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Why Lena Waithe says being a Black queer woman has helped her in Hollywood

Though Waithe's identity opened doors, she said it took hard work to reach that point.
Image: Lena Waithe in Los Angeles in 2018
Lena Waithe in Los Angeles in 2018.Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for Refinery29
/ Source: Reuters

Lena Waithe said embracing her identity has ultimately helped her navigate Hollywood.

"People assume that because I'm Black, or because I'm queer or because I'm a woman, those are going to be the things that I'm bumping up against all the time," the Emmy winner said Thursday during the Legacy Keynote Conversation at the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's HBCU Leading in Truth Symposium. "But in truth, it was something that worked for me because people wanted someone that checked more than one box to be in the room. The things that made me different were the things that made me stand out."

Alphonso David, president of the HRC Foundation, moderated the conversation. Prairie View A&M University student Alise Maxie and Fisk University student Montez Holton also took part.

Though Waithe's identity opened doors, she said it took hard work to reach that point. There is still progress to be made, especially in representing the intersection between Black and queer representation.

Waithe said she often looked to gay Black men while growing up, since gay Black women were disproportionately underrepresented in media. Now creating shows like "The Chi," the actor pushes to include diversity for today's younger generation to see people like themselves on screen.

"At some point we really do need to protect our LGBTQIA young community, but also not put the burden on them always to fix the problem," she said. "I think it's a problem that they didn't create, and I think sometimes it weighs them down. That saddens me that they were born soldiers, fighting in a war they never started."

And while young people did not start the war for equity and inclusion, Waithe believes they'll be the ones to make it a reality. "They will be the ones to lead us to a new day, a new dawn, a new chapter," she said. "It's not us. I think it's really about listening to those that are on the front lines ... and doing the heavy lifting."

One notable shift toward representation for people of color in the U.S. took place during the presidential election. Many news organizations called the race with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the winners, making Harris the first Black vice president, first Indian-American vice president and first woman vice president. She also graduated from Howard University, an HBCU.

"This moment is bittersweet," Waithe said. "It's exciting to be turning a page and to be walking into a new chapter, but until we deal with the chapters before it, this will continue to be cyclical. The pendulum will continue to swing back and forth. At some point we have to get to a place where we aren't so divided."

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