How Queen Latifah Stayed True To Herself Without Ever Tacitly Coming Out Before Now

Recently Queen Latifah came out at the BET Awards in remarks after winning the lifetime achievement award. It was a remarkable night for the network and LGBT representation. Something that has been fraught for much of the network’s history.

 

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Journalist Keith Boykin wrote on Instagram: “Honey, let me tell you a little story about how BET has evolved. On October 28, 1997, I was scheduled to appear on BET with Angie and Debbie Winans to discuss their homophobic new single, “It’s Not Natural.” The Winans objected to the participation of a Black gay man and BET then withdrew the invitation for me to appear.”

 

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Boykin continued: “Black LGBTQ activists had to organize a nationwide call-in campaign just to get me back on the show. And then BET added some anti-gay ministers to stack the deck against me. But on August 28, 2008, BET hired me as an on-air political commentator to cover Barack Obama’s historic Democratic convention speech live in Denver. On March 4, 2020, BET launched a new show called Twenties, featuring a queer Black girl and two friends. On March 10, 2021, BET announced that @bscott would host and executive produce a new show, becoming the first trans non-binary person in that role.”

“And then last night, openly gay recording artist Lil Nas X performed at the #betawards and kissed a Black man on stage. Twenty-four years ago when we were fighting just to get a Black gay man to appear on a BET news show, I never imagined we would see this on BET networks.”

 

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And for some folks, Latifah didn’t even come out in those remarks. Those remarks to be accurate were: “I’m gonna get off this stage, but I thank you so much for all of you, the fans for supporting every crazy-ass thing I’ve done through the years. And thank you for making Equalizer No. 1. Eboni, my love. Rebel, my love. Peace. Happy Pride!”

 

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As pioneering Black gay comedian Sampson McCormick told me, “I wouldn’t say she ‘came out’ but for her to acknowledge what we all know is a big step in the process of her maybe one day explicitly saying the words ‘I’m gay.’ None the less, it’s always great to see Queen Latifah and when she finally does formally come out, I’m sure it won’t affect her negatively at all.”

 

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Writer and former Chill Mag editor, Gerald Garth agrees with McCormick, to an extent, saying, “For Black LGBTQ+ people, the notion of ‘coming out,’ to this day, looks very different. Culturally, for many, our sexuality has been an ‘unspoken truth’ — that being, we have always existed and even out in our own right, yet with so much of our identity being connected to our livelihood and even safety, for so many, like Queen Latifah, it’s not a matter of being ‘in’ or ‘out,’ but more navigating the world in a way of preservation. We continue to see progress when it comes to the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and even class; but it is all a case-by-case basis. And as a Black woman, Queen Latifah has been an icon representing those intersectional experiences and identities, but not without the time she herself needed to reach this point — to embody her truth in her time. The idea of ‘coming out’ is not universal. The experiences of Black LGBTQ+ people look much different than those of the rest of the rainbow.”

It made me think about how Latifah, née Dana Owens, has masterfully navigated her sexually identity throughout her whole career. She seems to have been sincerely what she needed to be to the right group whether it was Black Gay and Lesbian fans, straight Black men in hip hop, and then generally “white” America.

And what is that she attained exactly that made her not just Queen Latifah, but Queen Latifah?

Queer DJ and scholar Lynnée Denise writes in Wax Poetic: “When Ronald Reagan used the words ‘Welfare Queens’ to describe the Black women he thought were hustling government money, Dana Owens was building her own political agenda. Her life in rap politics began the moment she crowned herself Latifah at the age of eight, after finding the title in a book of Arabic names and discovering it meant ‘delicate and kind.’ By nineteen, Latifah and a lineup of star producers, DJs, and MCs collaborated to produce her 1989 debut album All Hail the Queen. Hip-hop heads were taken aback by what came from the cassette tape. Even with their ears to the speakers, people were hard-pressed to find anything ‘delicate and kind’ about the level of skill found in the album’s beat curation. Latifah convinced golden-era aficionados that the meaning of words like ‘delicate’ and ‘kind’ needed to shift. Between Reagan and the male-dominated rap music landscape, All Hail the Queen cleared the space for a different kind of femininity.”

Rap music is in the business of timestamping. Comb through its lyrical history and you’ll hear any given year shouted out on wax for the future archive.

Perhaps what makes All Hail the Queen one of the greatest albums in rap music history is how it models the marriage between the DJ and the MC. It’s a journey through the afterlife of samples. It highlights the trust we owe the DJs and selectors who used ’80s technology to repurpose the music they found in their parents’ record collections. Having released his own timeless classic, “The 900 Number,” in 1987, 45 King was one of the greats who demonstrated crate diggin’ as a research practice. On the song “A King and Queen Creation,” 45 King makes a rare appearance as an MC and drops lyrics that explain how All Hail the Queen was conceived, “Bringing a mixture / of pure flavor / I make beats / she rocked rhymes / so I gave her / a sample sound / then she added a compound.” And there you have it: the formula, which can’t be separated from the palpable confidence you hear in the album’s pace. The blending of the Flavor Unit with the Native Tongue family expanded the life of Latifah’s sound, placing her squarely between the two crews as a member. “Mama Gave Birth to the Soul Children,” produced by Prince Paul, featured De La Soul, who were Latifah’s labelmates and fellow members of the Class of 1989 of classic album debuts. The song is sandwiched between two other gems that hover around the typical four-on-the-floor tempo range, “Dance for Me,” and what Latifah describes as “hip-hop house/hip-hop jazz,” on the song “Come into my House.” Including hip-hop house was a bold decision, and yet she saw it through, creating evidence of the merging sounds and underground club scenes from New York to New Jersey.

The anthemic “Ladies First” introduced a catch phrase to innercity feminism. U.K. rapper Monie Love stepped into the scene and made the role of women in the industry a worldwide affair. Other rappers such as MC Lyte, Antoinette, Roxanne Shanté, J.J. Fad, Oaktown’s 3-5-7, Nikki D, Sweet Tee, and Ms. Melodie rode that spirit in between 1988 and 1989 and refused to be afterthoughts in hip-hop’s growing visibility. These weren’t just female MCs; these were peers on the M-I-C. The mathematics on this album equals hip-hop royalty, and it’s been immortalized by everything Latifah has done as an artist between the ages of eight and fifty. If you had the chance to experience All Hail the Queen in real time, then you know that Latifah left behind a message for Reagan and any other sucka MCs: “You tried to be down / you can’t take the crown / maybe from someone else / but not me.”

And she did this all while retaining the utmost respect and remaining eminently likable.

Legendary hip-hop journalist and cultural critic Michael Gonzales, author of It’s Like That: The Makings of a Hip-Hop Writer told us, “Truthfully, I’m not sure it was never a secret that she was gay, she just never talked about it in public. I can recall interviewing her in the ’90s and she was dating the R&B singer Monifah (who today is married to a woman) who was with her that day. I think lesbian rappers get a pass in the way an out gay male rapper wouldn’t. At least until very recently with Lil Nas X.”

Award winning journalist Diane Anderson-Minshall, who is now the CEO and Editorial Director of Pride Media (The Advocate, Out Magazine) adds: “I think both because of the enormity of her role as the female pioneer of hip-hop that she was accorded a lot of respect from both fans and music industry insiders and because folks have seen her go through immense personal struggles with depression after her brother’s death they also didn’t hound her the same way they did others.”

Latifah’s brother Lance, who worked as a policeman in East Orange, New Jersey, was off-duty and on his bike when he collided with another vehicle in a fatal accident at the height of her hip-hop prominence in 1992.

 

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“But let’s make no mistake,” Anderson insists,  “Two factors have played into this: One, she’s repeatedly said she doesn’t care if the media thinks she’s gay and that has a big nulling effect on media because at a certain point many did just assume she was somewhere in the LGBTQ+ spectrum.”

Perhaps more importantly, Anderson-Minshall adds, “The male gaze of fandom has not been fixed on Queen Latifah and while that probably meant she  got more respect and feminist cred, it also meant she didn’t have to constantly try to live up to the intense physical beauty standards that we demand of other queer or Bi+ women in hip hop. Imagine if Cardi B, who is bisexual, we’re queer and not dressing for the male gaze? Even 30 years after Queen Latifah hit the scene we’ve seen LGBTQ+ musicians like Kehlani, Halsey, and Demi Lovato all under tough pressure to look/dress/sound a certain way.”

 

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Writer/director Dekker Dreyer underscores Anderson-Minshall’s point when he says, “Throughout her career she didn’t sexualize herself. It’s not unheard-of for women in hop hop, of all body types, to present themselves in a sexually forward way. Queen Latifah didn’t go that direction and because of that and her career trajectory toward family-oriented films and television she’s kept a kind of asexual public perception around herself despite her orientation being a long-standing open secret. If she had taken more provocative moves in her career I think she might’ve invited greater interest in her private life.”

“It was difficult enough being a female artist in hip hop when she came on the scene and queer artists were completely in the closet,” Dekker concludes. “I’m happy that she feels like she can be herself in her public life.”

“But then,” Gonzales laughs and reminds me,  “She played the most butch character on the planet in (the 1996 girl-gang-heist movie) Set It Off.”

Gonzales also reminded me of the rich history of the celebrity closet. “It’s weird with some entertainers. Moms Mabley played as a old nasty woman who talked about sex with men when on stage…but, I don’t think many thought of her as a sexual being. She was grandma. Ma Rainy was bi.”

He finishes, “I think some entertainers are afraid to say it out loud. I’m thinking about both male (Luther Vandross) and female…Billie Holiday was bi, Nona Hendryx ( of LaBelle), Dusty Springfield. Even Liberace married a woman…haha. So there’s that.”

Former Pro Basketball star DeMarco Majors adds: “She was previously never safe. It took God to bring true love and motherhood for her to learn how to create that safety through pure love. So now she speaks when it’s right for her.  There is a huge difference in the industry about being out (need to know based) and being open. It’s about the over flow of the truth of your heart. She is in love with her wife and son. So now is the perfect time that she invites us into a deeper moment of truth for because her heart is ready.”

“Queen Latifah expressing her love for her partner and wishing us all a happy Pride as she accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award tonight had me emotional,” McKensie Mack tweeted after the speech. “So many Black queer kids watching the show tonight are being so affirmed by our people.”

Brian Keith Jackson, writer, essayist, and the author of the novels The View From Here and The Queen of Harlem said it best, “Dana has tremendous range and her talent speaks for itself. She is liked and respected because of her grace. I’ll be happy when we get to a point whereby being discreet doesn’t mean lying or hiding something. But I guess until then, everyone will have an opinion.”

Jackson pauses, “Sexuality is often about the need of others, rarely about the individual being discussed.”