Lea DeLaria Talks Orange is the New Black and Dismantling Gay Tokenism

TV Features Lea DeLaria
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Lea DeLaria Talks <i>Orange is the New Black</i> and Dismantling Gay Tokenism

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Editor’s Note: The following interview took place before the tragic events of the Orlando massacre.

”It’s the 1990s. It’s hip to be queer, and I’m a bi-i-i-i-ig dyke!—Lea DeLaria (The Arsenio Hall Show, 1993)

Looking at her resume and her cultural awakening in the queer community, it’s clear that Lea DeLaria has been building up to this moment her whole life. DeLaria was breaking ground before it was hip—before such commentary was trendy or think piece-worthy. As a stand up comic, she got her start on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1993 as “the first openly gay comic to break the late-night talk-show barrier.” She hasn’t stopped pushing barriers and fighting for LGBT visibility since then.

Most know Lea DeLaria from Orange is the New Black as the brash, self-proclaimed butch dyke with a heart of gold, and that’s for good reason. The show has singlehandedly changed the conversation of icons in the LGBT community, and dressed them down to reflect people within the community. The distinctive presentation of what women look like—especially those in the queer community—is a significant aspect of the show. These characters aren’t props, they aren’t the smart ass best friends with one liners—they are about as far from token gay characters as you can get. As shown through OITNB favorites like DeLaria’s Big Boo and Sophia (Laverne Cox), the narratives of gay and trans characters are created to stand all on their own, and their stories are often beautiful, and just as often necessarily and unapologetically ugly.

One of those key moments happened during last year’s third season, when Big Boo’s origin story was finally revealed. A traumatic coming out story, which mirrors shocking exchanges broadcast on YouTube, Big Boo was never understood by her family, and was cast out by those who were supposed to have her back. Developing her own backbone proved challenging, but Big Boo (real name Carrie) was determined. Prior to lockup, we find out through a flashback on one failed relationship, that Boo’s girlfriend was embarrassed by that butch dyke swagger we’ve come to know and love as viewers. It was one bottle episode for Big Boo, but it’s a story that will resonate for a lifetime, for many in the queer community.

Lea DeLaria sat down with Paste to discuss the struggles of the queer community, diversity on the show, and a darker Orange is the New Black in Season Four.

Paste Magazine: Going into the new season, does this still feel like a fresh and new experience for you? 
Lea DeLaria: This show is always fresh and new because they always mix it up. You never know what to expect. We all greedily read the scripts when they come to us, because we have no fucking clue. They don’t let us know anything. Season Four is way darker than any of the other seasons. I’m really looking forward to seeing how people are going to respond to it. It’s really funny, they’re a couple of lines in this season that I got to utter that are just are hil-arious. I’m not used to it—not even remotely.

Paste: Boo has a no bullshit policy and it seems like you share that in common with her. What are some other qualities that the two of you share?
DeLaria: Boo was written for me, so they knew who the fuck they were writing for. We ARE the same person—I’m not acting at all. I’ve had to do way harder acting jobs than Orange is the New Black. This is NOTHING. This is like a get up, smoke a joint and go do Orange is the New Black (laughs).

They do make me stretch as an actor when I have to do dramatic stuff. It’s frightening to be me because I’m a stand up comic, and when they throw you that stuff, I’m like, “Okay I’m going to do the best that I can,” but then there’s Kate Mulgrew staring at you, and you better fucking be bringing it up toe to toe if you have Kate Mulgrew staring at you.

Paste: Last season we finally saw where Big Boo’s strength comes from, with her origin story. She had such a traumatic coming out story, but there was real beauty in the performance. How did it feel to play that arc out? 
DeLaria: Thank you. It was great. As a butch dyke, I’ve spent my whole life looking like this and being this person, and I’ve experienced everything that’s in there. The reality is that butches have a shared experience, in the same way that I believe transgender women do. If you’re different in any way, and belong to a social group, you’re going to have a shared life experience. They hit every aspect of what I deal with as a butch dyke, and what I have dealt with. The only difference is that my parents didn’t disown me. In fact, we kept a conversation going so that we both understood each other. They were proud of me until the day they died.

Paste: It wasn’t that long ago that there was a “token” gay character that existed on a lot of television, and represented one idea. Orange is the New Black really attempts to demolish that whole construct.
DeLaria: Yeah, even the dyke character—if you see anything before this that was made, with a character that looks like me, she’s stupid, she’s an alcoholic, she’s a truck driver, she beats her girlfriend, she picks fights. But Boo is well rounded. She’s not stupid, she’s probably the smartest one in the prison. I think we all can agree on that. She’s warm, generous, loving, and that whole thing with everybody being afraid of her—well, when you get to know her, she’s cream filled.

Paste: You don’t often see that. It’s mind boggling. 
DeLaria: You never see that. I know that Laverne [Cox] feels the same way. I know that women who aren’t white feel the same way as well. None of our writers and producers are interested in perpetrating a stereotypical myth on you. They want you to see how we are all different, yet the same. 

Paste: Even to this day it still seems like women in the LGBT community have to fight a little harder than gay men to be accepted and to be heard. The show explores that as well. 
DeLaria: I’ve seen this ebb and flow. I have a t-shirt now that says, “I’ve survived lesbian chic.” There was a while there where lesbians were everywhere, but it wasn’t really us. It was the male concept of what they wanted the glamorous lesbian to look like, so they could jerk off to it. That’s what that was. THIS now is real, and this is who we are. Gay men and gay women are writing and producing these shows now, so when you have a queer character, you’ve actually got these people writing and producing. They’re not going to let crap go out to sell spam.

Paste: Are you approached by fans of the show who recognize themselves in these characters? 
DeLaria: Oh yeah, and not just approached. I get direct messages on Instagram from at least 150 people a day from all over the world. The messages I get range from “Thank God for your show,” to “I was able to come out and be who I am,” to “I’m gay, and I can’t tell my parents because they’ll stone me to death.” I get all of that. I think that this show is winning the hearts and minds of people. We’ve been out there protesting and fighting the good fight to obtain the rights that we should have as citizens of this country, and this show is winning people over. Affecting change has a lot to do with that.

Paste: Something that the show touches on is the fact that the LGBT community does ostracize members of its own community for not fitting into a specific mold.
DeLaria: Yeah, that was in my episode. That’s the thing that I was talking about, that shared experience. If you’re a butch dyke then you’re ostracized by the community, period. They’re so busy trying to “be like everyone else,” and that’s the mainstream middle class assimilation that queers have taken over. Those of us who are a little more outrageous don’t really like them, and they don’t really like us. I think people like Laverne and myself, we have helped change the opinion of our community. It’s a little better now. Only a little. It’s ugly progress. 

Paste: Even going back 10 years ago, you had The L Word and you had Queer as Folk. There were all gay casts and that was it. No one was co-existing with each other. 
DeLaria: Yeah. I always like to quote Scott Thompson from The Kids in The Hall. “The gays should be like the raisins in raisin bran. You don’t want all the raisins in the corner of the bowl.” We want to spread through it. 

Paste: Do you think this show would have existed without Netflix as a platform? 
DeLaria: Well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know. Weeds existed and that didn’t do what this show does, but it was groundbreaking. The things we do on our show, I don’t think HBO would let us do. We had a fisting scene in our pilot! A fisting scene! We. Had. A. Fisting. Scene. In. Our. Pilot! I have to say it again and again and again, because I couldn’t believe it. Masturbating to orgasm on camera? Awesome!

What Netflix has brought us—this fame in the digital age that we experience right now, it’s like the green giant. It’s taken fame in the digital age and it has turned it into the jolly green giant, by releasing all 13 of our episodes at once. I think there’s over 60 million viewers right now, so worldwide at the same time, they’re all in their houses watching our show. That doesn’t happen with SVU on Wednesday night at 10 o’clock. You would think with Netflix that they would watch it whenever they want, but the reality is the second it comes out, everybody’s watching it and that’s part of their business plan. They do it once a year and it just heightens the excitement. God, that was smart. 

Orange is the New Black Season Four is now streaming on Netflix.