Exᐧcelᐧlence. Noun. The quality of being outstanding or extremely good.
As a person from a marginalized community/identity, it is easy to fall into the self-preservation mindset of being excellent. It’s easy to absorb this message through entertainment and media, as movies and books often don’t center queer characters. Our examples for emulation are desperately flawed. Even when media seems to include queer characters, they are flat and one dimensional – either evil or perfect. These characters do not perform excellence or sainthood; they gloss over flaws. To embody Queer Excellence we need icons who embrace these faults, characters who own their dualities – these are your perfectly imperfect fictional characters:
Pray Tell, played by Billy Porter, is the truth-telling carefree Ballroom Emcee on the TV series Pose. The series takes place in the 1980s and early 90s, boasting an ensemble of trans and queer actors never before seen on prime-time TV. Pray Tell is a gay middle-aged man who commands the ballroom with a firm hand, but always finds time to indulge everyone. He is one of the most lovable characters on the show but is faced with many obstacles: an abusive home, the HIV pandemic and his own positive diagnosis.
Dominique Jackson's Elektra is a trans woman in her forties also on Pose. She embodies the legacy of Queer Excellence, introducing LGBTQ House history in one of the first scenes of the show. On the floor of a New York ballroom, she takes in a young trans woman where we see the depth of her character–Elektra is a reluctant mother. Torn between her desire to help others like her and her fear of emotional vulnerability, she struggles to navigate a mother-daughter relationship. Looking for stories about imperfect queer mothers? Elektra will deliver.
Conceived by the brilliant mind of Shonda Rhimes, Callie’s character at the start of the show is straight. Until, of course, she kisses a character following a bet and questions why she likes kissing her female colleague so much. Way before the conversation of sexuality being fluid became mainstream, Callie Torres, played by Sara Ramirez, was finding out just how true this statement is. So, if you are looking for a character who experiences how non-linear the road to sexuality is, watch Callie Torres’ story from Seasons 2 to 12 of Grey’s Anatomy.
Jeff Perry's Cyrus is a gay republican serving as the first gay Chief of Staff to a reluctant and adulterous President. He rises to become the first gay Vice President on the show, but like most characters on Scandal, his political survival finds itself at odds with moral ethics. There’s no room for flawlessness in this White House.
Dominique is the daughter of Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese parents. She is an actress who leaves home for London at 16 in search of a life she can live free from hiding an attraction to women. When she first arrives in London, she sleeps on the streets until she concocts a story of paternal sexual abuse to the housing council to secure accommodation. Dominique is trusting, especially of people she considers to be well versed in being Black. Nzinga, a British woman but raised in America, finds a perfect next victim in Dominique. Dominique falls madly in love with Nzinga’s Hotep adjacent politics. Before she knows it, they are moving to America where Dominique realizes what a huge mistake she's made.
Novelist Celeste Ng's Mia Warren is the stranger you meet and are drawn into by that sexy mystery around her. One only needs to see a photo of Kerry Washington playing Mia Warren in the book's Hulu series to see how. The character and her daughter, Pearl Warren, travel from city to city around the US in search of the next adventure. Later in the series, Mia’s arch-nemesis reveals her wanderlust is fueled by secrets that require her to never be in one place for too long. Her daughter bears the brunt of this uprooting which Mia thinks is only a minor inconvenience. Running from the truth leads Mia further and further from the only person she’s romantically loved: her girlfriend and former lecturer; the woman who encouraged Mia’s career as a multimedia artist.
You should not feel pressured, especially in your downtime, to be a certain way. The art we consume, either consciously or subconsciously, can make us feel pressured to act and be flawless. The characters from this list are queer. They will entertain you, make you cry, make you fall in love with them, and then make you hate them. One thing is for certain, you will not find a halo surrounding these characters. They are fully human, and they taught me the meaning of Queer Excellence.
Meet the Family
Fiske Nyirongo is a Zambian author based in Lusaka, Zambia.
She was shortlisted for the 2019 Kalemba short story writing prize. Her work appears in online spaces such as The Kalahari Review, Brittlepaper (The Go The Way Your Blood Beats anthology), The Writers Space Africa 2019 magazine Love issue, Boldly Mental, and Unbound magazine. Her first children's title was published in Cricket Magazine's Holiday-themed issue in 2019. She co-created a children’s book for the South African Book Dash model. Her fantasy novella,"Finding Love in Betrayal"was published by Love Press Africa in 2019. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Kalemba short story prize and is a 2020 PenPen Africa Writers Resident.