1934 to 1968. "Even though the Hays Code has been gone for decades, the legacy of it remains in the images that we see and what we think of as taboo."

And for all intents and purposes, the real-lives of LGTBQ people who serve as inspiration for characters that would eventually find their way to the screen were the conservative evangelical definition of taboo—outsiders, misfits, a threat to traditional mores—effectively pushing LGBTQ people onto the periphery and inside the closet. But there's something about closet doors; they can be broken off their hinges. And when that happens, art has no choice but to reflect life.

Black Was Queer Before Queer Was Cool

Janora McDuffie
Janora McDuffie  (Source: Courtesy of Janora McDuffie)

Actress Janora McDuffie ("Grey's Anatomy," "Criminal Minds"), who came out in 2009, is one of a small group of openly queer Black female actors working in Hollywood today. She recalls comedian Wanda Sykes as the only openly gay Black female performer in the entertainment industry at the time, a number that has increased slightly in the last 12 years. McDuffie says she felt a responsibility to be her authentic self publicly for several reasons.

"When one of us decides to stand up and be free, we see them and we say, 'You know what? How I feel is valid. I see myself, and I'm not alone,'" says McDuffie.

"It is a reaffirmation of who we are. So, when I first came out in 2009 as a lesbian, I just wanted somebody to be like, 'You know what, I'm not going to commit suicide,' or 'I'm going to choose to love my son or daughter because I see something out there that is a representation of who they are, how they feel.'"

Echoing other Black queer industry colleagues, McDuffie also believes there is power in Black queer artists having a say (if not the final say) in how stories involving Black queer characters are told. She points to the success of multi-hyphenate Black lesbian artist Lena Waithe and her Emmy award-winning "Thanksgiving" episode on the Netflix series "Master of None."

"She's green-lighting fellow [Black and queer] people who can continue to tell their stories. There's this whole hierarchy in the Hollywood industry when it comes to Black gay folks. It's not just actors. It's not just writers. But who is green-lighting it? Who is producing it? Who is saying 'yes' for this story to be shared on Netflix or ABC, or however people consume their content? There are gatekeepers to that process," says McDuffie.

And with media juggernaut Netflix providing a historic three-year, multimillion-dollar development deal in 2019 to Black trans writer and director Janet Mock, elevating her as one gatekeeper McDuffie describes, Mock is empowered to tell diverse stories from LGBTQ and communities of color that have historically been ignored in Hollywood.

"The more we can tell stories that show the full gamut, the more we'll be able to understand, appreciate, and have compassion," says McDuffie. "It's a chance to learn, a chance to break stereotypes, break barriers, and put ignorance to rest."

'Two Counts Against Me'

Gina Yashere
Gina Yashere  (Source: Courtesy of Gina Yashere)

But for many Black queer artists, the threat of homophobia potentially derailing their career and livelihood is enough to keep them from living their lives openly. Black British comedian Gina Yashere, currently co-executive producing, writing and co-starring in the CBS sitcom she co-created, "Bob Hearts Abishola," reveals why she delayed coming out publicly as a lesbian for years.

"The first 15 years of my career, I wasn't out. I never discussed it at all publicly. Cause I thought I'm a Black woman already, so I've already got two counts against me in this industry," says Yashere. "I'm not a certain age. I haven't got a certain look. So, I didn't want another strike against me. I never talked about my sexuality. I never lied about it. When I was asked about it in interviews and stuff, I'd just circumvent the question."

"I wanted to get to the point where I was successful enough before I came out. But then eventually I got to a point where it's like, you know what, I no longer give any fucks, take me or leave me," says Yashere, whose new memoir "Cack-Handed" drops June 8. Yashere says she was concerned that she would lose her core fan base of Black British supporters because of the "perceived homophobia in the Black community."

"I'm already different the moment I open my mouth in front of a Black American audience," says Yashere. "So, they already saw me as different and not one of them in a way—so they either liked me or hated me because of that difference. I was less fearful of an African American audience because I was already different."

Both Yashere and McDuffie say they have not experienced overt discrimination or knowingly missed out on roles based on their sexual identity. Both women agree that their race and sexual orientation may even work to their benefit, given the current social and political climate.

"I don't know whether the reason I got a role or didn't get a role is because I'm gay or not," says McDuffie. "There's definitely a segment in Hollywood that wants to check off that diversity box. So maybe it's worked for me, like, 'Oh yeah, we got a Black gay sister.' But I think in Hollywood, especially now, I think it would be to my benefit, perhaps. And I don't mind being in style, especially if it moves the world toward love." But McDuffie also acknowledges that she is "feminine-presenting," and that the journey to success for "more masculine and non-binary sisters in the game may be met with more obstacles."

"I'm trying to capitalize on all that white guilt. I'm going to capitalize on it as much as possible," says Yashere. "And I want as many Black artists and LGBTQI artists to capitalize as much as possible while we can because I don't know how long it's going to last. I'm hoping that this is going to have a lasting impact on the industry. So yeah, I'm using it to my advantage."

McDuffie, Yashere, and other Black queer artists, whether out or not, are beneficiaries of a long list of queer artists that preceded them under more restrictive circumstances. Drawing from the blueprint they left behind, McDuffie sums up the first step towards shattering the glass ceiling: "It is never too late to live your truth openly and honestly, it's never too late to make a difference. Just like dreams don't have expiration dates...neither does coming out."

Darian Aaron is Editor-At-Large of The Reckoning, a Counter Narrative Project digital publication covering Atlanta's Black LGBTQ+ community. He is also the creator of Living Out Loud 2.0 and a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.