Black is the Warmest Colour

Celebrating Queer Women of Colour in the Media

In light of the recent decriminalization of same-sex relationships in India, it is important to keep reflecting on the LGBTQ+ community’s struggle for acceptance around the world. Representation in pop culture, music, and fiction is a key part of the acceptance of queer people within society. While most LGBTQ+ characters in TV shows and movies are cisgender white males, representation of queer women of colour has been increasing in recent years. Celebrities that identify as WLW (women loving women) have contributed to the ever-changing nature of queer culture by sharing their struggles regarding their sexuality, and by creating characters that tell the stories of WLW. Their increased presence serves to break toxic stereotypes and to denounce the over-sexualization of queer women of colour in mainstream media.

Historically, women of colour have always been in the front lines of the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Yet, most of the artists, singers, and actors who publicly identify as queer today and receive a platform are predominantly white. Moreover, while movies like Love, Simon or Call Me by Your Name can be considered important for the normalization of gay relationships, there has been a growing number of queer women directors, writers, and actors seeking to accurately portray the narratives of queer women; recent movies such as The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Disobedience, or A Fantastic Woman feature queer WLW relationships.

After decades of seeing and identifying with the token queer woman, who often appears as a walking stereotype or trope, being able to access relatable and accurate stories about women loving women is a liberating experience for the queer youth. However, queer women from diverse backgrounds remain underrepresented in mainstream media; queer women of colour have long been looking for representation beyond Blue is the Warmest Color and Ellen DeGeneres.

Being able to access relatable and accurate stories about women loving women is a liberating experience for the queer youth.

Telling and listening to the stories of queer women in the Black community has always been essential. It is about creating narratives “for us, by us” that will be equally rewarded by the mainstream media. This happened with Lena Waithe, who won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series in 2017, for the “Thanksgiving” episode of the TV show Master of None. Not only did she make history by being the first woman of colour to get the award, she is also a proud Black lesbian who told her experience on television and was awarded for it. The episode narrates her coming-out story, dealing with issues of acceptance from her family and friends. Moreover, Waithe used her platform to address the topic of intersectionality for queer Black women, who are constantly confronted with a triple-standard within society because of their identity. Rather than turning our experiences into a tragic trope as most TV series have done, Waithe was able to represent the everyday struggles of queer Black women, as well as the instances of bliss that queer love can bring.

Other Black artists are using their voices to highlight the experiences of queer women of colour, like renowned singer and actress Janelle Monae. Openly referring to her queer identity in her single “Make Me Feel,” she then came out as pansexual in late April. She opened up about her personal life and struggles, and discussed the impact influential celebrities like her can have on their younger audiences. “I want young girls, young boys, non-binary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you,” said Monae. Many young queer women of colour have had to deal with stigmatization within their communities and have always been denied role models with whom they can relate. For many who live in countries where same-sex relationships are still punishable by law, seeing people with whom they can identify being proud of who they are provides reassurance and hope for the future.

Like Monae, other queer artists of colour raise awareness through their music or social media. Singer Hayley Kiyoko, nicknamed “Lesbian Jesus” by her fans, dedicates her entire discography to her queer identity and has been very outspoken about WLW acceptance. As an activist, she chose a more positive way to give space to queer women, by celebrating them in upbeat pop songs and artistic video clips. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram have also been used by Black celebrities such as Amandla Stenberg and Samira Wiley to celebrate their identities in a more informal way through sharing their experiences and loving relationships on social media.

For many who live in countries where same-sex relationships are still punishable by law, seeing people with whom they can identify being proud of who they are provides reassurance and hope for the future.

However, standing up for LGBTQ+ rights through art and activism outside of North America is a different struggle altogether. Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu presented her latest movie Rafiki, which explores choices a lesbian couple in Nairobi has to make between safety and love. She became part of the effort to normalize WLW relationships of colour. Set in the reality of Kenya, where homosexuality is taboo and can be punishable by five to fourteen years of imprisonment, the movie challenges the anti-LGBTQ+ climate of East Africa. Rafiki was banned in Kenya as it portrays an openly gay relationship. However, it made history by being the first Kenyan movie to be nominated at the Cannes festival, where it was praised for being a “lively, brightly performed film, impossible not to celebrate.” The depiction of young gay African women is still extremely rare in media today, and should be celebrated as a source of comfort considering the harsh reality Black queer women face everyday.

The fight for same-sex relationships to become part of mainstream media is far from over, yet we can see and feel the progress within the WLW community. We are not tokens or sexual objects shown for the pleasure of the male gaze. We are not tragedy porn or props to advance the plot of TV shows. It may not be much, but seeing accurate, fleshed-out depictions of our identities on TV, or having mainstream artists share our stories helps us stand for ourselves. I believe every instance where our voices are heard and our narratives validated is an effort towards acceptance of queerness for women of colour.