I’m Black and Queer, and I Don’t Care if I Lose Roles Over It

HBO Max’s teen drama series, Genera+ion, follows several high school students navigating their conservative community while LGBTQ+. During the pilot episode’s first few moments, Chester Morris, played by actor Justice Smith, confidently wears a rainbow crop top to school, which later earns him a visit to the front office and a notice of a dress code violation—his third of the year so far, we learn.

In real life, Smith has also spent the last year navigating heteronormative Hollywood as an openly queer person. Best known for his roles in All The Bright Places and The Get Down, the 25-year-old actor opened about about his sexuality in an Instagram post amid last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. (He’s resistant to call it ‘coming out.’)

“We chanted ‘Black Trans Lives Matter,’ ‘Black Queer Lives Matter,’ ‘All Black Lives Matter,'” he wrote of his experience at a protest. “As a black queer man myself, I was disappointed to see certain people eager to say Black Lives Matter, but hold their tongue when Trans/Queer was added.”

Since then, he’s called for greater attention to the Black transgender community. He’s also shared the joys of working on a show like Genera+ion. “… for so long, queer people have had to try to find their like representation in straight material,” he told The Daily Beast of the series. “And, like, now it’s kind of the other way around.”

For Pride Month, we spoke with Smith about his coexisting Black and queer identities, the importance of shows like Genera+ion for young people, and the unforgettable experiencing of revisiting high school in your twenties.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Answer this candidly. How are you doing mentally?

Justice Smith: I’m having a good day, and I think that stems from me really investing in myself and being in [a] relationship with myself. Something that I learned recently is to treat myself as if I am my own partner. Take myself out on dates and to go hiking and do things that I would normally do with a romantic partner, but with myself. That also includes talking to myself the way I would talk to a friend.

I would never say, “You look so ugly today” to a friend of mine. Making sure anytime I start to cycle in that negativity, to put a wrench in the spokes and readjust the way that I’m talking to myself.

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you weren’t coming out necessarily, but were ‘coming in.’ Why do you dislike the term ‘coming out,’ and when did you know that your queerness was something that you were proud of?

When I first identified as queer, I was like, “Oh, this is what I am and this is who I am.” I just kind of announced that to my friends and family, and just as soon as I realized it for myself is when the people in my life realized it. I think that’s why I had so much problem with the term ‘coming out’ was because I’ve always kind of been this way. You guys are just privy to it now.

I don’t like that term because it puts the onus on the individual to rid themselves of the assumption that the zeitgeists has put on to them and I don’t think that’s really fair. People don’t assume that I’m not the normal sexual orientation when I’m in a heterosexual relationship, but the minute I’m in a homosexual relationship, they’re like, “Oh my gosh.” I started being proud that I was queer when I recognized that being queer was a lot more marginalized than I realized.

I had the fortune of growing up in a generation that has a lot of queer representation, although not enough, and has de-stigmatized queerness in a lot of ways. The high school I went to was predominantly queer. I’d never really felt weird about identifying as such until after high school when I got into the real world, I was like, “Oh, people want me dead for this identity and that’s the second identity that I have that people want me dead for.” That sucks, but I’m going to be proud of it in the face of all those people. They can stay hateful and I’ll sleep easy.

When you first publicly embraced your queerness, what responses did you receive?

I felt really loved and supported. There was this house of assumption that was built around me, and so I had to make a statement especially if I want to advocate for my community. I have to be like, “I am aligned with this community” and not be like, “I’m an ally” because that’s just a lie. I was like, “Yo, listen, I’m a part of this community. This shit affects me,” and I knew that it wasn’t just me being offhand. I knew what I was doing. I knew that I was coming out—at least publicly.

It took me 0.05 seconds before I did that to be like, “What if this affects my career?” and just as quickly, I was like, “I wouldn’t want a career in which I couldn’t be myself.” I would never accept a career in which they were like, “You can be an actor, but you can’t be Black.” That would be fucking crazy to me. If this prevents me from getting opportunities then I never wanted those opportunities. Those opportunities were never formed because this is how I was made. This is who I am. Period.

What attracted you to Genera+ion and Chester’s character?

I knew Chester like 10 times over. The minute I got into the room, I realized that because I had so much reference for him. I was the perfect person to play him. It wasn’t until I actually started saying the words that I realized that this character lived somewhere within me. On paper, we had us both being Black and being queer in common. Growing up in Orange County, in Anaheim, in predominantly conservative communities—we had all of those in common.

Chester was the first character that wore his heart on his sleeve and was the first provocative, extroverted character that I played. I knew that I had all of those sides within me, and as an artist, this is the perfect chance to showcase that. I’m not just introverted, sad boy, nerdy-type which I play a lot of; I also do other things. Chester was just a godsend in many ways.

When it comes to Chester’s character on the show, how does he break barriers of conversations around gender fluidity and sexuality?

Chester genuinely does not give a fuck about gender and how people perceive him. He’s all about defying social mores in pursuit of his own authenticity. It’s his everything. If you’re not an individual, you’re nothing. Chester is seeks out this bold individuality, even though he realizes the consequence of that is loneliness and people being intimidated by you.

Chester’s whole character is him bouncing like, “How do I stay true to myself in all the colors that I am, be loved for that, and find someone who’s going to love me for that and not in spite of that?” That’s such an important story for young queers because queer loneliness is a real thing. It’s something that a lot of queer people experience when they’re experimenting with the way that they express themselves through gender. It’s reconciling with the fact that not everyone’s going to like that. A lot of people are going to be put off by that and they have to own and love themselves first. Chester is an example of that.

You worked with a personal trainer to get in shape for water polo scenes. What was the training experience like for you?

Chester is a jock and I’m far from that. The hardest thing for me is gaining weight. I have a really fast metabolism and skinniness runs in my family. When I got the show, I was working out three times a week, but I was trying to build up leg mass because water polo players have these tree trunk legs because it’s all leg and all core. I have chicken legs. Luckily when we did the water polo scene, you can’t see my legs because they’re under the water. I did manage to put on some bulk, although I think I only gained like eight pounds, but I was on this water retention creatine at the same time.

Any time I wasn’t working, I was doing training. That was just about strength and not necessarily cosmetic, but when it comes to being on camera, if I’m healthy and I feel good, it’s great. I have to meet a look, but it can be unhealthy if you don’t recognize the dynamics of what you’re doing. I luckily have an amazing trainer who taught me about toning and how to get certain things to look right just so I could play the truth of this jock.

Beyond being a Black and queer artist and thespian, as a human being, what are your hopes for inclusivity and equity in the entertainment industry?

I forget what I was watching the other day. It was something comedic, and it was about how true equity is the day where Black and queer artists who aren’t very good are gaining success and becoming very popular because that’s what we have with some white artists. It’s the concept of white mediocrity being praised and so many white artists who are relatively mediocre getting these platforms, fame and success for nothing. Black people have to be excellent, and we have to be the chosen few just to get a crumb of what they have. True equity is the day we see Black artists who are kind of mediocre getting their coin and making bank.

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