Samira Wiley is many things: black woman, American, actress, activist, wife and breakout star of bona fide hits Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) and The Handmaid’s Tale. She is also an out and proud gay woman—now. While OINTB is where Wiley met her wife, screenwriter Lauren Morelli, it is also where she was forced into “coming out,” as she recently recounted to WNYC’s LGBTQ+-focused Nancy podcast.
Someone from my cast actually, during the interview they were talking about out gay actors in the cast… and they mentioned my name and I saw it in print, and I cried. I cried a lot. … I wasn’t always super open-hearted… but um, yeah… more specifically, that’s something somebody took from me… You should be able to come out on your own terms … so, that was probably a little deeper … I wasn’t out in the beginning and I think falling in love with Poussey [her character on OITNB], which is a really thing that happened to me, helped me fall in love with myself as well…
For those of us with hetero identities (or even cis identities), the idea of “coming out” may not entirely hit home, even if we’re sympathetic. But 20 years after the hate-fueled murder of 21-year-old gay student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., whose death helped give rise to hate crime legislation in America, Wiley gave voice to the ongoing movement in a recent 19th anniversary reading of The Laramie Project. Speaking with WNYC, Wiley discussed where she thinks we are as a country, just in time for National Coming Out Day 2018, on Thursday, Oct. 11. As Wiley told WNYC:
It does have me questioning about like… where we are then, where we are now, the question of progress… Over and over and over again, we hurt each other and we don’t know how to get out of this cycle. But then there’s this cycle of trying to repair that… So, it does, I guess, make me a little wary about like what progress are we making, but it also makes me think of like, We’re not crazy…. This is who humans are and as humans we have to push through this… That’s where the art comes in. We have to put a salve on our wounds.
Remarkably, despite not always being out herself, Wiley has risen to fame playing characters whose sexuality is transparent. Of that dichotomy, she told WNYC:
I think that if I wasn’t portraying these characters, I wonder how my own journey with my own sexual orientation, how I would embrace that, how I would walk the world, if I wasn’t able to embrace the characters that I have been… It’s not a choice but I’m very, very happy it’s worked out this way ...
I definitely had some ideas in the beginning of my career of like, what I could do and what I couldn’t do because of who I am… One of the things I couldn’t do… if I play gay twice… I’m type cast… but I have been able to hopefully do… [is to play] completely different, complex characters that are both black and gay but are completely different from each other. And I think that’s important to show how multi-faceted we all are… Those things helped me embrace all the facets of myself…”
And while we are definitely seeing more representations of humanity and womanhood in media these days, Wiley impressed upon her hosts that we’re not quite equal—yet.
I think that as long as we’re having the exact same opportunities on our side… if it’s equal, then sure. But I do think that right now it is not equal, and because it is not equal, it is very important that we tell our own stories. ... Our experience as queer people in this world, in this country, is a very singular thing.