When Dear White People, the Netflix series based on Justin Simien’s eponymous 2014 film, debuted last year it notably indulged representations of queerness among Black communities. In the first season, the primary queer narrative was Lionel’s (DeRon Horton) journey of sexual discovery that led him to the realisation that he was gay. It felt authentic and sometimes painfully funny in true Dear White People fashion, especially when Lionel almost got lucky at party full of fluid, white theatre kids.
In season 2, the show offered up even more queer characters, all of them worth talking about. Kid Fury and Todrick Hall bickering about white female pop stars using all the Black gay colloquialisms that have yet to be appropriated by said white women was gold. Lena Waithe’s character, P. Ninny, is highly entertaining as a masculine “lesbian” (more on that later). Even as Silvio (D.J. Blickentsaff) takes viewers, and Lionel, on a personal tour of Winchester’s LGBTQ+ scene, an important conversation about the subtle racism that white gay men enact thanks to their own racial privilege. This season, queerness is layered on top of race and gender politics, planting seeds for other important conversations about representation.
There was no better example of that than Kelsey’s (Nia Jervier) “coming out.” With her well-meaning, but ditzy demeanour, Kelsey spent most of the first season providing comic relief in tense situations by putting her lack of common sense on full display for her classmates. Kelsey is the 2018 update to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s Hilary Banks. Kelsey is just as well-dressed as her roommate Coco (Antoinette Robertson), and even more girly.” So it comes as a surprise to both viewers and Coco when Kelsey reveals that she’s she’s a “gold star” lesbian, meaning she's never slept with a man. But this was no coming out. “I've been out since Queen Janet's wardrobe malfunction,” she states plainly to Coco. “You’re just so self-absorbed that the only time you listen to anyone else talk is when you’re preparing a counter argument.” Her words jumped right out of the screen, applying not only to Coco but to a heteronormative majority in real life, as well.
Queer femmes — individuals who often perform, present, and identify as feminine — are frequently invisibilised in pop culture, and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. Because femininity and sexuality are so heavily filtered through both the male gaze and a binary system of gender, we still haven’t haven’t separated sexuality and gender presentation. Lesbians are expected to “present” their sexual orientation to rest of the world. Baggy clothes, short hair, or any other characteristic associated with masculinity can act as literal “labels,” signifying whether or not a woman is straight. Unless femmes are visually or relationally validated by someone else who presents as masculine, they are treated as straight until proven otherwise. In other words, femme lesbians like Kelsey don’t exist until they affirm their own identities.
P. Ninny’s evolution throughout the season illustrates the differential treatment of femmes and studs (the urban equivalent of butch). She starts as a masculine female rapper on Trap House Tricks (a reality series made in the likeness of Love & Hip-Hop) who is dating her male producer while vehemently denying that she’s a lesbian. Her reality fame lands her a role on Prince O’ Pal-ities (a riff on FOX’s Empire), but she is kicked off the show once her true sexual identity is revealed. P. Ninny’s final destination in the season is a healing session on Deneca: Set Me Straight (a parody of Iyanla: Fix My Life). It is here that she opens up about her identity as a “Black butch with a light face beat” and how women like her end up “hiding” themselves because straight men are threatened by them. It is a necessary and important conversation about gender that you’d be hard-pressed to find on any other mainstream show.
Here lies the irony, though: As a media personality in Dear White People’s parodied TV landscape, P. Ninny’s sexual identity got more attention than Kelsey’s, a woman actually relevant to the storyline. The only other time Kelsey’s sexuality is addressed is when she participates in a documentary about race. She admits her fear that she’ll never see herself represented in American culture as “a cute Trini girl with a thing for other girls.” That's the only part of her story she gets to tell.
One of the things I love about Dear White People is that it often folds over on itself in a way that is deeply satisfying. Many people, myself included, were irate that Joelle (Ashley Blaine Featherson) didn’t get an episode from her point of view like all of the other main characters in season one. It seemed to re-emphasise how she was always forced to play second fiddle to her light-skinned friend Sam (Logan Browning). In season 2, Dear White People not only delivered on the Joelle episode but affirmed the problematic dynamic between the two women. So there is hope yet that in season 3, Kelsey’s glow-up might be just as great as Lionel and P. Ninny’s.