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OP-ED How 'Queen Sugar' increases Black LGBTQ visibility
by Ella Vincent
2019-08-06

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In 2018, there were more LGBTQ people of color on TV than their white counterparts. OWN's Queen Sugar is part of a quiet revolution of increasing queer representation on TV. Pose is rightfully getting the Emmy-nominated praise it deserves for its representation of Black and Latinx people; however, Queen Sugar has been showing multifaceted Black queer characters since 2016.

The Ava DuVernay-created drama tells the story of three siblings—Nova ( played by Rutina Wesley ), Charley ( Dawn-Lyen Gardner ) and Ralph-Angel ( Kofi Siriboe )—who inherit their father's farm in New Orleans after his death. Nova is the eldest child, and is a social-justice activist and writer. Her relationship with a fellow activist in season one, Chantal ( Reagan Gomez-Preston ), is reflective of the drive that led Black queer women to create the Black Lives Matter movement. Their philosophical differences show the diversity of thought among Black queer feminists.

When Charley expresses what I perceive to be disapproval with the relationship, her attitude symbolizes the homophobia that exists in much of the African-American community. Despite Charley's objection to the relationship, Nova lives her life as an unapologetic queer woman.

Her current relationship in season four with Dr. Octavia Laurent ( Cree Summer ), Nova's former mentor and professor, is fraught with just as much drama as any heterosexual relationship. Showing the complexity is a welcome representation of Black women in a same-gender-loving relationship.

Nova is a flawed woman who writes a best-selling book that causes distress in her family because of the secrets the memoir reveals. Queen Sugar shows Nova as self-serving but still wanting to heal her family of ugly secrets. Wesley spoke with Huffington Post in 2016 about the opportunity to Nova as a complex character as an African-American queer woman herself.

"Getting the chance to play a beautiful gorgeous Black woman with dreads, smart, funny, witty, a little chaotic. She's everything. It's a brown girl's dream because she's a real human being," said Wesley.

In addition to Nova, there is a transgender male character, Toine Wilkins, played by trans male actor Brian Michael Smith. Toine is a police officer and a friend of Nova's brother, Ralph-Angel. In one pivotal scene of the show, Toine thanks Ralph-Angel for being an ally to him as he was transitioning in high school. Smith told The Wrap about how important the scene was to him to show Black trans people being supported by their cis friends.

"There's a lot more that happens in trans people's lives that don't get shared in the few stories that are covered in television in film—there's very rich and important experiences that should be brought to light," said Smith.

The scene with Smith's and Siriboe's characters also showcased another important part of highlighting gender non-conforming behavior in Black people. Toine was helping Ralph-Angel's son, Blue ( Ethan Hutchinson ), find his beloved female doll, Kenya, after Blue's mother, Darla ( Bianca Lawson ), throws the doll away. Throughout the run of the series, Blue plays with the doll and Ralph-Angel is comfortable with his son playing with female dolls; however, Darla is not. Although she didn't explicitly say why she threw Kenya away, it's implied that Blue is attached to Kenya because she was an absent mother for most of his life. Kenya is a possible comfort to Blue during times of unrest.

In one scene, Ralph-Angel and Blue are in a diner, and Blue is playing with Kenya. When a server suggests that Blue play with a stereotypically masculine toy, Ralph-Angel shuts down his gender-policing behavior. Ralph-Angel orders ice-cream sundaes for Blue and Kenya in a touching scene that affirms Blue's individuality. DuVernay noted to The Los Angeles Times that Blue playing with Kenya is a way to show the complexity of Black male masculinity.

"Everyone is upside down with who they are and what it means to be someone else. It felt like there was a good opportunity with Blue to do the same, particularly around issues of identity as it relates to the ways in which we conform to certain notions of masculinity in the Black community," said DuVernay.

Queen Sugar is a show that offers viewers a respite from the sexism, homophobia and transphobia that is prevalent in society. The series is a triumph that celebrates Black LGBTQ people in all their diverse glory.

Ella Vincent is a freelance writer who has written about LGBTQ issues for years and loves anything involving Janelle Monae.


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