Breaking ground as the first openly gay comic to perform on American television, in 1993 on “The Arsenio Hall Show,” Lea DeLaria is still carrying the torch on TV two decades later, representing a deeply unsung subset in the queer community: the butch lesbian on the Netflix hit “Orange Is The New Black.”
The 58-year-old opens up about the “lesser known” controversy surrounding her historical TV debut—why she’s turned down so many gay roles since then—and why she thinks we should drop the community’s longtime collective acronym, LGBT.
“Orange Is the New Black” is now in its fourth season. Is that hard to believe?
It’s really shocking for me to believe it’s our fourth season. I thought I’d have way more money by now!
How is post-“Orange” life different from pre-“Orange” life? Are you recognized more often on the streets?
Oh yeah, I’m recognized nonstop. Before – first of all, not everybody was carrying their camera with them like they do now, so I would get stopped… I’d get stopped enough. I wouldn’t say frequently, and I wouldn’t say infrequently; it was somewhere in the middle. Generally, it’s “Hey, you’re Lea DeLaria; can I have your autograph?” Now I can’t even walk out of my front doorstep.
How does the treatment of LGBT characters and sexuality on “Orange” compare to your previous lesbian roles, both big and small?
What’s different about it more than anything else in the world is that it’s real. Believe me, as you’ve said, I played a lot of them, big and small, and I can assure you I’ve said “no” more than I’ve said “yes” to these roles. A lot of roles I say no to are because they’re just so completely stereotyped and bullshit that I won’t play them anymore.
What’s your earliest memory of subverting gender norms? Were you a tomboy?
Yeah, I was what we called a tomboy back then. It’s very interesting… when I went to a thrift store and got my first suit and put it on for the first time, it was like putting on my own skin. I was 17.
What were you feeling in that moment in 1993 as the first openly gay comic on“The Arsenio Hall Show?”
Scared as shit! Terrified, just terrified. All I could think was, “What if I bomb?” And I had “20/20” following me. I’m not sure how it happened but the universe aligned and the planets aligned perfectly and I killed. The audience could have hated me. I was not lightly gay, if you know what I mean. I wasn’t gay-lite. I was as queer as it gets.
They did an article in The Advocate right after it happened. They taped it and apparently I said the words “dyke,” “fag” and “queer” 47 times. I mean, it was the second sentence I uttered: “Hello everybody, I’m Lea DeLaria. It’s the 1990s, it’s hip to be queer and I’m a big dyke.”
We needed somebody to be that person.
The lesser-known story is that they almost didn’t air it because I said “queer” and “dyke and “fag.” The lawyers called Arsenio in and said, “We don’t think you should let this go out.” They were trying to pull it and Arsenio had a fit and said, “She’s a dyke. If she wants to call herself a dyke then it’s none of your fucking business.” He fought for it and got me on the air.
More recently, you called out a preacher while on the New York subway.
That guy? It’s an insult to preachers to call him a preacher. He’s just a homophobic asshole.
It went viral.
It went viral so fast I couldn’t believe it, in fact. I was on TMZ within a half hour. That was the thing: I was on a subway on my way to the studio – we were filming – so what had happened, I got out of the subway and I called my manager. I said, “Look, I had a confrontation. Somebody pulled out their phone and they videotaped it so there might be something on social media.” Twenty minutes later, he called me and said, “You’re on TMZ.” It was hilarious! It just went nuts.
You’ve spoken many times on the topic of “infighting.” Have you seen any noticeable change regarding the unification of the queer community?
Absolutely not. I speak about it a lot, but when we come together and don’t infight we get a lot done. This is the biggest issue we have in the queer community to date and will continue to be the biggest issue until we learn to accept our differences, and that’s the issue. And part of me believes that this inclusivity of calling us the LGBTQQTY-whatever-LMNOP tends to stress our differences. And that’s why I refuse to do it. I say queer. Queer is everybody.