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5 LGBTQ+ Actors Discuss the Importance of Representation, and the Next Step
Outfest Fusion's Rising Stars
From April 17 - April 20, Outfest Fusion will be streaming a panel with LGBTQ+ actors of color who are breaking into Hollywood with guts, glory, and all their beautiful queerness.
The Fusion Rising Stars Panel, moderated for the second year in a row by Out's editor in chief, David Artavia, will include Ian Alexander (Star Trek: Discovery), Sherry Cola (Good Trouble), Shalita Grant (Santa Clarita Diet, You), Harvey Guillen (What We Do in the Shadows), and Vico Ortiz (Vida). All will discuss their pathway to success in the industry, the evolving visibility of LGBTQ+ people of color in TV and their role in it, as well as their advice to other queer artists hoping to break in.
Outfest Fusion spotlights breakthrough works from today's most exciting queer artists, musicians, and creators. It is where the next generation of storytellers and cultural ambassadors are discovered. The festival will be hosting virtual events and programs from April 16 - April 20. View their full lineup at Outfest.org.
Here Out spoke to the rising stars about the beauty and power of queer art and expression.
"More queer actors are telling stories and more queer stories are being told around the world," says Harvey Guillen, who this year made history as the first out Latino actor to get a Critics Choice Award for his role in What We Do in The Shadows. "For so long we have been omitted from history. We are just now starting to turn a new leaf."
Guillen adds that it is "extremely important" to have queer people behind the scenes. "It goes hand-in-hand with the idea of 'nothing about us without us.' A queer voice must be represented in the writers room."
"If this last year has taught us anything it's that when a crisis or pandemic takes place, the first thing people run to is entertainment and an escape," he continues. "You have no idea how many people message me through social media and say, 'Your show saved me during these hard times.' Through art we can continue to heal educate and elevate."
"The first time I started watching anything queer on screen was once I moved to Los Angeles and came out," says Vico Ortiz, who will be returning for the second season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be OK. "The lesbians immediately had me watching The L Word and although I was watching alone in my apartment as a grown adult, it still felt like I had to watch in secret. I remember opening my laptop and looking around and feeling giddy and nervous. It began opening up my world and it gave me the space to start a lot of conversations with myself and my community."
Ortiz, a proud Puerto Rican artist whose parents are also performers, opens up further about the power of queer visibility on screen. "I love that there are so many incredible actors starting their own production companies, pairing up with directors, writers and producers who are friends and colleagues and giving opportunities to other folks to tell their stories. We are no longer asking for space. We are making space and owning it."
"I know immediately when I get a character breakdown and a scene to audition if the writers room had or not a trans/non binary person advising on the script," they continue. "There are so many nuances missed, the character is clearly written as a box to fill rather than a multi dimensional fully fleshed human. It also gives me so much relief and safety knowing I won't be the only person on set vouching for myself. Having another queer person there is a breath of fresh air."
"Art is a form of communication and it gives us the tools to facilitate it. It's a key to access yourself and others, to engage in conversations from a safe place to create sympathy and compassion. We grow together, we learn together, we heal and change together through art."
"As a bisexual Asian female, the only time my younger self related to anyone onscreen was Margaret Cho," says Sherry Cola, star of Freeform's Good Trouble. "She was magical. I was so blown away by her bold and unapologetic energy. She broke barriers with her comedy and proved people wrong. That's what I wanted to be like. There's still not enough queer representation, and definitely not enough queer Asian representation. With the work I do, I strive to be just as inspiring as Margaret Cho for the next generation. I recently got to work with her on Good Trouble and it was a dream come true."
"I feel encouraged by the strong sense of community," Cola says of the growing network of queer creators in show business. "It's beautiful to see the conversations that we're all open to having now. If something can be changed, let's call it out. We're all coming together with love and equality as the motive. We're stronger than ever before."
"Representation matters, in front of and behind the camera," she continues. "The queer experience is so complex and nuanced, it can't be faked. Storytelling, at the core, should always be honest. Even fictional characters come from real point of views. Having someone in the writer's room who understands a specific perspective, and what the character has gone through, is necessary."
"I'm grateful that I get to be a reflection for others who haven't felt seen for most of their lives. Art is healing because it can influence and change minds. Especially in this era, when so much hate is surfacing, we can single-handedly spread awareness and shed light to ignorance with television and film."
"[Queen Latifah in Set it Off] was the first black masculine-presenting lesbian I had seen onscreen," says Shalita Grant, star of NCIS: New Orleans and Tony nominated actress for Christopher Durang's Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. "Queen Latifah played a straight feminine woman on her show Living Single, which was how I knew her originally. So there was something brave and dangerous about her playing the butch unapologetic Cleo. She scared and excited me -- and I was also scared for her. As a little girl, I took the message that women always need to strive to be 'pretty' and 'pleasing-to-the-(male)-eye' and I watched Queen Latifah through Cleo thrive as this badass butch icon. It left a deep impression on me and I often think about Queen Latifah's range as an actress and how many black girls she provoked into freeing themselves."
"I think the most encouraging thing about where the entertainment industry is going is that it seems to be having less and less tolerance of assholes," Grant quips, explaining the importance of having representation behind the scenes. "I think being in the writer's room is fabulous but what's more important is having queer people in the decision-making positions. Queer storytellers are at their best when the powers-that-be value their insight. Without that, unfortunately, their presence is mere 'rainbow' tokenism."
"I think everyone should do some kind of art every day: dancing, writing, painting, music, etc because the reason I think art is healing is that it gives you an opportunity to face something scary with the lowest possible risk (especially if you're doing it for an audience of one)," she continues. "For instance, if you grew up without feeling like you have a voice, writing could be very healing for you. If you grew up super cloistered and religious, yea any form of dance could be freeing and affirming. Our joy is part of the beauty of being human. Since I left my parent's house at 17, I've been on this soul mission to undo trauma, oppressive messaging and fall deeper into acceptance and love with the woman I am at any given moment. Art, if you need healing, is a wonderful way to meet that need."
"I remember seeing gay representation for the first time on screen when I was 13 and on Tumblr, looking at accounts like girlskissinggirls and boyskissingboys and seeing stills and GIFs from Blue is the Warmest Color and Kill Your Darlings," remembers Ian Alexander, who in 2020 became the first transgender character on Star Trek: Discovery, the first in the franchise's history. "I remember I had never seen sexual or romantic intimacy shown on screen between people of the same sex before, and it made me feel seen and scared. I was terrified because I then realized that I was queer, and that I wanted that kind of intimacy, but that now my religious biological family would reject me. I remember finding support online, through the community I had made on social media with other young questioning people. We were all figuring it out, not alone, because we had each other through our Skype message groups, our Tumblr direct messages, and Twitter group chats."
"I feel like the most empowering thing in the entertainment industry is how it's becoming more accessible to the people," Alexander continues. "With the innovations of social media, more people are able to submit their content from wherever in the world to get an opportunity to act, write, draw, etc. There are so many opportunities for trans people to have their voices heard in a way that often went ignored or silenced in the past. We can cultivate our own platforms, release our own content, and tell our own stories without always needing to seek out a studio's approval."
That being said, the actor says it's more important than ever for queer creators to own their space, otherwise "our stories are [going to be] taken from us, and capitalized off of, without us being in control of the narrative."
"It's so crucial for writer's rooms to reflect the kind of authentic representation in front of the camera," he continues. "This is something I've said for years, but have seen little change, and it's frankly disappointing. I'm going to channel that frustration into someday producing my own projects, with trans and nonbinary writers, producers, crew, and actors."
"Art is something I've always gravitated towards when I couldn't vocalize what I was feeling. The pain I experience, the joy, the love, the grief, the rage, all of it comes out in my own art or through consuming other people's art. I think that a great part of my healing journey has been watching positive, authentic queer representation, especially when it's geared towards kids. It heals that part of me, that hurt inner child that never got to see a positive representation of a transmasculine person. Shows like Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power show me the power of community, self love, radical honesty, and tenacity in the face of evil."