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‘Queer Eye’s’ Bobby Berk offers dishy, celeb-heavy Q&A

Careful budgeting, understanding tax implications are key

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Bobby Berk, gay news, Washington Blade

Bobby Berk of ‘Queer Eye’ fame says his new line for ART Furniture has already been warmly received. (Photo courtesy Gardner Group)

Bobby Berk, one of the “Queer Eye” Fab Five, has been making appearances unveiling his new line for A.R.T. Furniture. His designs are available at Ace Furniture (616 N. Western Ave.) in Los Angeles and Furniture Land (4310 San Fernando Rd.) in Glendale. Full details at arthomefurnishings.com.

He spoke to the Blade last week by phone from his home in Los Angeles about his designs, his costars, his gal pal Taylor Swift, his Hollywood adventures and a whole lot more.

BLADE: How’s 2020 been for you so far?

BOBBY BERK: 2020’s been great, very busy. Just wrapped up shooting a podcast a few minutes ago, I’ve got your interview, then I’m running to do a live interview with Channel 9 in Sydney Australia. Been filming some additional shows, been doing a lot of stuff with “Queer Eye,” a lot of great things with my furniture lines, so 2020 already feels like it’s been a full year.

BLADE: Tell us about your new designs.

BERK: So my new furniture line with ART, it’s great because you know people ask me, fans from the show all the time, you know, “I wish you could decorate my house, I with you could pick out furniture for me,” and obviously I can’t with everyone so I wanted to create a line that was accessible to almost anyone. I think it would have been kind of a dick move of me to talk on “Queer Eye” about how changing your home and help change your life and then go out and make a super expensive furniture line that nobody could afford. So I wanted to make sure I partner with a company like ART who is really good at finding that perfect happy medium on price points to where you’re getting good quality furniture but you’re also getting it at a price point that most people can afford.

BLADE: What was the production timeframe roughly?

BERK: I believe we started the process when I was filming season three and four so that would have been late 2018, I think. … We launched it by spring of 2019 … (which) that was for stores to be able to come look at it like Belfort. Then by the time fall hit, it was in a lot of stores. And now this spring … additional stores are getting it that we weren’t able to fulfill in the very beginning first order. We’re dong 10 in about two months, then we’re going to be launching the second collection as well.

BLADE: How has the reaction been so far?

BERK: It’s been a very great reaction. We have had to stage out when retailers like Belfort start to carry it simply because there was such a great response to it, that we couldn’t open up all the stores that were wanting it. When we launched online, back in the fall, a lot of items instantly went out of stock, so it’s been a really great response. You know, it was a line that inspired by things that I would want in my own home so nice, cool, clean aesthetic that can really go with anyone’s decor. When I design, I always try to make sure I think about the ways a piece can not just look good in a home where people like modern, but also a traditional home. My sofas, for example, can bridge the gap between traditional, transitional and modern.

BLADE: To what degree do you curtail or adjust your creative impulses into something you think will sell? Is there conflict in your own head between art and commerce?

BERK: Uh, yeah, ‘cause for me personally, I would go very minimalist and modern, that’s more of my personal aesthetic, so I would always have to kind of find the happy medium between too modern and cold and still keeping it warm where more people will love it.

BLADE: How do you have time to keep all this stuff going with the TV show as well?

BERK: I don’t know (chuckles). I’m never home. I’m sadly gone probably 90 percent of the year the last few years so yeah, I’m just constantly on the road.

BLADE: Is this pace sustainable? What if “Queer Eye” goes another 10 years? Will you rip your hair out?

BERK: Uh, probably (laughs). No, this pace absolutely is not sustainable, I think all five of us feel that way but we also know that you know there’s not always a chance that things will be going this well, so we all need to, not take advantage of it, but utilize the recognition we’ve gotten from “Queer Eye” to do other things. Because of course “Queer Eye” could go on for 10 more years or it may go on for one more year. We never know, so we all want to make sure we’ve found those certain things in our wheelhouse that we’re able to continue to focus on. Before “Queer Eye,” I had a design firm and retail stores so, “Queer Eye” has just opened up more doors for me to be able to do more things with that like my collection at ART. So yeah, is this sustainable how much we travel and work? No, it’s not. But all five of us know that we’re not always going to have the amount of opportunities we have right now, so we need to take advantage of all the opportunities that present themselves and then, you know, in five years — I have a four-five year plan of moving to Santa Barbara and having kids and not working as much.

BLADE: On “Queer Eye,” the other guys spend a lot more face time with the heroes because you’re so busy remodeling. Do you ever feel left out?

BERK: Yeah, yeah, you know. With the other boys, they’re part of the show, they’re literally physically with the hero. You know, Jonathan is cutting their hair, Karamo is having a great conversation and helping them with self help, Antoni is teaching them to cook, Tan is helping them with their clothes — they have to physically be there with them whereas what I’m doing the hero can’t actually see, it’s actually against the rules for them to see it, so I’m often kept away from them simply because they’re not able to see what I’m dong and we want to see a surprise. So we have, I’m sure you’ve noticed in newer seasons, I am with the heroes more, but season one and two, I was barely with them at all. When I would be asked by producers if I wanted to go on a shopping trip wth Tan and help with clothes, I’d be like, “No I’m busy, working, that makes no sense,” but then the show came out and it was like, “Oh, I’m so busy working I’m not on the show.” So, newer seasons, I have a bit more interaction with the heroes than in the past.

BLADE: How did you like Japan and what was challenging about taping there?

BERK: I loved Japan, I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan before, it’s one of my favorite places, especially Tokyo. I love it there just because it’s so organized and clean and it’s such a respectable society. Some of the challenges filming there was space. People would sometimes think it’s easier to design a small space than a large space but it’s actually harder, especially in Japan where in rental spaces, you’re not allowed to hang anything on the walls, you’re not allowed to paint, you’re not allowed to do anything to the floors, so we had to get really creative on building functional loft furniture that we were able to make the space look super different than before without even painting or hanging a piece of art on the walls.

BLADE: There’s obvious camaraderie between you and your co-stars. Were you concerned at first whether your personalities would jell? To what do you attribute that camaraderie?

BERK: You know, the five of us from the start in casting, in final casting, there probably was between 40-50 guys around the various different design, fashion, food — what have you, and at first Karamo, Tan and I we just kind of gravitated to each other and were always hanging out. Then Antoni and Jonathan kind of came into the fold and none of us really thought, “Oh this is the Fab Five,” we just kind of naturally liked each other and I think the casting directors and executives from Netflix and Scout and ITV kind of saw that we had a natural chemistry, that we really naturally enjoyed each other and instead of it kind of being a competition, we were always in there telling each other what was going on and helping each other. So I think our camaraderie definitely helps. It’s not always a natural thing, you put five perfect strangers together who are with each other 24-7, but it’s grown definitely into kind of a sibling relationship. We’re brothers, we’re best friends, there are some moments where we want to wring each others necks, but the great thing about it is, we’ve spent so much time together, we really have developed a feeling of a sibling with each other. We can get mad at each other, but at the end of the day, we’re family, we’re brothers so we get over it and we’re very protective of each other. Sometimes it’s easy, most of the time it’s easy, but sometimes it’s hard. But I think that’s the thing with every relationship.

BLADE: Are you going to Karamo’s wedding?

BERK: Of course.

BLADE: You helping with any of the design?

BERK: Uh, a little bit, but I definitely can’t share what he’s shared with me.

BLADE: What did you think of Jonathan’s decision to come out as HIV-positive? Had he shared that with you previously?

BERK: I was the first one that he told even before we started filming “Queer Eye,” he and I both lived in L.A. at the time and so after casting, we became very close very quickly and he was over at my house all the time and he shared it with me even before we started filming, so I’ve known about it for probably a couple years before he publicly came out about it, so it wasn’t a shock to me. I was happy that he had the strength to do that and that he’s able to help other people by being very public about his status.

BLADE: Have you had many chances to get to know the original “Queer Eye” cast?

BERK: Yeah, I was actually out with them all of them in L.A. two weeks ago. I’ve known Thom Filicia for years, again, before I was on “Queer Eye” as a designer, I really am a designer, so he and I have been in the same industry, we’re always at the same events, we’re always at the same trade shows. And then Carson (Kressley), I’ve known for years. All the others I had met throughout the years, but I’m definitely closest to Thom simply because we’re in the same industry and we’ve known each other so long. But they’re all so amazing, they’re all so lovely, it’s amazing hanging out with them and seeing just how individually unique they all are, just like the five of us are, and how no matter how many years they’ve been apart since the original, when they get together, it’s like they’ve never skipped a beat, it’s cute.

BLADE: So you’d be totally down to do a crossover special of some kind?

BERK: Oh absolutely.

BLADE: Do you like Thom’s design aesthetic? (Filicia, too, has presented at Belfort Furniture.)

BERK: I think it’s beautiful. I think we have a very different design aesthetic. He’s definitely more transitional and traditional, I’m definitely more modern and minimalist, although I would say that both him and I design for the client or for the home. So where my home is very minimal and there’s not a whole lot of stuff in it, for heroes on “Queer Eye,” I can be maximalist for people who want a lot of stuff. So his personal aesthetic is beautiful, he’s done some amazing homes, some amazing condo buildings. But yeah, I love it.

BLADE: Did it bother you that Taylor Swift was, some would argue, rather late to the game in terms of being an LGBT ally?

BERK: You know, of course we always wish somebody would be vocal from day one but I also can very much understand the pressure that she’s been through being basically owned by a record label and being told by a publicist and record labels what you need to say and shouldn’t say, what you shouldn’t get involved in. You know as quote-unquote celebrities, we’re always told, “Oh be as neutral as possible, you don’t wanna offend people on the left or the right, stay out of politics, stay out of issues,” which some of us find much easier than others. You know, I often get myself in trouble because I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut. Jonathan’s the same way and so I can understand why she felt pressured to not be an ally, to not get involved publicly, you know what I mean? … I don’t hold it against her, all I can do is be as very happy that she is using her power to make a difference now and I couldn’t love her more. She’s one of the most sweet, humble, down-to-earth people I’ve met. … You never really know what to expect when you meet somebody like her because a lot of people I’ve met in Hollywood and entertainment come across as one thing and then you meet them in person and they are not at all that thing and it can be very sad and disappointing, so it was a great feeling when I got to meet her and hang out with her and realize that she really is what she portrays out there, she really is this sweet, loving girl who just wants to make the world a better place.

BLADE: Who’s somebody you met who’s markedly different from his or her public persona?

BERK: Hmmm, so yes. So RuPaul, I actually met in 2003, I was a manager at Restoration Hardware in New York and she came in looking for some knobs for some dresser she was doing and he was just the kindest, sweetest most lovely person and then after I had my own stores, he started coming in and shopping in my stores and he would come in and just the sweetest, warmest person. And again, on the show he’s the same way and I’m not saying that he’s not sweet and warm, but one thing I was surprised about when I see him for example at the Emmys, the first time I saw him at the Emmys, he wasn’t very warm, and I was like, “Huh, fame has changed him.” But our publicist at Netflix used to work on “Drag Race,” so he’s very close to Ru, he knows Ru very well, and I mentioned it to him I was like, “Wow, you know, I’ve met Ru multiple times and he’s always like the sweetest, kindest person, I don’t get that from him anymore.” He was like, “No, he just doesn’t like being in the spotlight at events like this so he gets very shy and quiet,” so sometimes you think somebody is some way and they’re not and like. … I thought Ru had gotten cold, ‘cause this industry can do it to you, but then I find out that no, Ru is just as shy and terrified as the rest of us.

BLADE: What was it like filming (Taylor Swift’s) “You Need to Calm Down” video? Surely all those celeb cameos — you were not all there at the same time I imagine?

BERK: All of us were but Tan. He was filming the season finale of “Next in Fashion” that day, so Jonathan and I went from watching the runway show of Tan’s finale directly to Taylor’s set and we met Antoni and Karamo there, so four of us were there together but Tan filmed his separately.

BLADE: Was Ellen or Adam Rippon or any of those people there that day?

BERK: Adam was there, he and I are actually friends. Hannah Hart was there, um — who else was there that day? They’re the only ones I remember being directly around us. The set was so massive and they filmed it over I think a week, so different celebs would come in at different times. Some would film in a studio in front of a green screen, for example Tan’s was shot in a studio, so yeah, we weren’t always there at the same time, that would have been chaos. Oh Todrick Hall was there as well.

BLADE: How is (husband) Dewey? Do you guys get enough time together?

BERK: No, we never get enough time together. He is definitely a very private, very introverted, shy guy. He couldn’t care less about any of the Hollywood stuff, which is actually great. I actually prefer it that way because when I’m at home, I’m back in my normal life. But yeah, no, we can never get enough time together. He’s a surgeon. We’ve been together for 16 years and since “Queer Eye,” he’s just started working less. He’s in private practice, so luckily he’s been able to take a step back a little bit. He usually only works about two days a week then meets me wherever I’m filming.

BLADE: Do you know Nate Berkus? Do you like his stuff?

BERK: I love Nate Berkus. His stuff is great. Both he and Jeremiah. Their taste is impeccable, they’re handsome as hell, they’re the best dads. Yeah, I like them a lot.

BLADE: Do you miss your anonymity?

BERK: Absolutely (laughs).

BLADE: Give me an example.

BERK: I miss just being able to go to the grocery store. Or to Starbucks. You know, I miss being able to just roam around and just do regular things. There’s so many positive things about this and I’m not complaining about the loss of it at all, but, you know, sometimes I wish I could just go to the grocery store and go through all the fruit and shop around but I can’t really do that without getting stopped over and over, so I just pretty much order everything online. Sometimes I’ll go into a Starbucks and a fan will be there and there’ll be a moment of the show that’s really touched them or helped somebody in their family, so they’ll start telling me a story in Starbucks and then be crying, then I’ll be standing there in line holding them and hugging them thinking in my mind, “Oh this is amazing, this is so wonderful, but I really just wanted to get my coffee.” You know, it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes I wish I could just run in, run out like I used to be able to.

BLADE: Please don’t think I’m asking this because I think you look fat — I truly do not. This is just something I’ve been meaning to ask someone who’s done a lot of TV. Does the camera add 10 pounds?

BERK: The camera adds 10 pounds of gay (laughs). Um, sometimes, yeah. But also when I started filming season five I was 210 pounds and now I’m like 183 so I went from being in very good shape before the show, to putting on a bit of weight during the show because our lives have just been so crazy to now really doubling down and focusing on fitness and not letting myself eat crap on set all the time and not work out.

BLADE: What did you mean 10 pounds of gay? Are gestures magnified?

BERK: Oh yeah, I’m always like, “Damn, do I sound that gay?” Yeah, and I also think it’s because the five of us together, we’re so comfortable together and able to be our true selves that sometimes we really queen out and not give a damn. It’s funny watching yourself.

BLADE: Was it hard to summon the courage to be so open about your past? Leaving home at 15 and all that.

BERK: It was hard because, you know, for quite a few years, I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents …

BLADE: It’s better now?

BERK: Oh yeah, it’s great now. But that’s why it’s a little hard because publicly talking about it, you know, it definitely made my mom sad, it definitely opened up old wounds, it took me a while to be OK talking about it. Sometimes I’m still not OK. Sometimes I’ll get asked about my relationship with my parents in interviews, not in this, but people will really pry and they’ll be like, “Oh well you know, on the show you talked about how horrible they were to you and blah blah blah blah blah, why are you talking to them now?” I’m just like whoah — if I’m able to say I’ve been able to reconcile with my family and we have a good relationship now, why would you try to open those wounds? Why would you try to hurt my mama?

BLADE: Thanks for your time and good luck with your line.

BERK: Thanks!

Bobby Berk says loss of anonymity, old family wounds occasionally haunt him. (Photo courtesy Gardner Group)

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LA Blade Exclusive: L Morgan Lee, Broadway’s newest icon sings her truth

She is the first ever trans actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination & the first trans performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer

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L Morgan Lee exclusively photographed by Andrey Strekoza for the Los Angeles Blade June, 2022

NEW YORK CITY – “I am just a girl,” L Morgan Lee tells me. That simple statement is her self-definition, a girl taking life one step at a time.

To the rest of us, L Morgan Lee is so much more. She is the award-winning actress starring on Broadway in the hit show of the season, A Strange Loop. Her singing talent matches that of any legendary diva, she is creating landmark theatrical projects on womanhood and New York Times articles are being written about her. She is the “girl” in the spotlight now.

She is also, the first ever transgender actor or actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination.

While she is not the first trans performer to be seen on a Broadway stage, she seems to have broken the glass (or some might say, cement) ceiling of being recognized in the upper echelon of talent. She is the first transgender performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer. While the Pulitzer recognizes the author, whom she was not, certainly her creative input was weaved into the final book of the play.

L Morgan has journeyed a complex path to self-awareness. “For me, even in terms of being trans, the idea of being anything outside of what I was assigned at birth was just laughable and crazy to me as a child,” she says. “It just, it made no sense. It was not something that I was comfortable saying out loud to anyone or voicing. How would I be looked at by my parents, by anyone else? So, I would sit and dream. The dreaming is, I think, what forms, much of so many queer people’s lives and experiences.   Those dreams become our lifelines. I would dream and dream. I have a memory of when I was maybe six years old, in the middle of the night, looking up at my ceiling in my bedroom. Waking up soaked with tears. Saying, if I could wake up and be a girl, a girl, everything would be okay.” She adds. “That is why I am so excited to have gotten my first opportunity to be on Broadway, excited to have gotten a Tony nomination. Because I know that there is some kid somewhere, who is also looking up at the ceiling saying that same thing.”

L Morgan’s first adventure into performing was as a kid and ironically projected her future identity fluidity: she costumed up and performed “Karma Chameleon” in nursery school. She allowed herself to explore her true identity under the guise of a Halloween costume quite a few years later. She went in fully fashion glammed drag, and it changed her world forever. “The minute I did it, I felt a jolt of energy I had never felt before. I finally felt free in so many ways. It’s as if like it’s as if I finally got to breathe.”

When she started work on A Strange Loop, she had been cast under the assumption that she was a cisgender man playing female parts. As the years of work into the play went on, L Morgan’s transgender journey escalated, and she attempted to resign from the play as she realized she was no longer the person they thought they had hired. Not only were they aware, as many close loved ones can be, of her journey, but they embraced her and assured her that she belonged more than ever.

“The characters I played allowed me to, in some ways hide until I was able to be more public about who I am. And once I did that, it certainly brought another layer of depth to what I was doing. I have been that much more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve grown. Transition has settled in more. So, both my viewpoints about the show, the people I’m playing, and my lens of life in general, has evolved through the process. So, certainly the woman I am today, views the show and the script, and the characters I play in a very different way than I did when I first sat down to do it in 2015.” 

Her growth within the show, and the growth of the show itself are intertwined. Certainly, some of the magic of the show is that it is not “performed” as much as it is lived out of the souls of the actors in it. L Morgan describes, “The experience of A Strange Loop has been beautiful, complex, layered and ever evolving, for me in particular.  Every time I’ve come back to the rehearsal room with this project, my own lens has been slightly evolved or has moved forward in some ways.”

“The piece is as strong as it is because the lens itself, the lens through which the story is told, is very specific and very honest. Inside of that specificity, there are lots of complications and layers and messy stuff. There are things that you don’t ‘talk about out loud’ taboo to discuss. There are things that people see as problematic. There are so many things inside of all of that, but it’s honest and it’s human. It is a 25-year-old, who’s about to turn 26, sort of raging through life, feeling oppressed and unseen and shouting out to find how he fits into the world. It is how he can find his truest voice in a world that doesn’t really allow him to feel like he’s enough. Because it is so specific about those things the show touches so many different people.”

L Morgan demonstrated coming out as a confident transgender actress, with her vulnerabilities unhidden, on the opening night of the play and decisions she made as she stepped into the public spotlight. “I feel a responsibility. It feels like a dream, it feels wonderful. It feels exciting. It’s like everything I’ve ever asked for but the, the most poignant feeling for me is the responsibility. How could I show up for that person that needs to find me.”

“On my opening night on Broadway, we were trying to figure out what I was going to do with dress and hair and all these things. You only get a first time once. You get your debut one time. So how do I make the most of this moment? I felt raw and excited. I needed to show like the most honest and clear-cut version of me I could. I needed to show my shaved head because that’s something that’s important to me. It’s something, I almost never show. I stepped out revealed, exposed and vulnerable on the very public red carpet, speaking to cameras with my buzzed head. Our relationship with hair runs very deep, especially for trans people, and there was something about it, that just felt like, I needed to do it. That kid somewhere under the covers needs to see this trans woman who is in her Broadway debut and she’s in a pretty dress and she has a shaved head, and she seems like she’s comfortable. Then when you hear her talking about it, you hear about her vulnerability and hear that she felt nervous, and you hear that she was dealing with dysphoria and she was dealing with confidence and she was dealing with all these things that we attached to our hair and she reveals those things. Not only because they’re true but because when we reveal Our Truth, our humanness, there is universality there. There is connection inside of our vulnerability.”

While the Tony nomination escalates her Broadway experience, L Morgan does not lose sight of her mortal existence. “On the day that the Tony nominations happened, I fell apart, completely losing it in my bedroom. Then I realized, I still needed to get a couch, and clean up the apartment. I still feel regular. It’s been a wild dream and at the same time, your real life just keeps on going. I am just trying to put one foot in front of the other.”

On the night of the Tonys. L Morgan will be up against some heavy hitters. Not the least of these is Broadway Legend Patty LuPone. L Morgan is ok with that. Her dream has been to see her face in one of the camera boxes on television of the nominee hopefuls.  

“The biggest reason I do, what I do is one because I love storytelling. My experience is black, my experience is trans, but I’m just, I’m just a woman. I am a woman who had a trans experience. That’s my story. I know that somewhere there’s s a kid, as I have said, who is just like I was. It is extremely important for me to make that kid proud and make that kid feel seen and make that kid know that it’s possible.” 

“I want that kid to be able to know that most importantly, they already are who they are dreaming to be. The world is telling you something different, but you know who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you, there is nothing wrong with us. The world has never told us that we were an option.”  

“That kid needs to find my story. They need to know that we exist. It is the reason it took me so long to be public about things and to start speaking, because I wasn’t seeing enough examples. There’s a quote, ‘she needed a hero, so that’s what she became.’ I really live by that.”

She needed to see a transwoman Tony Nominee. So that’s what she became.

When they call the winner on Tony Night, it will be between a Broadway legend and Broadway’s newest icon.

However it goes, another ceiling has been broken forever, and somewhere a trans girl in hiding will realize her dream too can come true.

*********************

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For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again

The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress

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Jessica Chastain accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress (Screenshot/ABC)

HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.

When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.

There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.

Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.

Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces. 

Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.

Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.

Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.

Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.

True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.

Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.

Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”

Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.

The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”

The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.

Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.

According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.

While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.

While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).

The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.

Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.

Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.

This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.

Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.

Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.

That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.

The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.

Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.

We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.

******************

Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:

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First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

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Ariana DeBose in 'West Side Story' courtesy of Amblin Entertainment & 20th Century Studios

HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.

The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.

DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.

“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.

“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.

It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.

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