I’ve been waiting almost two days to write about Queen Latifah not only receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at Sunday night’s BET Awards, but also sending a heartfelt “Eboni, my love,” to her longtime partner Eboni Nichols from the stage and then wrapping it all up by wishing us a “Happy Pride” with a peace sign (whenever I do a peace sign I look super corny, for I am not Queen Latifah). But first, I want to tell a quick story about my eighth birthday.
You know that running joke with your friends that usually goes something along the lines of “how gay are you?” One of my most common answers is that I’m so gay I had a Queen Latifah themed birthday party when I was eight years old. Living Single had just finished its first season on FOX and I was the only second grader I knew obsessed with it. Specifically, I was obsessed with Queen Latifah. The only thing I wanted for my birthday was her Black Reign album, which required a bit of negotiation because it was going to be my first “adult” CD (errr, it might have been a cassette tape). My mom finally agreed and one of her friends bought it as a surprise, a huge deal in my eight-year-old brain because she bought the version with the Parental Advisory sticker and all the curse words, because you canNOT listen to “U.N.I.T.Y.” without the full chorus of “Who you callin a bitch?”— “Who you callin a [record scratch]” simply will not do.
“U.N.I.T.Y.” was the first rap song I memorized. Our cassette player was in the car and my patient mother rewound it over and over again until I had every refrain picture perfect. It took me an entire month worth of car rides; I can still do every inflection from memory. In fact, Sunday night when Lil Kim and MC Lyte paid tribute by rapping her most iconic lyrics while Queen Latifah wiped tears of wonder from her eyes, I did just that.
Of course, a lot has changed in the last 27 years. For one, I came out. For another, Queen Latifah never really did.
How do you talk about the multiple (almost) coming outs of a celebrity who’s never really been “in” to begin with? How do you write about her partner when she rarely mentions her in public? And that’s the point, the “hiding in plain sight” of it all. The expectation or belief that we could possibly be owed anything more from Queen Latifah beyond what she’s already shared, just by living her life.
In 2013, while accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, Jodie Foster came out. She did without ever saying “I’m gay,” nstead acknowledging, “I already did my coming out a thousand years ago, in the Stone Age… But now apparently I’m told every celebrity is expected to audit the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a primetime reality show.” She went on to thank Cydney Bernard, her former longtime partner and the co-parent of her children. “There’s no way I could ever stand here without acknowledging one of the deepest loves of my life: my heroic co-parent, my ex-partner in love but righteous soul sister in life.” I thought about that a lot on Sunday as I watched Queen Latifah sit center stage with her partner (and presumed mother of her child) Eboni on one side and her father on the other.
And what a show she got to see from her perch. Women’s rap is having a renaissance. It hasn’t been as prominent or met with as much popularity since Queen herself was rocking a mic, with Sunday’s award show having Cardi, Meg thee Stallion, City Girls, and Flo Milli all making appearances (not including Rapsody, Monie Love, Lil Kim, or MC Lyte, who all performed during Queen’s tribute). In May, Lil Nas X manifested on Twitter that he wanted to perform the Black gay anthem “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” on the BET stage and even though every Black queer person I know RT’d it, I think we all assumed that BET would never.
Even when Lil Nas X showed up on the BET red carpet in a dress — the very same red carpet where less than a decade ago B. Scott, a non-binary performer and gossip columnist, was quite literally forced to change out of their femme fashion, despite being an invited host — I didn’t believe it. When the opening chords to CMBYN began to play, I held my breath. I thought to myself, even if he performs a “toned down” version of the song, given the overarching circumstances, it will be worth it. Then, just as the song was wrapping, he made out with one of his male dancers. I don’t think you hear me though!! On the fucking BET stage.
Later, Lil Nas X reflected, “It took me a lot of time to mentally prepare for this performance. While on stage I was trembling knowing that I was performing something like that in front of my straight peers. Even during the performance I was having a hard time calming my nerves.”
Maybe you had to grow up indoctrinated by BET to really get it. To have been a queer teen who came home from school and put on 106 & Park only to be reminded that you didn’t exist. To have watched Sunday’s Best and be told you were a sin, every single week. BET reflects back Black culture, and while I’d fight anyone who makes the racist assumption that Black people are somehow more homophobic than anyone else, our community is not perfect. By playing to Black America’s most conservative base over its 40 years, BET has been no small player in allowing that hate to continue. Sunday night felt like whatever was opposite of death by a thousand cuts — freedom by a thousand small breaks.
On Sunday night Mj Rodriguez took to the stage, smiled, and twirled in a white floor length gown with a thigh high slit to her own damn song before presenting an award. Freedom. The Queen got to see it all from the front row.
And I do think now it’s different. I think Niecy Nash and her wife Jessica Betts helped make it different. I think Janelle Monáe helped make it different. I think Lena Waithe helped make it different. Hell, I think Lil Nas X performing that song to that audience, being his fully gay ass Black ass self, less than 40 minutes before Queen Latifah made her speech made a difference. To be honest — I think 30 years ago Queen Latifah herself helped put the studs in the walls (pun not intended) that all those other people tore down, and that made it different. I’m also not a 50-year-old Black woman who’s walked in her shoes. I have no idea what was going through her head when she took that stage. It did seem that she felt loved. I hope she felt loved. Because… just wow, how much we love her, you know?
As her four minute speech crescendos, the audience is cheering so loud that Queen has to raise her voice to get over them. “Eboni, my love. Rebel, my love. Peace! Happy Pride!”
Queen’s been with Eboni for so long at this point, it’s hard to remember them apart. About a year ago, it was reported in some gossip circles (because with Queen Latifah, gossip is often all we have) that Rebel is their son. If you listen closely, she’s indirectly referenced him before in Rapsody’s 2019 single “Hatshepsut.” Still I wondered, did she have a rush of adrenaline before publicly committing his name to the history books in the last seconds of her speech?
On Monday a lot of websites were breathless in their declarations about Queen Latifah, that she came out or that this moment was somehow a watershed compared to the private life she’s lived before — but they didn’t get the story right. Not really. Not in its fullness. Because it wasn’t about her and it never really was.
Sunday’s BET Awards was the closest the network has ever come to finally embracing queer identities on its largest stage, which is simultaneously saying very little and saying absolutely everything with your whole chest. It was the closest Queen Latifah has come to coming out, if that matters to you, which is certainly something.
But I kept thinking about myself at eight years old, writing the words of U.N.I.T.Y. into the air of the backseat of my mom’s Ford Focus, trying to commit it to memory. I’m pretty proud of how that kid ended up. Looking at Queen Latifah, and the grown family woman she’s become, I’m pretty proud of her, too.￼