Kehlani is one of the most visible and outspoken queer women of color. She was among the first to denounce Rita Ora’s controversial single, “Girls,” for filtering female bisexuality through a heterosexual male lens. She tweeted, “hate to be THAT guy but there were many awkward slurs, quotes, and moments that were like ‘word? Word’.”
She also made headlines a few weeks ago when she spoke openly about her gender presentation, sexuality, and the constant struggles of queer women of color in a wide-ranging Paper interview. “People do this whole man and woman thing. When they take the man out and put in another woman, there still has to be this balance of hard and soft, dominant and submissive,” she said about society’s binary expectations.
Despite her openness, she has only officially been “out” since April, though, in that same interview, she spoke about having relationships with both men and women throughout her life. Her unfiltered comments and self-acceptance are a form of activism that no doubt inspires other young, queer women of color to embrace their true selves.
Janelle Monae also recently came out as pansexual; just this past week, Amandla Stenberg came out as gay. But prior to this seemingly watershed moment, visible queer WOC have been few and far between.
It’s easy to name some notables—Meshell Ndegeocello, Syd, Young M.A., Azealia Banks. Reaching back even further, we find Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and bell hooks.
But it’s impossible not to notice queer WOC’s absence from much of both LGBTQ and mainstream media. An overwhelming majority of films and narratives focus on the stories and struggles of gay men and, when storylines expand to include lesbians or bisexual women, they tend to focus on white women.
“Over the last decade, the category has been overwhelmingly defined by whiteness,” writes VICE’s Jill Gutowitz, about the severe lack of queer women of color in today’s teen television shows.
This isn’t just an opinion pedaled by think piece writers. GLAAD backs this up in its annual “Where We Are On TV” report. In the 2017-2018 season, only 20% of LGBTQ characters on broadcast networks were black, 9% latinx. Those numbers shift to 10% and 9%, respectively, on cable networks. And on streaming networks, the seeming wild, wild west of Hollywood, the number of black queer characters drops to 7% while queer latinx representation remains at 10%. And of this small piece of the pie, women have to share the spotlight.
That lack of representation translates to a real-life struggle offscreen. In late 2017, four queer WOC were arrested after toppling a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina. Their activism was part of a larger movement sweeping the country, but one of the women, Takiyah Thompson, was motivated by a need to be seen and heard. “I think because I occupy so many intersecting oppressed identities, it just lessens the amount of people who are willing to take up my cause,” she told The Herald Sun.
The Time’s Up legal defense fund has taken steps to ensure queer women of color are protected and championed by its efforts. Emmy-winning writer and actress Lena Waithe was one of 300 women who signed the January letter announcing the initiative.
There is some hope though. Onscreen, Rafiki, a feature-length lesbian love story banned in Kenya, became one of the buzziest stories at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Web series, like Brown Girls and 195 Lewis, are forgoing traditional channels to bring queer WOC to mass audiences. And Waithe is currently developing a TBS comedy series with a queer, black female protagonist.
But where we truly need the change is offscreen. A record number of queer female candidates are running for political office in this year’s midterm elections. One of them, Leslie Herod, was the first black LGBT woman to be elected to Colorado’s State Legislature. She’s taking her battle to the House of Representatives. The first stop is the June 26 primary. Let’s hope that voters send her to the general election, along with other candidates like Delaware’s Kerri Evelyn Harris, whose running for U.S. Senate, and Park Cannon, who’s vying for a seat in Georgia’s House of Representatives.
For so long, the lack of visibility has been the story for queer WOC. It’s time to change the headline.