Roxane Gay on Marriage, Ellen, and the Importance of Marginalized Voices

Roxane Gay on Marriage, Ellen, and the Importance of Marginalized Voices

American writer, editor, professor, cultural critic, and social commentator Roxane Gay believes that women are at their best when they are bad, difficult, and heard. The writer outlined the ways that she, and by extension all women, can (and should) contradict themselves as they form their personhood and embrace their badness in her 2014 bestselling collection of essays, Bad Feminist. Emma Reese spoke with Roxane over the summer about her recent elopement with her wife, the educator, designer, podcaster, artist, and writer, Debbie Millman, reconciling Ellen Degeneres’s fall from grace, the importance of marginalized voices, and the political power of creating as a person of color.

E: Firstly, I would like to congratulate you and your now wife, Debbie Millman, on your recent elopement. Debbie follows me on Instagram, which I have to say is a huge thrill for me and always will be, but the two of you are amazing. And I think that I can speak for the majority of the lesbian community when I say that seeing the love story that’s developed between the two of you since you first publicly confirmed your relationship at A-Camp last June, has brought a lot of joy to all of us.

RG: Oh, good. Yeah, it’s great to be embraced by our community, that means a lot. I can speak for Debbie in saying that it means a lot to both of us.

E: Is it true that she triangulated getting you on her podcast in order to get a date with you?

RG: That is true, yes.

E: Oh, wow. Can you tell me anything about that? How did she even… that’s very strategic planning.

RG: Well, she’s a very determined woman. Before we first started dating, she tried to get me on her podcast, Design Matters, and I told her to get in touch with one of my publicists. So she did, but my publicist never really responded to her. And so several months later she wrote back again and told me that my publicist did not get in touch. I told her that I was really just interviewed-out, and so I was just going to take a break from interviewing. So then when Hunger came out, she sent me this beautiful email and in the email, she was telling me how much she appreciates my work and what she really vibed with in terms of Hunger. It was really beautiful and really meaningful, and I don’t take it for granted. But I was still like… well, I was in a relationship at the time, but I was also allowed to see other people.

So she started to bring people onto her podcast that she thought I might be interested in intellectually, but I don’t listen to podcasts, so I didn’t know. But she told me that when we started dating; I listened and she was right. She had picked some amazing people to interview. And so a couple years ago, she was doing this event with a mutual friend and afterward they were having drinks in her backyard, everyone from the event, and my friend mentioned that I’m her mentor. And Debbie just said, "Oh my God, I actually have a crush on Roxane” ––

E: That was smart.

RG: Very smart. “But I know she has a person, do you know what’s up with that?” And my friend was like, “Yeah, she does have someone in her life, but go ahead and shoot your shot.” So she sent me another email and in that email she said that she knows that I have things going on, but she would love to take me out on a proper date. And I just wrote back, “Sure.” I didn’t really follow up. And then she was looking at my online calendar and she wrote again and said, “I see that you’re going to be in New York on such and such date, October 9th. Maybe we could have a drink afterwards?” And so I wrote back again and I said, “Sure.”

E: Wow.

RG: Yeah, I’m just weird. Unbeknownst to her ––

E: No, it’s amazing how determined she is…

RG: So we knew by that point that it was an actual date. Then the day of, she came to the event, but then went into the very end of the signing line. I didn’t Google her, I didn’t look her up. I actually didn’t know who she was and I did not know what she looked like.

E: So it was a blind date?

RG: It was a completely blind date.

E: Well, she knew what you looked like, though.

RG: She did. So then as people were coming up to me in line, I just kept thinking, "Okay, I… she would be interesting. Oh, no, thank you. She would be interesting…” And then when she came up to me, finally, I was like, “Oh my God, she’s incredibly hot.”

And we had our first date. After our first date, we were standing on the street –– I think we were on 53rd –– and she asked if she could kiss me. And it was so old fashioned and charming, and it was actually really sexy. So I said, “Yes.” And we had our first kiss and we’ve actually been dating ever since.

E: That is such an amazing, inspirational story of perseverance. It’s a true hero’s journey. And here the two of you are married now.

RG: Yeah, we are.

E: I just love to hear that, especially because I think that having these power couples, as we say, is so important to people in our community. We don’t have a lot of successful representation where love, marriage, and relationships are concerned. And so I think that we all love when two people –– two women –– come together who show us what’s possible, that it is even possible.

RG: Yeah, and I totally get that. There isn’t a lot of representation in our community for long-standing relationships.

E: Yeah.

RG: And that’s really frustrating actually, because as a community, I think that we deserve better. We deserve this representation, and yet we don’t really have it.

E: We don’t even have it with celebrities in some ways. I think because so many celebrity couples are not officially out, there are just so few public figures who are both out and together.

RG: Absolutely. So many public figures can be out, but not as out as they would like to be.

E: Yes.

RG: And that’s too bad, because it shouldn’t be that way. People shouldn’t have to deny who they are and who they love just to maintain their careers. It’s incredibly frustrating.

E: I think that people too, get… well, I think of one person in particular –– who I’m not going to name –– but who is an icon in so many arenas and is not publicly out. People can get upset because they feel that this person owes it to us to be out. But I don’t necessarily agree with that. I think that every person and every couple has to make a choice, and I don’t think that we can possibly understand the pressure that someone like that could be under to not be overtly open.

RG: Yeah. It’s a choice. I totally understand why some people choose not to be out, even though increasingly in this day and age, what the fuck are you afraid of? Get it together.

E: Yeah, it’s true.

RG: But the reality is that the price can be very high for being out, and even someone like an Ellen DeGeneres who is out… she’s out, but we don’t see much. And she’s completely entitled to her personal life. So this is not something… well, there are plenty of things to critique Ellen on.

E: Yes, especially right now.

RG: Yes. But the reality is that she has a right to her privacy and to not have her relationship out in the world, and so I do respect that. At the same time, I just think it would do such good for someone like her to be out more, to let us see more of her relationship. Because it’s just so useful to young queers to know what is possible.

E: Besides a red carpet photo or a promotional couple’s Instagram video.

RG: Right. But that’s a ridiculous burden to put on anyone.

E: Yeah. We just wish that we were in a world where that burden wasn’t so heavy. She’s recently come under fire with these allegations about her talk show and there are some things about sexual harassment, a generally very toxic work culture, and racism on set for employees and staff members. Many people are calling for not only for her show to be canceled, but for Ellen herself to be canceled. And the question that I have for you is first of all is, what do you think of cancel culture? And also is there even really a cancel culture, or are people just being held accountable for the first time?

RG: Yeah, cancel culture does not exist. And I think it’s just important to recognize that it just does not exist. Instead, what we’re talking about is consequence culture. Increasingly, when you make a misstep, you are going to have to deal with the consequences of that. It’s just important to understand that there are consequences for bad behavior. And so with what’s going on, on Ellen’s show, is that the culture there is incredibly toxic. And this is not a secret. The sexual harassment stuff, it’s reasonably new, but the stuff that’s not new is that Ellen is notoriously mean.

E: Yes.

RG: This has been something that’s been discussed in the entertainment community for quite some time. I’ve heard the rumors probably for three or four years now and I’m nobody. So when it trickles down to people like me even, where we know, you just know… where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

E: And it’s just recently taken this long for it to come full circle.

RG: Correct.

E: Even in the mainstream.

RG: Yes. And the thing is, you don’t have to be perfect. So if she’s just a mean person, that’s fine, but she doesn’t have the right to create a toxic work environment. That’s where the real problem is.

Roxane Gay on Marriage, Ellen, and the Importance of Marginalized Voices

“I think that anytime people of color or marginalized people create, it is a political act. I think that every time I write something, it is a political act.”

E: How do you feel about her painting it as the people who are under her are not living up to what she wants for this work culture for the show? Do you think that she’s scapegoating and denying responsibility?

RG: Yes and no. The thing is that she can say that all she wants, but you model the culture that you want to create.

E: And you put people in power who will model that.

RG: Right. And so she can say that. She said that the buck stops with her, but we all know that she’s just doing that ceremoniously.

E: Lip service.

RG: Yeah. I don’t think it’s at all sincere, especially because she clearly had a bunch of her famous friends come out and vouch for her and talk about how much money she’s contributed to various nonprofit causes. The thing is, first of all, she is ungodly wealthy.

E: Yes.

RG: And so the money she has donated is frankly a drop in the bucket.

E: And necessary. It’s a way for her to moderate her wealth in terms of taxes and a bunch of other things that are very complex.

RG: Right. And so it’s just like, “Okay girl, sure.” But she has to take responsibility, and really just look at the culture that she has created and sit with how come she’s so mean and so intolerant. Have them self reflect and just do better, but who knows if she will. We also have to look at the gender double standard.

E: Yes.

RG: All kinds of men are fucking terrible, but that’s such a low bar. Part of me is like, “Men have been assholes for years and so this is, ‘Yay, equality.’” But…

E: That’s not good equality.

RG: Yeah, not at all. And I don’t think it’s a healthy framework. So instead, I just think, “Let’s hold everyone accountable and really just do better and see what happens.”

E: Exactly. And how do you think that lesbians and queer women can reconcile the cognitive dissonance of a person who has done so much to increase representation on the cultural landscape with her failings as a boss, as a gay person, as a feminist? Is there any value in trying to parcel out the pioneering good from the bad? And do you envision a way forward for Ellen, or is this the end of the road?

RG: It’s never the end of the road. Come on, look at how men redeem themselves. People are willing to tolerate bad behavior from people they like.

E: So you think that they’d be willing to do that with Ellen?

RG: It depends. We will see how popular she really is, but she’s really popular.

E: And she makes people a lot of money and she has her hands in tons of different industries… downt to slot machines and dog toys.

RG: Yeah. People don’t understand that Twitter is not an accurate indication of how the general public feels about anyone, and especially not Ellen.

E: Or how business works.

RG: That too. So we’ll see, but I do think that everyone deserves an opportunity for redemption. And I do think that redemption is important, but before there can be redemption, there has to be an acknowledgement of the wrongs done. There has to be a contrition and then a plan for how to move forward. I don’t know that she’s willing to do that work. And the reason that it’s so hard to support people on their path to redemption is that so few people are willing to do the very difficult work of coming back from mistakes.

E: Where does that leave lesbian and queer women who in this way feel this loyalty to… well, I don’t even know if loyalty is the right word, but she is an icon to the community. So it’s like, how ––

RG: But is she really, is she?

E: Well, that’s what some people say, too. That’s an argument for sure.

RG: I don’t think that she’s an icon in the lesbian community. I never hear anyone talk about her. Because she’s always been this neutered lesbian. She has always been the kind of lesbian that middle America can tolerate, someone who is not really ––

E: Is in no way problematic, yeah.

RG: Correct. She’s inoffensive, and that’s her right. I get what she’s doing. She decided that the money was… well, she decided that her career and her ambitions were more important, and that’s her personal choice. But I honestly don’t think that she’s a lesbian icon. You will rarely hear lesbians being like, “Oh man, this person is just someone I can’t live without.” But for people who do view her as an icon, it’s okay. Our heroes are going to disappoint us. This is why you don’t put anyone on a pedestal. You just leave them on flat ground and accept that sometimes they’re going to be great, and sometimes they’re going to be terrible. You just need to be able to understand that and live with that. You don’t have to apologize for who you admire or look up to. It’s disappointing when our heroes fail us, but that’s why we shouldn’t put too much stock in heroes.

E: Absolutely. So I had a couple of more questions about you and Debbie.

RG: Mmhmm.

E: So I read that Debbie came out in her fifties and that was also the first time that she had really aggressively pursued a relationship, which I thought… well, I think I realized I was gay when I was 26 or 27. And I just thought, “I’m just not really interested in dating right now.” Then I realized, “Oh wait, I’m just not really interested in dating men.” How does your own story of realizing you were gay and coming out parallel Debbie’s, if at all?

RG: Our coming out stories are very different. I never had any angst about it, and I came out very young. I was 19 when I came out.

E: Oh, wow.

RG: Yeah. I just was like, “This is who I am. It is what it is.”

E: And you had had long term, serious relationships before your relationship with Debbie.

RG: Oh yeah, for sure. Actually, it was harder to come out as bisexual later in life than it was to come out as gay, even though it was challenging; it was a much different time. But Debbie came out at 50.

E: So the two of you got married and I wanted to know… how do you plan a quarantine elopement? Were you guys planning on getting married around this time or did you just decide like, “Hey, now’s the time to do it, let’s go for it.” Was it a true elopement?

RG: Our wedding was supposed to be on October 10th. Our guest list I think right now is hovering around 400, so we are planning a very big wedding. But when we realized that we were not going to be able to have the wedding this year because of COVID, we were just thinking, “Maybe we should just elope.” We’re still having our wedding next year, or next October, but we just thought that maybe we should just do it. It was in an office park in Encino. Her best friend who also lives in LA was there, as was her cousin and her cousin’s husband. We FaceTimed her brothers and my parents so that they could be part of it, and it was really fun.

E: That’s amazing. Did you guys just go right back home after? Because there are not a lot of places to go right now.

RG: No, we actually went to Michaels because she was working on an art project and needed some more supplies for it, and then I cooked for everyone.

E: Oh, that sounds just like a really lovely day.

RG: It was.

E: So I wanted to shift focus a little bit and this is a bit of a long exposition, so please forgive me, but I think it’s important. I recently created a fund to provide micro-grants and digital residencies to black lesbian, queer, and trans women who are scholars, archivists, artists, or content creators on digital platforms. Some of the people who I’m in talks with about administering that fund are Legacy Russell, who is the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem and the theorist behind Glitch Feminism, and Peyton Dix, who is the Social and Special Projects editor at InStyle.

When I announced it, one of my followers, who identifies as a lesbian, messaged me about the fund and expressed that many of the new grants and residencies that she had seen popping up were only geared towards people who were telling their stories of racial oppression or racial justice work, when a lot of the stories that she wanted to share had nothing to do with her blackness. Specifically, she spoke about a play that she had written about a time when she was with someone, her fiancé actually, who left her after she newly rediscovered Christianity. She wants to tell this story that she feels is not rooted in her blackness, but yet she is also black all of the time.

And so I wanted to ask you if you think that there’s a disconnect in a society when it comes to understanding that it is a privilege to be able to share your story without having to focus explicitly on race?

RG: The reality is that it’s very challenging for marginalized creators to tell the stories that they want to tell, because we culturally have a lot of expectations about how people should represent themselves. We tend to believe that marginalized people only have one story to tell, and that’s incredibly frustrating. I think that it’s important to push back and I completely understand what that person was saying, because it’s so diminishing and so diluting to suggest that we only can speak to oppression and that we can only have expertise on oppression. When we contain multitudes, we are experts on any number of things from nuclear physics to the sociology of education. And so I think that it’s just important to remind ourselves and to remind others of the importance of making sure that we marginalized people are allowed to tell a wide breadth of stories.

E: Mmhmm. To express the full nuance of their story and their life.

RG: Exactly.

E: There’s also been a lot of discussions about this incredible amount of racial justice labor that black women and black queer women are being asked to do right now. And as I’ve been following some of your articles during quarantine –– there’s one about you and Debbie, and all of the things that you’ve been discovering about each other, which has an amazing The King and I reference, which I sing in my head every time I read the title of the article. There’s one about these very delicious and absolutely incredible sounding charcuterie boards that you’ve been making, and another about modernist puzzles that you’ve been buying during quarantine. And alongside these, there are also these pieces where you have directly and explicitly written about race and racism in this country. Do you think that the domestic and the relational can also be a political act in itself?

RG: Yeah, for sure. I think that anytime people of color or marginalized people create, it is a political act. I think that every time I write something, it is a political act.

E: Yes.

RG: Just because literacy was denied to black people for so long. So yeah.

E: Debbie also recently wrote an article about the current call for the redesigning of brands that have had historically racist representations and connotations. And I wondered if, as a couple, how does Debbie, if she does, shoulder some of that burden of this incredible amount of racial justice work and educating that black women are being asked to do right now? Can a partner help shoulder that burden and how can they do that?

RG: It just depends on the partner, but a good partner will shoulder the burden in whatever reasonable ways that they are asked to help shoulder the burden. And Debbie certainly does that in a lot of ways. For one, she doesn’t ask me to educate her about race. She educates herself, and when she has questions, she finds the answers on her own because she’s an incredibly intelligent woman and has the ability to do that. I don’t ever have to protect her feelings when I’m talking about race, and that’s incredibly useful. When she sees racism, she calls it out without my having to prompt her. And of course, because she’s married to me, she certainly has an increased awareness of it. But yeah, it’s great to know that you’re supported. It’s great to know that you’re not being exoticized by your partner, that they love you for who you are and not simply because of your race or ethnicity. I’m always also appreciative that she never says things like, “I don’t see race.” Because that’s just complete nonsense.

E: What is your favorite thing that you have discovered about Debbie over the last two months in quarantine? And what would you say her favorite thing she’s discovered about you is? Has it changed at all since you wrote that article?

RG: No, I think it’s pretty much the same from when I wrote that article, but she’s a delight. You think that you love someone and that you’ll get along well if you are together, but you won’t know that until you’re actually tested. And of course, I’m sure there are many tests ahead of us, but we just get along very well. And that is delightful to just genuinely like your partner. I don’t think that enough credit is given to genuinely liking your partner.

E: Enjoying them, being able to enjoy them.

RG: Yeah. So I genuinely like her and in addition to loving her, and that’s always just awesome to remember. Every day I learn something new about her. Every day she surprises me. It’s just thrilling.

E: Because you were long distance before this, right? Bicoastal?

RG: Yeah, and we still are. We live together, but now we’re just going to go back and forth. But yeah, she’s the New Yorker and I live in LA.

E: I think that sometimes there’s a trope that a lot of lesbians are in long distance relationships. I’ve certainly had my fair share, and sometimes you don’t see each other that often and they can be notoriously difficult. I’m so glad that long distance brought you and Debbie to the altar. And I just want to thank you again so much for your time, Roxane. It’s been an incredible honor for me to speak with you.

RG: Oh, thank you. I appreciate that very much.