IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Oscar winner Ariana DeBose proves 'there is indeed a place' for queer actors of color

The “West Side Story” star became the first openly queer woman of color and the first Afro Latina to win an Academy Award for acting.
NBC News / Getty Images

In honor of Pride Month, NBC Out is highlighting and celebrating a new generation of LGBTQ trailblazers, creators and newsmakers. Visit our full #Pride30 list here.

Ariana DeBose’s historic best supporting actress win at this year’s Oscars ceremony was, somehow, the most predictable thing to happen that evening. After having delivered a dynamic performance as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 film “West Side Story,” DeBose was considered the easy favorite in her category. So it was perhaps easy to forget the gravity of the moment in late March: when she took the stage on film’s biggest night as the first openly queer woman of color and the first Afro Latina to both be nominated and win an Academy Award for acting. 

By that point in awards season, DeBose was well-acquainted with being first. When the Oscar nominees were announced in early February, she was one of two openly LGBTQ actors tapped by the academy, alongside Kristen Stewart, who was nominated for best actress for her leading role in “Spencer.” It had been two decades since an out actor had been nominated, when Ian McKellen was nominated for best supporting actor for his role in 2001’s “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.”

The same month, DeBose took home the Screen Actors Guild award for female actor in a supporting role, making guild history as the first openly queer woman of color and the first Latina to win an individual film prize. Previously, only a handful of Latina actors had been nominated for acting awards by the guild — including Salma Hayek and Jennifer Lopez — though no openly queer women of color.

But despite her string of milestones, the groundbreaking nature of her Oscar win was far from lost on DeBose, 31. As she had done throughout the film’s release and months of award buzz, DeBose acknowledged the groundwork that had been laid by the trailblazing Rita Moreno, who became the first Latina Oscar winner, in 1962, for the same role.

In her moving acceptance speech, DeBose thanked Moreno for paving the way for actors like her and delivered a message directed at her younger self: “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.

“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.

Afterward, DeBose celebrated her win with her partner and date for the evening, the American fashion designer and costume director Sue Makkoo, at the illustrious Vanity Fair Oscars party. The headlines the couple attracted — like those of her fellow queer nominee, Stewart, and her fiancée, Dylan Meyer — were apt reminders of how rare it still is to see a same-sex couple on the red carpet. 

DeBose’s win — and her affirming words in her acceptance speech — come during a time of unprecedented visibility for queer women on screen. For the first time, lesbians outnumbered gay men in broadcast television roles, according to a report released this year by the queer media advocacy group GLAAD. The report also found that queer representation on television is at an all-time high, with 11.9 percent of regular characters on scripted prime-time broadcast series identifying as LGBTQ.

However, despite the growing visibility, the windfall of firsts DeBose achieved demonstrates how rare it is for both queer women and women of color to be acknowledged for their work on camera. Seeing a woman like DeBose cast as a lead in something as big-budget and mainstream as a Spielberg blockbuster is still far from the norm. 

DeBose — who is a multi-hyphenate actor, singer and dancer — had her big break as part of the original cast of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical “Hamilton,” which was trailblazing in its own right when it premiered off-Broadway in 2015. One of Miranda’s claims to fame then and now has been to give voice to Hispanic characters and an American experience that have been largely disregarded by entertainment and the art world. 

DeBose, like Miranda, has roots in Puerto Rico. She was raised in North Carolina by her Afro Puerto Rican father and her white mother, an experience that shaped her reinterpretation of Anita for a new generation. 

In a joint interview with Moreno for NBC News, pegged to the release of “West Side Story” at the end of last year, DeBose spoke about playing the role as an Afro Latina woman. 

“I was very adamant that whatever interpretation I delivered for this performance was going to be massively different,” DeBose said. “By virtue of being a Black woman, that makes it a different portrayal, because my physical manifestation has to inform this particular version.”

In the musical about rival white and Puerto Rican teen street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, Anita suffers deeply for her darker skin — among her family and at the hands of the Jets. A scene in which members of the Jets have attempted to sexually assault her and she is found by the owner of a neighborhood corner store, a role reimagined as Valentina (Moreno) in the new film, is easily one of the most impactful of all the stagings and adaptations.  

When Moreno pioneered the role on film she, too, brought her lived experiences as the only Puerto Rican cast member. But in many ways, she was limited by her era’s lack of understanding about representation. 

For the film, Moreno was forced to wear makeup to darken her skin, alongside her white cast mates who played Puerto Ricans. In the NBC News interview, Moreno recounted how, when she complained about the brownface, a makeup artist asked her whether she was racist. 

“I couldn’t even think of an answer,” Moreno said.

DeBose’s experience is a far cry from the days when a Latina actor would be asked to wear brownface. And yet, as DeBose has pointed out in many interviews, there’s still such a long, long way to go. 

“Characters can be both part of you and separate from you,” DeBose said. “I still experience many of the things that you see Anita experience in this film. So then it begs the question, how far have we really moved forward?”

Follow NBC Out on TwitterFacebook & Instagram