Rainbow Rant: Billy Dee Williams is not gender fluid and that's fine

Joy Ellison
Actor Billy Dee Williams poses during a visit to New York on Oct. 4, 1973.

Billy Dee Williams set the internet atwitter on Nov. 26. A week later, the man who brought lovable rogue Lando Calrissian to life broke our hearts.

In an interview with Esquire, Williams said, “I think of myself as a relatively colorful character who doesn’t take himself or herself too seriously.” He then clarified, “And you see I say ‘himself’ and ‘herself,’ because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine. I’m a very soft person. I’m not afraid to show that side of myself.”

Readers could easily interpret Williams’ quote as an expression of a gender non-conforming identity, especially if they read it out of context. And, hungry for representations of themselves, a lot of queer and trans people did just that.

Journalist Matt Miller used the term “gender fluid” to describe Donald Glover’s interpretation of the Calrissian character, causing many readers to seize on that term as a description of Williams’ gender identity.

Then came the plot twist.

A few days later, Billy Dee Williams let it be known that he had no idea what "gender fluid" means.

“That’s a whole new term,” he said in an interview with journalist Kelley L. Carter. “What I was talking about was about men getting in touch with their softer side of themselves.”

For some fans, it was Cloud City all over again. They felt disappointed, shocked and maybe even betrayed. Not me, though. I saw this coming.

I could tell that Williams didn’t identify as gender fluid because I have practice listening carefully to how elders narrate their identities. I’m in the middle of writing a dissertation on transgender history in the Midwest. As a part of my research, I’ve talked to dozens of people who were involved in queer and transgender communities as far back as World War II. I’ve learned that lots of people have genders that don’t fall neatly into normative definitions of men and women. Many of those people are transgender and non-binary. Many others are not.

There are plenty of cisgender men who describe themselves just like Williams, but I’m not writing to say I told you so.

The misinterpretation of Williams’ statements provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of the gender binary. Many people don’t fit neatly into the categories “men” and “women.” Gender fluid and non-binary people feel that way, but so can anyone else.

No one fully conforms to the mythical norm of manhood and womanhood. That ideal is always out of reach for everyone. Furthermore, the idealized versions of manhood and womanhood are grounded in able-bodied whiteness, making plenty of people not want to embody them. Instead, almost all of us are a mixture of masculine, feminine and non-gendered characteristics.

As transgender communities have gained visibility, identity labels have become less elastic. Our lived experience of gender, however, remains wide and wild. There are lots of ways to be a man, a woman or non-binary. As we attempt to divide ourselves into transgender and cisgender, we risk obscuring all the ways the transgender/cisgender binary fails to describe our world.

If almost no one completely fits into gender categories, then what does it mean to be gender non-conforming? There’s no definitive answer to that question, only billions of people with different experiences and identities, all of whom deserve respect.

Respect begins with listening carefully to each other, across our differences in vocabulary.

Williams’ gender, in all its complexity, should be celebrated. He’s a man who became an icon as a romantic lead while embodying a sexy, 1980s black masculinity. He also had a playful, more feminine swagger. He may not be gender fluid, but that doesn’t mean that queer and trans communities can’t see ourselves in him — or extend to him our understanding.

Readers: For my last column of the year, I’m looking back of the best moments of 2019 for queer and trans people and I need your help.Write a haiku about your favorite queer/trans moment in 2019 and submit it to our haiku contest. Your moment can be about anything, whatever sparked your pride in 2019. I’ll select my favorite entries for publication in my next Rainbow Rant column. All poems must be submitted by Friday, Dec. 20. Poets selected for publication receive naught but glory and a lifetime supply of bragging rights.