“I can finally get married!” Raven-Symoné tweeted on Friday. “Yay government! So proud of you.” Everyone immediately decided the tweet was an overdue admission of Symone’s sexual orientation. She came out.
Last year the National Enquirer reported that Symoné was in a serious relationship with America’s Next Top Model contestant AzMarie Livingston. After that story, Symoné quickly issued a statement that didn’t deny or admit that she was gay. Instead, she asked for privacy in her personal life.
Symoné’s failure to come out angered some who felt the 27-year-old actress would add a much-needed and rarely seen face to the growing list of gay celebrities. Symoné gained fame as a child on The Cosby Show and later on the popular Disney series That’s So Raven. High-profile black females are rarely—if ever—identified as gay. Many believe this is for good reason.
As entertainment blogs rushed to publish galleries of celebrities who’ve made their sexual orientation publically known, Wanda Sykes appeared to be the lone African-American woman on a list that included Jodie Foster, Ellen DeGeneres, and Anderson Cooper.
“Interracial relationships and sex-same relationships are still subjects most famous people of color won’t discuss,” says black film historian and NYU film professor Donald Bogle. “The response from the black audience is still so unknown that it’s a risk that most really fear taking—and that’s understandable.”
A segment of the black community, particularly older African-Americans, harbor long-held conservative views toward same-sex relationships that usually trace back to strict Baptist-church teachings. Those ultraconservative beliefs can go a long way in deciding who is and who isn’t supported by the black community in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and beyond.
“With those attitudes there is just no way to tell how revealing your sexual preferences will impact your career from the fan side or the business side. As a black performer struggling to work, you cannot afford to take that chance,” Bogle says.
For black actresses, performers, and often black women in general, that fear is doubled by the lack of opportunities that plague women of color. Black women routinely receive less pay than their white counterparts for similar jobs. They also climb the corporate ladder at a much slower pace.
“Being black is a heavy enough burden in the entertainment industry,” says one black actress in a same-sex relationship, who requested not to be identified. “Being a woman over 30 is enough of a burden in this town. Why add one more thing they can hold against you to the mix?”
Many in black Hollywood say Symoné’s early success in Hollywood enabled her to take a chance most would never consider taking.
“Raven is fearless for coming out, and I’m proud of her,” says a well-known black director. “But let’s face it, most black women in this business don’t have the clout or the money in the bank to risk it all. Look at how long it took Jodie Foster to come out, and she is a Hollywood institution. Raven has had a solid career that most black women don’t have and that affords her a certain amount of freedom.”
Symoné’s young age may have also influenced her decision to come out. The National Enquirer posted other stories detailing the “lesbian affairs” of several other black starlets, and rumors of homosexuality have followed women in black Hollywood, like Queen Latifah, for decades.
“Raven is 27-years-old, which means her parents are probably in their early fifties,” says the actress. “There is big difference from having black parents in their seventies who rode on the back of the bus and attended segregated schools. They don’t believe in you telling all your business to the public or sharing your sexual lifestyle, particularly if you’re gay. Most of the other famous black girls that are lesbian and well-known are over 40. That would kill their mothers if they came out. How would they ever show their faces in church again?”
Still, some in black Hollywood say Symoné’s bold move may just be the nudge needed to encourage more black celebs to reveal who they love—a move many believe could ease the pressure felt by a host of young black teenagers struggling to come to terms with their own sexual identity.
“What Raven did will no doubt help plenty of kids being bullied because they’re gay feel better about themselves,” says the director. “But what’s sad is though revealing who you love is now easier to discuss, race is becoming harder to discuss. For black people, as long as race is still a major problem, other issues will come in second place no matter who comes out next.”