If you haven’t already heard, the Queen’s been outed. Informally, of course. Last week paparazzi photos leaked of Queen Latifah sharing an intimate moment with her “personal trainer” and rumored long-time love Jeanette Jenkins, while celebrating Alicia Keys’ wedding aboard a French yacht. In the photos, the two look like any ordinary couple on vacation; in one, Latifah (who’s real name is Dana Owens) appears to help Jenkins adjust her bathing suit. In others, the two are holding each other by the waists, smiling. Not exactly a sex tape, but for longtime skeptics, it’s more than enough.
The news isn’t exactly a bombshell. Latifah’s been the subject of gay rumors for as long as she’s been in the entertainment business. Days before the photos were released online, Gawker had even included her and Jenkins in its list of rumored same-sex couples who should get married in California. For that matter, Latifah’s all but acknowledged her relationship with Jenkins in the course of her coy refusals to discuss it directly.
But whether she chooses to address the photos or not, we shouldn’t be chasing people out of the closet who make it clear that, at least publicly, they want to stay there. Whatever her reasons, the last thing anyone needs is a reluctant heroine.
In a way, the public’s had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with Latifah for years. Except that we keep breaking it. From black gossip blogs to gay gossip blogs and everything in between, everyone seems to have a stake in this woman’s public declaration of her sexual identity. Certainly, if the rumors were true and someone of her caliber and influence were to proudly claim a queer identity, she’d become an instant role model.
And in some ways, she already is. What’s most remarkable about the leaked photos is their tenderness. You get the sense that the Latifah and Jenkins aren’t just romantically involved; they’re in love.They’re doing what two people do who genuinely love one another: hugging fervently, looking deeply into each other’s eyes, and spraying each other down with insect repellent. So while the pictures were only supposed to serve as last week’s tabloid fodder, if the women were publicly out as a couple, the shots would be one of the healthiest mainstream representations of black lesbians we’ve ever seen. Maybe that’s why some of us keep begging her to come out of the closet, because it’s exactly this kind of image that’s so desperately needed, and it’s one that’s already fitting with her admirable, public persona.
Queen Latifah’s rapped and acted her way from the top of the early 1990s hip-hop scene to network TV success, with her hit sitcom Living Single. She’s done Broadway and, with the exception of a few questionable roles, become a reliably strong actress in Hollywood. She’s even a CoverGirl. But it was her role as stone butch Cleo in 1996’s Set It Off, in which four black women go on a bank-robbing spree in Los Angeles, that first got everyone’s attention. That’s when both the gay rumors and the critical acclaim began in earnest.
For her part, Latifah has steadfastly refused to either confirm or refute people’s suspicions. In an interview with Upsale magazine earlier this summer, the actress maintained the need to have clear boundaries between her personal and professional lives, and subtlety unfurled her own little gay pride flag, declaring her right to love whomever she pleases:
You know, I was looking at something the other day. A magazine with Jennifer Aniston on the cover. That’s a strong woman right there. All of these people in her business—who is she dating? Angie this. Brad that. They come up with so much stuff. That’s a tough situation to be in. My situation is small compared to that. But still, I don’t feel like I need to explain. I’m the one living it. You write about it. You go ahead and speculate. I’ll just live it…I don’t feel like I need to explain things to a perfect stranger. The people who matter know. And they love me for Dana. I don’t have to tell Joe Blow. Joe, you worry about who YOU sleeping with.
It’s that last part that forces us to reconsider our definition of what “coming out” really means. She may not be leading next year’s Gay Pride parade down San Francisco’s Market Street, but she’s telling the world that she’s living her life and not particularly concerned with hiding it. The photos, which she clearly didn’t hide from, may say the rest.
Queen Latifah may not have a particularly political queer identity, and if she wants to remain silent about her personal life, then so be it. But forcing someone into becoming a role model of any sort has never been a good strategy. If anything, it creates an atmosphere of shame and guilt. And love is always about much more than that.