ActivismDownload PowerSex & Gender
2019: moving beyond queer representation
December 13, 2019
Back in July, Pose star Indya Moore was the keynote speaker at ESSENCE Festival — and the first trans woman to have a speaking gig at the 25 year event. But, in the most 2019 moment, Moore didn’t allow the festival to pat itself on the back simply for giving them the platform. “It’s hard for me to find honorableness in being the first because honestly, it should have already been happening,” they said. “So many incredible and revolutionary Black trans women came before me. They should’ve received the attention I am getting now.” This year more mainstream platforms in the Black community and beyond started uplifting LGBTQ voices, but those queer and trans leaders didn’t sit satisfied with representation for representation’s sake. They set out to make it count, speaking truth to power wherever they saw fit.
Today it’s becoming advantageous for companies, media outlets, and the entertainment industry to be more LGBTQI+ inclusive. Interrogating masculinity now sells GQ covers and hot new brands like Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty linegerie line can make the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show irrelevant with a streamable NYFW show that simply highlights diversity (including having Laverne Cox model in the show and bisexual singer Halsey perform). Allyship isn’t as heroic when brands or celebrities have a lot to gain by queering their image (a tension that came to a head during this year’s 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots when many queer people fought to reclaim pride from corporate advertisers and return it to its activist roots). During the Trump era’s continued attacks on LGBTQI+ rights, there’s a lot at stake if the buck stops at apolitical representation or rainbow-flag colored marketing plans. The challenge this year was largely about how the LGBTQI+ community would use the positive momentum of our times in meaningful and impactful ways.
One of the ways celebrities started making up for lost time was through sharing long-held confessions and reflecting on queer histories that shaped our culture. Beyoncé has been giving us queer-friendly visuals for years, but during her acceptance speech at the GLAAD Media Awards she revealed that she was inspired largely by her Uncle Johnny who was gay and died of AIDS. Robyn Crawford also shared her story of repressed queer romance with Whitney Houston, leading to a cathartic Oprah Magazine interview between her and Lena Waithe. Waithe explained that she saw herself in Crawford when she “didn’t have the language to understand who [she] was yet.” And even newcomer rapper Lil Nas X came out of the closet during World Pride month (albeit not without fellow Black male celebrities like Young Thug warning he could lose fans).
There were also celebrities finding new ways to use their spotlight for activism. Indya Moore powerfully wore earrings with the framed faces of 16 trans women who were murdered in 2019 while they accepted the Daily Front Row’s Cover of the Year award for their groundbreaking Elle cover. And their fellow Pose star Billy Porter used his clout to host celebrities and ballroom talents at a reprisal of the Love Ball, one of the first HIV/AIDS charity events that pulled the wealthy into the fight back in 1989 and brought them face to face with the trans and gay POC community. Porter also won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for portraying an HIV+ character on Pose.
But the most long-term way the community took advantage of the cultural interest in LGBTQI+ life this year was through securing new major deals to tell their own stories. Pose was already making history by letting the ballroom community retell its story after decades of appropriation. But LGBTQI+ TV producers this year really got the bag, flipped it, and tumbled it (queue Quavo). Janet Mock went from being a first-time TV writer and director on Pose to securing a three-year Netflix overall deal in June to create a slate of TV shows and films that will likely each center trans characters (the deal also makes her the first out trans woman to secure such a large content creator deal in Hollywood). And Lena Waithe, who moved her overall deal from Showtime to Amazon, will be adding a groundbreaking new BET series Twenties to her slate of shows early next year. The star-studded passion project she wrote in her twenties about her own experience will be the first major adulting comedy with a Black queer woman lead.
The year wasn’t all roses though, of course. It did kick off with Kevin Hart’s non-apology tour about his old homophobic tweets where his argument that cancel culture is too extreme proded an underlying issue that many feel LGBTQI+ advocates are becoming too demanding. Dave Chappelle later made that argument more directly in his August Netflix stand-up special Sticks and Stones where he painted trans people as entitled and delusional for insisting that their concerns are prioritized. The resulting viral internet war between people criticizing or defending Chappelle’s jokes showed how divided society still is on what level of respect LGBTQI+ people (the “Alphabet people” according to Chappelle) deserve. It also became a sobering wakeup call that transphobic jokes have real consequences when a trans woman Chappelle talked about in the special’s Q&A, Daphne Dorman, killed herself less than two months later. Adding to an ongoing list of 21 plus trans women of color who have been murdered or died in 2019.
Despite some of the homophobic and transphobic tragedies of the year, LGBTQI+ people have been, by and large, gaining bigger platforms to confront society’s biases against them. It’s possible the divide between LGBTQI+ advocates and critics who say they’re too demanding could get worse before it gets better. But unlike other moments in history when straight celebrities have largely profited off of appropriating our culture, today the community is taking charge of their own story and building lasting ways to stay in the room even if their popularity dies down. LGBTQI+ icons are deciding it’s not enough just to be the first of their kind welcomed into the higher rungs of their industry or to feel celebrated for beating the odds. They’re reaching further than representation, challenging the mainstream — and in some cases sacrificing their likeability — to create change leading with the fierce honesty of a ticking time bomb on their back. They’re not just looking for a seat at the table. They’re looking to run the boardroom at the head of the table.
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