The Therapy for Black Girls Podcast is a weekly conversation with Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a Licensed Psychologist in Atlanta, Georgia, about all things mental health, personal development, and all the small decisions we can make to become the best possible version of ourselves.
We know that our experiences of sexuality are as varied as we are and wanted to spend some time today digging into what it means to affirm your identity as a Queer person. For this conversation I was joined by Mychelle Williams, LPC. Mychelle and I chatted about what it might look like to explore your sexuality, some of the challenges Queer Black women experience in relationships, and how to find or cultivate spaces that are affirming of your identity.
One theme that was consistent in our conversation was the impact that media can have on developing a healthy sense of self and of relationships as a queer person, so we also wanted to hear from an artist who is intentional about creating affirmative images of the Queer community. TV/Film Writer & Director, Felicia Pride also joined me to discuss her new short film, Tender.
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Session 169: Affirming Your Queer Identity
Dr. Joy: Hey, y'all! Thanks so much for joining me for session 169 of the Therapy for Black Girls podcast. We know that our experiences of sexuality are as varied as we are and I wanted to spend some time today digging into what it means to affirm your identity as a queer person. For this conversation, I was joined by Mychelle Williams.
Mychelle is a fellow Xavierite, earning her bachelor's in psychology at Xavier University of Louisiana and her master's in counseling psychology at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She's a licensed professional counselor in Washington DC. She's had experience serving in settings such as the prison system, public and charter elementary and middle schools and universities, all before founding Therapy To A Tea, where she combines trauma-informed care, mindfulness and advocacy for those that have marginalized identities.
She's passionate about making mental health services safe and accessible to individuals and couples within the LGBTQ+ and disabled community, and has launched a therapy fund to help subsidize the costs of care and supporting resources for clients interested in receiving services at her practice. She also co-facilitates the Healing Circle, a trauma-informed grief group that promotes healing via mind-body communication, mindfulness and community building.
Mychelle and I chatted about what it looks like to explore your sexuality, some of the challenges queer black women experience in relationships and how to find or cultivate spaces that are affirming of your identity. If there's something that resonates with you while enjoying our conversation, please share it with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession. Here's our conversation:
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for joining me today, Mychelle.
Mychelle: Thank you for having me. I'm so excited.
Dr. Joy: Always happy to have a fellow Xavierite with us in the guest chair, so I'm excited you're here. Can you tell us a little bit about your practice, Mychelle? You specialize in working with queer individuals and couples. Can you tell us a little bit how you got into that?
Mychelle: Yes. What really catapulted me into this practice was I was working in diversity and inclusion at a university and I was an advisor of some of the student organizations; their needs were overlapping but they weren't able to access mental health care in a way that was accessible and that was going to help them navigate their graduate programs. And I was like, what a niche. So I was like, well, maybe I should go into working at a university setting, but I didn't want to be limited to the university setting, just because of funding and things like that. I really was kind of over the whole Higher Ed setting and so my therapist actually encouraged me to open my own practice. And I was floored, like, wow, you think I should have my own practice? So I started marketing to, initially, graduate students who have a queer identity, who were individuals and couples, and it just grew from there. They give me the referrals and it's been really fruitful so far.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, it sounds very neat and I love that that is how a lot of successful practices kind of start. Is that you see the need and then you work to try to fill it. A question that often comes up in our community is people who are kind of questioning their sexual identity or gender identity and not being sure like where do you even start? We know that we don't always get a lot of information about this from school or from loved ones and so people, I think, are often very confused by how do I even know? Do you have some suggestions about how you might even start that conversation with yourself?
Mychelle: Yes, that's actually a really good question. For people who might be questioning or even questioning if they're questioning, I would encourage them to examine their close intimate connections that they already have and also the ones that they're yearning for. A lot of people find themselves like, “Oh, I just really want to be in the company of this type of person or I'm yearning for this type of connection,” but they feel limited on how to pursue that or what that might mean for them. I want to encourage them to think about like, you know, what kind of communities are you craving? What kind of connections are you craving? And if you feel any personal judgment around yourself around it. That might be a really great place to start.
Dr. Joy: Like when might you know that working with a therapist to help you explore this might be helpful?
Mychelle: If you are questioning your identity or your sexuality and it’s distressing to you, or you feel like you don't have anyone to process this with or you don't know where to start, or you've had experiences and you want to go about it in the, I guess, the safest way or the most productive way, I would encourage them to reach out to a therapist. Just so they can kind of get to know like, what are their needs? What are they trying to accomplish? What relationships do they already have that might be safe or unsafe? So that they can practice navigating their identity in places that's going to be encouraging them forward.
Dr. Joy: I appreciate that you shared the spectrum of why you might reach out for a therapist, right? Because again, I think a common misconception is that you only go to a therapist in crisis. But I appreciate that you shared that if you don't feel like you have other people in your life that you can talk about this with, a therapist might be a great place to start. Yeah. How might you identify a therapist who is going to be a good fit for you, especially to talk about some queer issues?
Mychelle: Actually, as I was thinking about this, I realized that my clients really taught me how to find what type of questions to ask. The first is just to look for a therapist that outwardly names that they are queer-affirming in their bios or on their website. That's a really great place to start. But in that initial phone conversation, if they do offer a free phone consultation or like a free first visit, really ask them about their politics and their frameworks. Have they treated anybody who has a queer identity before? What's their mindset or approach towards caring for queer people? If they employee anybody that's queer, do they have any queer identities? Those are some great places to start.
And then also, what really might help move the conversation a little bit further is asking the prospective therapist if they're trauma-informed, because a lot of the trauma-informed theories and modalities really help set the therapist up for success to be able to care for somebody who does have a queer identity.
Dr. Joy: Ooh, can you say a little bit more about what trauma-informed means?
Mychelle: Yes. Trauma-informed care really lends itself to the way you engage with a person. It really takes away from demonizing any part of you, any thought of you, any experience of you. It really is an integrative whole body and mind experience and approach to therapy. And so it kind of has the framework where anything that we could have experienced could be trauma–it doesn't have to be anything big–and like how do we use language, tone, the relationship, the setting, to care for the person as a whole?
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Got it. Okay. And I want to go back a little bit because something you mentioned about wanting to make sure that the therapist is queer-affirmative. I feel like only recently has the field really moved towards language that stresses affirmative as opposed to supportive or tolerant, because we know that that is not enough, right?
Mychelle: Yes, yes, yes. The supportive and the tolerant, it really kind of stops. When you are a queer-affirming, what it means is that you have taken the time to invest in that community, learn about the language that's specific to that community, that's going to be supportive, that's going to encourage them and empower them, that's specific to them. It's really important that the queer-affirming part is kind of like named and in the front.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Got it. Something else that comes up quite often for members of our community is reconciling faith and religious practices with a queer identity and so that seems to be a place where a lot of people are struggling. Can you talk a little bit about maybe how you've worked with clients or some things for people to keep in mind if that is something they're struggling with?
Mychelle: Yes, this is a really big one. With people who are navigating their faith and their identity, sometimes they stray away from the faith or they feel like both of them can’t exist in the same place. And so I would encourage them to really examine who they are and what their connection is to their faith practice. And again, it’s going to be so important to have safe people around them, people who they can ask questions and explore with. Because a lot of the barrier is not even feeling comfortable even exploring these questions that they may have.
And so there are actually some therapists–which I think is a huge beautiful niche–that are faith based, trained, specialized and also queer-affirming, so that they can have really in depth discussions about faith, maybe texts, maybe literature. But if they are navigating that particular question, I would encourage them to read, to find safe people that they can ask these questions with, and to engage in their identity in a way that is curious but also really compassionate. And to focus their relationship with their higher power so that they can take, I guess, like glean from the practice what’s helpful and not harmful for them so that they can move forward in a way that might feel a little bit more meaningful.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah, and I have also been encouraged to see–now I know that this doesn't exist on a huge scale, but I have been encouraged to see either new faith practices being developed or separate congregations being developed, so that the space already feels affirming. So that you don't even have to question like, am I going to be looked at weird here or is this going to be a space where people are going to demonize me and who I love?
Mychelle: Yes, and there's a lot of ministers or religious leaders that are decolonizing the faiths that they are working within, and I think that that's amazing because it really is a decolonization around the religion and how it may be against or speak down on queer identities and sexuality.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah, I appreciate that. Do you know of any resources offhand for people who might be looking for different congregations like that? Do you know of any centralized resource?
Mychelle: Oh my goodness! Not a centralized resource but, just this weekend, I started a healing circle for grief. One of the members is a decolonized minister and so actually I jumped at the chance to grab their information so that I could share it, but I'll definitely send you their resource so that we can have it available to them.
Dr. Joy: Oh, perfect. We'll include that in the show notes then, after we wrap up.
Dr. Joy: Can you talk a little bit about some of the relationship dynamics that may be specific to queer relationships that you work with in your practice?
Mychelle: Yes. One of the relationship dynamics that is pretty prevalent and challenging to navigate is the heteronormativity. It's everywhere, it’s in the movies, it’s in songs, and so when people are in queer relationships… And I want to clarify: a queer relationship can be defined as anything that does not fall within the heteronormative expectation. It's a really, really broad way to describe the relationships, but anything that's not heteronormative like male-female, straight, monogamous, it can be defined as a queer relationship. That’s part of it.
The heteronormativity is a barrier in a relationship sometimes because it is, how do we show up? What's our role? How do I find meaning? What do I think my worth is in this relationship? How do I show up to society? What do I think I need to do versus what I need to do or what I want to do in this relationship? That's a really, really big one. It's just like, how do we shed the gender roles and if they do espouse to us, how do we reconcile them without feeling like we are buying into some type of patriarchal system?
Dr. Joy: I would imagine that that is so difficult because so much of what we see in TV and read in news and those kinds of things, is heteronormative, right? And if that's the only model you have about what a relationship looks like, then it may be really difficult to figure out how can I deconstruct that and make my own idea of what a relationship is?
Mychelle: Right. Down to like, you know, how are we splitting up the bills, how are we caring for the household? Who's treating for dinner? And what do these conversations look like? Who should be leading in certain types of activities? All of those things that I guess are seemingly innocuous which I really would encourage people who are in sans heteronormative relationships to consider. It’s just like, what do these different roles mean to me and how do I want to show up?
Dr. Joy: Yeah, that sounds like something for everybody to explore. I'm also curious, and again, this has come up a lot in the community, is how do you deal with the relationship if you are maybe in a relationship or interested in a partner who might not be out? Like, how do you navigate that?
Mychelle: Yes. So that's a really, really, really good question. When you are even thinking about entering in a relationship and this person may or may not be out. As we know, people may not be out for a lot of different reasons and namely, most of those are safety. And so we really have to be having open and honest and transparent conversations around like, do we have a game plan for how do we access safety? What does being out mean for me? What would my partner coming out, what would that mean for us? And like, how do I get to show up in the world if you're not out?
Having those explicit conversations and being able to hold space for your partner if they're not out but they have a plan or they want to be out and safety is a barrier, and then being honest about your limitations. Like if you want to be out and open on social media and doing these outward facing things but your partner's not ready to yet, you have to be honest about what your limits are and what your needs are. And maybe you may not be a good fit at that moment or maybe it is a matter of, okay, how do I navigate my personal needs for the greater needs of this relationship if it means that my partner is going to be safe?
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah, and I think backing up a little bit. We already talked briefly about how do you even begin to explore queer identity? But even after there's the exploration phase, if you do decide to come out, what is that process even like? And we know sometimes people are out in certain circumstances and not in others, so what are some of the things to even think about if you're thinking about having to come out?
Mychelle: Yes, so the coming out process is often continual and I think that that's something important to highlight. Like you may come out to your friends but if you have a new set of friends or old friends, work friends, you have to consistently come out to these people that you're meeting. If it's family and people maybe are distant family members or maybe they're not accepting, then it's like the process of them coming face to face with your identity is a new coming out process all over again.
Just to think about that, that it’s an ongoing process, you're kind of like constantly coming out. And that's kind of exhausting for some people, that's daunting for some people and when you think about that, what the coming out process is of just naming like, “Hey, I'm queer,” or “Hey, I'm lesbian, I’m bisexual, I'm pansexual, I'm trans,” whatever those things are that you are experiencing, you’ve got to think about what do I know about this person who I'm trying to share this with or who I want to share this with? What do I know about their ideals or values? Again, this comes back to safety. I know I say safety a lot but it comes back to like, how has this person handled personal matters before? And also I would say, you know, if you don't want to, I don't think you necessarily have to. I think it’s a matter of privilege because that's a very personal piece of you.
Dr. Joy: Even as you're talking, Mychelle, I'm thinking, you know, even this idea of having to come out, we don't have that expectation for heteronormative people and so you just show up at the company picnic with your partner. There is not this expectation that there's all this work that has to be done. To your point related to safety, we do know why that can't always be as easy but I'm wondering if there is even some conversation around how we can begin to deconstruct that whole process of having to come out.
Mychelle: Yes. You know, I think that the conversation, of course, people who are queer and trans, we have to come face to face with this every single day. But for people who aren't the allies, the people who are heteronormative, in monogamous relationships, how are they creating that space for us to come in? So, you know, making sure that they're leading that conversation with gender pronouns, making sure that they are having inclusive conversations about non-heteronormative type of relationships so that the person who is queer doesn't have to be the one to like break the ice or test the waters and see if it's safe or not.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah, so very much like when we are having these conversations around racial justice, right? How we are asking people who want to support us as black people, around them having to do some of the work. It's the same expectation for those of us who do not identify as queer.
Mychelle: Absolutely. It would be so helpful to just walk into a space and someone comes up and they address like, “Hey, this is my name, these are my pronouns, this is the type of relationship I'm in,” so that that conversation’s already started and it's not so much news when someone else comes up, and they're like, “Hey, this is my name, these are my pronouns, they them, and this is the type of relationship I’m in,” and that's the first time that we're even having to think about our relationship type.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm, yeah. Something that is such a small gesture, I think, goes a very long way because it is not putting the burden on the queer person. Something else that comes up in the community–this is why I'm so glad you were able to talk with us today, because there have been lots of questions about people who are exploring a queer identity and just not quite sure where to start. So something else that has come up is people maybe wanting to date a same sex person or being open to maybe having an intimate experience with somebody and feeling really nervous and not sure where to start. What suggestions would you have for that?
Mychelle: Yeah. You know, I think that…well, COVID but…the dating apps are really a great place to start to build community, get curious and connect with people and start having those conversations. I think that dating apps are fun for that. In light of COVID, but I know that once we get through this and past this, there are certain spaces in different cities where they have like date parties. I don't know if Chicago…there’s this collective called Party Noire and they have date parties for queer people and it's just a really good time for you to just go and see, meet people, look around, see what the scene is like, see if you can make any friends. And then also that's a great place to know that, okay, the majority of the people here are probably queer questioning, so this is a safe space for me to kind of feel it out, maybe even try to flirt or meet somebody, make a new friend.
Dr. Joy: And in the meantime, before we are able to gather safely, do you know of online communities or resources that are helpful, particularly for queer black women to gather and do some exploration and be in community with one another?
Mychelle: Yes. I'm not paid by Party Noire, but they have transitioned their platform to a digital platform and have been having events pretty regularly via Zoom and all these other platforms where they are building community, where you can have conversations and talk about self-care and connect with the community, talk about identities, even do some like dance stuff and just really have a really good time. And they have a lot of events, so that's a really great place. Especially if you are a black queer woman, that's a really great place in the digital space to kind of get out there and meet people, find your community and start having those conversations.
And then outside of that, what some of my clients and I have really found helpful is following some of the hashtags that queer black women will use in their posts. There's like this is Instagram called MeAndSomebodyQueerKin. And actually, that's like a beautiful place to just kind of like, one, fill your feed up with affirming images, but also to build community. They often have like questions in their captions. That and another page that’s called MrsAndMrs. And they do the same type of thing online. So those are three places that you could really get started and start building community around there.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, I appreciate that you said filling your feed with–going back to that word–affirming, right? Because I think especially if you're in the early stages of exploring and not feeling quite sure, it can be really helpful to kind of see people who are affirming their lives and kind of existing in the world as who you think that you are as well. So that it makes it feel a little bit easier for you to kind of step into your truth as well.
Mychelle: Yes, so that you don't feel isolated or alone.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm, yeah. And I think some of that goes to really making sure that you have to kind of unlearn some of the maybe internalized homophobia and stuff that you have picked up, just because we live in the heteronormative world like you said. Are there some things that you think people should be thinking about just in terms of unlearning some of that?
Mychelle: Yes, and that's really the biggest part of all of this. A lot of us do have the internalized homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and it's everywhere. To begin to start to address that, it will be really helpful to just be honest about where does it exist for us. And really be honest around like, okay, well, this is how I feel, this is some of the language I've been using, these are some of the people I've been hanging around, the kind of conversations I've been having, and this is biphobic. And naming it without the shame or without the judgment because when you know better, you do better and now we're in a place of knowing and having more information.
So, one, just starting to be really honest about like, okay, what parts of me or what parts of conversations am I participating in that have been influenced by those phobias? And then how can I begin to educate myself and surround myself with people who are doing the work so that I can be constantly learning and replacing that harmful language and those limiting beliefs with some that paint a fuller picture, that are more inclusive, that are safer. So that we can, one, just start with us, but also educate others, check ourselves and become more open to those opportunities. Because a lot of barriers to even pursuing your identity or your sexuality is the internalized phobias and how we may have judged or dismissed someone else for the same identity that now we find ourselves exploring or being curious about and feeling like we might not have even the right to explore it, because of those ideas that we previously had.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. And is there any one place in particular that you feel like lots of people get stuck when they're trying to unlearn some of this?
Mychelle: Yes. I think that a lot of people get stuck at the biphobia.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Can you say more about that?
Mychelle: And this is for people who are heteronormative and also people who are maybe just lesbians or just gay. The biphobia is a place that people really get stuck because there's so much negative stigma about what it means for someone to be bisexual and there's just so many harmful narratives about promiscuity, indecisiveness and selfishness. And it's still to this day, even with all the information, it’s still so pervasive. It is hard for people to shed those ideas and beliefs around people who might identify as bisexual and so a lot of people don't. They don't even name it because they don't want to have to defend themselves–defend that part of their sexuality. And some people are scared to explore their sexuality or their identity because of how biphobia is really just pervasive. I think that that's a really big one.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Any suggestions for somebody who might find themselves there?
Mychelle: Yeah. When you think about the biphobia, along with other phobias, but especially the biphobia, really think about like, what? Where did this come from? Getting curious about where did this information come from and how have I engaged with it maybe even passively or actively? And really putting yourself in those shoes. So if I was bisexual, what would this mean for me? Would this be true? Am I promiscuous? Like, no, I'm not promiscuous, maybe I just have an interest or an attraction in different ways and, of course, there's a lot of different ways that you can even be attracted to somebody.
So really just for once putting yourself in the shoes of those people and really think about, okay, these are the negative stigmas that have been attached to this but where is this coming from? How harmful has it been and would it be true for me if I was standing right there in those shoes? That's a really helpful place to start and I do think that once people start to explore or even be open to exploring their identity, they'll realize like, Oh, I really just othered this group of people when if it was me, I would want to be nuanced. If I am promiscuous…and I really hate the word promiscuous…but if I am out here doing whatever I'm doing and being really sexually liberated, then would that make me so bad? Like, why do I think that this is such a bad label and who am I hanging around that’s informing this or reinforcing this label?
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah. And I think when you get to the bottom of all of those questions that you've encouraged people to be curious about, so much of it is just what society has told us is “the right way.”
Mychelle: Yes, and also I think like another question to really ask yourself is, “Do I think that this is true for one group of people and not true for another group of people?” Like a common misconception is that men can't be bisexual and it's so harmful because why can't men be bisexual? Why can't men be curious about their identities and about their sexuality? It’s so limiting for that area that I really encourage people to just really question. Why do I think that? What have I learned? Where did I get this information from and how come it’s so easy for me to accept that this group of people can explore their sexuality and get to know for certain, and other people cannot?
Dr. Joy: We talked a little bit earlier, Mychelle, just about how do you even learn what a relationship looks like if you don't have any models for it? And so I'm curious to hear from you if you feel like there are any portrayals in modern media that do a good job of representing queer people and queer relationships.
Mychelle: Oh, my goodness, that's a good one. I intentionally seek out this type of content, which is kind of difficult to find. But there is a show on Netflix called Black Mirror and they have this episode, it’s called San Junipero, I think, and they portray a queer relationship and that was a really interesting one. It was an interracial one but that was a really interesting one. I think like YouTube series have a lot of great examples on just different stories being told on like queer people just having regular relationships. And it's not really centered around their queerness but it's just centered around them being humans and also being queer. And so YouTube had a lot of different series like Between Women TV was a really good one. And then I just watched Tender; oh, my goodness, it was so good, I wish it was an hour.
Dr. Joy: I know, right? What did you find so affirming about Tender?
Mychelle: I just thought it was so intimate. I thought it was so intimate because it wasn't really sexualized, even though that's okay. It was more about the connection and I think that they did a really good job of just portraying, “Okay, I'm internally processing, you can see my wheels turning, but I'm not really expressing everything. I'm still trying to figure out what just happened. What am I doing here?” And just having to be really curious with each other and encourage each other. It was easy for them to encourage each other before they kind of took that into their own, like how they were navigating their different stages in life.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah. And I feel like it was a balance of them kind of exploring a queer relationship or at least a queer interaction and just like queer people living their lives.
Mychelle: Yes. It navigated career and dreams and stability and past betrayals, and all those things are super relatable. And then they were able to just really find comfort and connection with each other and I thought that was just so beautiful.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Yeah. Did you get a chance to watch The L Word?
Mychelle: You know! I have only seen bits and pieces of The L Word. I'm so late to The L Word, it is so many seasons. But a lot of my friends who are queer and who are lesbians recommend that I watch it and I just have been like bits and pieces in the series. Some of the clips that I've seen that really helped me understand just the intimacy, especially as we talk about queer relationships in women, is the friendship aspect of how intimate and close the friendships can be. And how that can be even a gateway to women feeling comfortable about exploring their sexuality because they've already had a strong level of intimacy established with a woman they know they can have it. And I thought that that was really important. In all of the shows that I mentioned or I'm curious about, I know that that has been a component of all of them.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Do you think that that's necessary or is that like a hallmark maybe of queer relationships? This intimacy that maybe looks different than heteronormative relationships?
Mychelle: I do think that intimacy looks different in queer relationships. As people have described it, there is a level of openness and safety that a lot of people have been able to establish in queer relationships. I'm not sure what that common thread is, if it is like, you know, we have to be this intimate because this part of our identity is very vulnerable; it's often attacked or intolerant in other places in the world. I'm not really sure but I have noticed that across my practice and my experiences, the shows I've watched, the intimacy is so high. It's such a high level of intimacy. Emotional intimacy, intellectual intimacy, like really just being curious about how do I define intimacy?
Dr. Joy: Yeah, and I wonder too if it is because you don't have these ideas about who you're supposed to be in a relationship based on the media and stuff, it allows you to be different. Which maybe opens up a different level of vulnerability that doesn't exist in non-queer relationships.
Mychelle: Yeah, and that's what brings me back to friendship. Because you know, with your friendships, if you are fortunate and blessed enough to have a really, really, really, really close friend, then you get to be like you with that friend and you guys are close. And maybe not even a lot of things in common, but you have enough that you can share openly and freely. And that's a really important aspect of all relationships but in the queer relationships especially, it's important to have those types of connections.
Dr. Joy: Something else that has come up…and we've already talked about the importance of having queer-affirming spaces and getting a support system to be curious about some of these things. But something that has come up is what happens when you maybe start dating within your queer support system and then maybe there's a breakup or things get a little weird? What kinds of suggestions do you have for navigating that?
Mychelle: One of the things that I would…This is for people who haven't yet had to navigate this, but who might. Being very candid about what the outcomes could look like and having that conversation in the beginning, would be so helpful. Like, okay, what if this doesn't work out? What does that mean for us? How important is our friendship? How do we prioritize it? What does it mean for the other people in our friend group. And having that be an ongoing conversation because as time progresses, our feelings towards that could change and we want to be able to allow space for that.
But for the people who are currently navigating that or have navigated that and they have dated within the friend group, or somebody dated within the friend group and maybe there's a breakup or maybe there's friction, I would encourage them to connect with people within the friend group that are safe, to be able to process how they interpreted what happened. And then if it's a matter of safety, then of course I want them to prioritize their safety. But to really be able to prioritize: What really happened? Why did this end? And is this something that could be salvageable so that we can keep in community or at least be cordial? And then stating your boundaries with the remaining friend group around what your expectations are and see if that's something that they can adhere to or honor.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm, yeah. And it feels like that may be a little different than what happens in non-queer breakups, right? Because my specialty is working on people after breakups and usually, it's like, okay, you’ve got to find a new support group and that kind of thing. But in these kinds of circumstances where we know it can be really difficult to find support, it sounds like there may need to be some additional conversations about like, how can we work through this?
Mychelle: Yes. You know, I'm sitting here and I really wish that I could say like, find a different group, but it's so difficult to even find like “your people.” Especially because you can't just look at somebody and be like, oh, you’re queer and you could be a friend of mine. And so that's just my soapbox that I just hopped on, but when navigating those friendships, just really being clear about like, am I honoring my boundaries by staying within this particular aspect of my community?
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. I love that. I think that will be something we kind of continue to explore maybe in the community or in future episodes. Because I think there is something there. I'm curious, Mychelle, if there are any other resources. You've already given us some great ideas for communities people might be interested in getting involved with, but are there other books or podcasts or things that you think would be really helpful for people to connect with?
Mychelle: Honestly, one of my favorite books that I think helps open people up to the conversation is Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown (also adrienne maree brown). Just to be able to interact with women that are queer and that share space with queer people and trans people, that book really just prioritizes pleasure. And I do think that being able to connect with pleasure in a different way helps us really be a lot more open to any identity that we might have. And then the books that I've found really helpful to help my clients are not around sexuality, but they're more about, like, shame. There's a book called The Gifts of Imperfection.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm, Brené Brown.
Mychelle: Yes, yes. Those two books have really been helpful to just kind of examine shame and what that might mean for us. This book might feel random but there's this book called (the) Women Who Run with the Wolves.
Dr. Joy: Oh, yes. Have you finished that one?
Mychelle: Yes. I read it.
Dr. Joy: I have tried to get into it like twice and for some reason, I just cannot. I feel like I need to try again because I have heard such great things about it but I have not been able to really get into it for some reason.
Mychelle: Yes. And you know, the reason why I was able to even get into it is because I did it in a book club. I did it in a book club so we broke it up into chunks and were able to talk through it, because it was difficult for me to do it the first time.
Dr. Joy: Got it, so maybe that's the key. What do you love about that one in particular?
Mychelle: Just examining the different archetypes that contribute to our identity. I think that it’s really important to just get curious around, like, you don't have to fit into… Again, kind of like deconstructing the binaries. Like what do we think feminine even means? What do we think womanhood even means? And she has these stories, this collection of like poems in there and short stories that really help you understand, oh, this is how this type of archetype or this type of personality type might show up? Can I connect with it? And how do I even hide behind some of these identities that I might hold valuable? I thought it was so fascinating, especially when she talked about how important creativity is in our self-care and our well-being.
Dr. Joy: Okay, maybe I will try to arrange a little mini book group to try to explore some of that stuff. Maybe that would help.
Mychelle: Yes! I would read it again. I would.
Dr. Joy: Okay, I might be emailing you about that.
Mychelle: I’m pulling up my notes again because I have a couple more. There is this therapist that I follow and they have this blog called Queering Psychology.
Dr. Joy: Oh, yeah.
Mychelle: And it is so good. I think that that will be a really helpful resource for anybody that's wanting to learn more, that's wanting to connect with their identity more. They really go into how to decolonize our thoughts and our approach to this. The language is so affirmative, the tone just feels really, really compassionate. It’s called Queering Psychology.
Dr. Joy: And where can we find you online, Mychelle? What is your website as well as any social media handles you want to share?
Mychelle: My website is TherapyToATea.com and you can find me on Instagram @QueerBlackTherapist. And you can find me at Therapy for Black Girls.
Dr. Joy: Perfect. Well, thank you so much, Mychelle, I really appreciate you sharing with us today.
Mychelle: Thank you. I loved talking to you.
Dr. Joy: During the course of my conversation with Mychelle, a few themes kept coming up, but particularly, the ways in which media helps to shape our models of relationships and the importance of seeking out queer media and affirming images to assist in exploring identity and relationships. It felt like the perfect way to round out this conversation was by bringing in someone who has been intentional in creating these types of affirming images so I'm pleased to have Felicia Pride join us to chat about her new short film, Tender.
Felicia is a Baltimore native and a Film/TV writer and director. She was a writer for two seasons on Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar and has sold a drama pilot book adaptation to NBC's Universal Cable Productions. She sold the feature Deeper to Universal Pictures and is the co-writer and executive producer of the film Really Love produced by MACRO, which won a Special Jury Prize at SXSW.
Felicia was a Film Independent Screenwriting Lab fellow and a graduate of NBC’s Writers on the Verge program as a comedy writer. Prior to, she worked as a film distribution executive and an impact producer and is the author of six books including The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop's Greatest Songs. Felicia holds an M.A. in writing from Emerson College and runs The Create Daily, a resource for underrepresented storytellers that she founded in 2012. Here's our conversation:
Dr. Joy: Thank you so much for being with us today, Felicia.
Felicia: Thank you for having me.
Dr. Joy: Yes, I am a longtime fan so I am very excited that we'll have a chance to chat today about your first short film. Well, I'm not sure, is this your first?
Felicia: This is my first that I directed, yes.
Dr. Joy: That you directed, okay. Tender. For those of you who have not had a chance to watch Tender, definitely check it out when we are done with this conversation. But I want to hear, Felicia, what was your inspiration behind Tender?
Felicia: It was twofold. I am primarily a writer and directing was always something that seemed out of reach for me. But then I learned quickly on in the business that film is a director's medium and I realized that I had stories that I wanted to tell that I really needed to be a part of the vision from start to finish. Like for instance, I'm working on a story now that's inspired by my mother, my sister, my niece, so three generations of black women and I'm like, I have to direct that, like who else is going to direct that? So I had to get my directing skills up, took a bunch of classes and then I was like, you know what, I'm ready to kind of get my feet wet. But in order to do that, I wanted to do it with a story that was simple in terms of two actors, one location, one day, but also impactful.
And I also wanted the film to really represent the things that I'm interested in exploring. And so interestingly enough with Tender, two of the characters, Kiana and Lulu, come from a pilot–a longer piece that I've written–and I just fell in love with those characters, mainly because a lot of me is in them. And so I wanted to explore black women’s sexuality and desire, I wanted to explore desire from professional means, the things that we desire professionally, the things that we desire personally. I wanted to show shades of sexuality that we don't see enough on screen, I wanted to show our queerness, our passion but also our vulnerability and our scars. And then do it in 15 minutes. So I was like, these two characters, I felt like, had a dynamic that I could be able to explore a lot with a little.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. So much of what you're talking about, it sounds like such a big task to take on to do in 15 minutes.
Felicia: Yeah, but luckily when the whole package comes together, I think the great thing that I love about filmmaking is how collaborative it is. When you have amazing actors, Farelle Walker and Trishauna Clarke, you have an amazing cinematographer, Ludovica Isidori, and you have amazing crew, and the package comes together. The music that was provided by Asha Santee and BOOMscat, when it all comes together, I think the layers help. So you have a very sort of simple story: two women who have a one night stand and the morning after. But then when you add all the layers on top of it–the performances, the cinematography, the music, productions and all that–I think that's when you have something that can be really lush.
Dr. Joy: I thought it was interesting that so much of the story takes place the morning after. Can you tell me what was significant about having it be set then?
Felicia: Yeah. I was definitely interested in the idea of emotional intimacy. What does that look like especially after you've had physical intimacy? And I imagined that like it was on and popping between Kiana and Lulu. Like the night before the one-night stand, I think it was hot, it was on and popping, but I was really, really interested in the idea of emotional intimacy between two black women.
And I think it's also because it's aspirational. Like, number one, I've never had a one-night stand: the next morning it's beautiful and we have this beautiful day that we spend together. So I think it was aspirational for me, but also just to show the ways that black women can be vulnerable with each other, the ways that we can share an intimacy that I think it's hard to find between other groups of people. At least for me, I feel like I can be my most vulnerable with black women and I wanted to show that on screen.
Dr. Joy: I also found it interesting that a part of what you did allowed us to explore something... I don't quite remember if you said what age the characters were, but I assume that they are maybe early 30s, and so the idea that society kind of tells us we should have all of this stuff figured out by the time we're early 30s, but clearly, there's this exploration that these characters are sharing later in life.
Felicia: Yeah, and also may actually have had a little bit of the age difference between them. You know, one of the things I was interested in and someone picked this up, she asked me, is this a conversation between you and your younger self?” And I was like, “Yeah.” I think that there's something interesting between a woman who, we have Kiana who's an older character who just had this sort of very, very extensive surgery that has impacted her, she's very stable. Maybe also, like, sexually in a rut, you know what I mean? But has a certain level of confidence. And then you have Lulu who's younger, who has all this energy and light, queer, out and proud, very confident in her sexuality, but not confident in other areas of her life. And how can they pour into each other? How can they learn from each other? Yeah, so I think that had a lot to do with it. And also just looking at my younger self and my older self and the things that I can still get from each of them.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. What is it that you hope that people leave feeling after they watch Tender?
Felicia: That's a good question. I don't know if it's about feeling. I do know that I want more of us to tell our stories, I think. Because we weren't going to release Tender online when we did, but because of the pandemic, it just felt right and so the reception to the film has been amazing and to see reception and to feel reception in real time, I've never really had that with my work. And what it showed me, too, is that, “whoa!” like we know theoretically that we need more black women’s stories and all types of black women. Queer black women, older black women, younger black women, different levels of ability. This project really showed me that we really, really need that.
I just hope that it continues to encourage those of us who have stories inside of us who maybe have been holding back, telling ourselves the reasons why we can’t–I told myself for many years I couldn't direct–and getting past that and telling these stories. Because we need more stories about our vulnerability, we need more stories about our pain, more stories about our joy, from our lens and from our perspective. Because this is just one story, this is my perspective, this is one slice, but there are so many more that need to be told.
Dr. Joy: I completely agree. Do you have any suggestions for people who are not quite sure where to even start? Like to start telling their story?
Felicia: Yeah, I think there's a range because there's so many ways that we can be storytellers. Whether we do it through writing, whether we do it through visual, whether we do it through more like fine art. I think it's finding a medium that works for you in this moment, because you can always expand mediums. Finding a medium that works and also that may be accessible and quick. Like I'm all about, what's the quickest way to get something out? It might be on your Instagram where you're telling stories but I think that finding a medium and doing it.
I think the challenge often is that we just don't take that step and that's fear and I think that's where therapy comes in. I'm a huge proponent of therapy; I found my therapist on Therapy for Black Girls. Because sometimes it’s blocks that we have that we have to work through and also ideas that we need to hide and shrink ourselves. One thing my therapist told me is that when you hide, you deny your brilliance to the world and I think a lot of us are doing just that but the world needs our brilliance. So I would say whatever it takes to get started, even if it's not on a public forum; maybe it's just you in a diary, you taping thoughts and ideas on your phone and sharing it with a small group of people, but just taking a step. And I know it sounds like cliché, but literally that's kind of what it is.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. What kind of work do you feel like you had to do personally just in preparation to give this to the world?
Felicia: Interesting enough, I had to do self-worth work. Because again, I had all these narratives in my head about what I couldn't do and that was a combination of what the world has told us what we can't do and how I internalized that and I also had to work through the idea that being scared of what people think. Working through that is big, and as always, for artists, it is a very vulnerable state to be in to release art to the world. So that's something I think I'll just have to continue working through.
And then also, I think, what helped with like the “imposter syndrome” or “I can't be a director,” was taking classes and learning what the director does and trying it out and going through that process. The practicality of that was very, very helpful. Yeah, and then I also just surrounded myself with black women. My producer Regina Hoyles was just like, “We're going to set a date for you to shoot this.” I was like, whoa! But she was right. So also having people, accountability partners in that way, who kind of push you and challenge you.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. You share that you feel like we need just all kinds more of black women stories. I'm curious if you have any suggestions for non-queer creators who maybe want to expand their narratives but include queer characters?
Felicia: Yeah. I think I've had like, fears around that “because I don't identify as queer, is this a story I should be telling?” For me, it is my story in a lot of ways so that's where the permission I've given myself to do that. But I also think that it's talking with those who you want to center and actually centering them. You know what I mean? Because I think sometimes when we want to center characters who are not us, we actually end up centering ourselves, so being really clear about those distinctions and centering them in your collaborative process.
That's something that I'm looking to do, because I'm going to be expanding Tender into a feature, is really making sure that however far I take the narrative, that I'm including the voices and the collaboration of queer black women. I think that's important.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. Have you seen other good examples or things that you have really enjoyed in terms of queer representation in media?
Felicia: Yeah. Well, hmm. I think we're seeing a lot more queer representation, I think there's definitely space for more. One documentary that I recently watched that I thought was really, really eye opening and that was informative, was Disclosure about trans representation in media and entertainment. I thought that was really, really eye opening and important and also shows that we need more trans people telling their stories and we need more trans people who are centered. And then also when we are writing trans stories, that we need to be collaborative with trans people. That was really, really eye opening and something that I felt was really important and really well done.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. I found myself really struck by the title of your film Tender because I don't know that that is always or often a word we hear connected to black women. Can you share just a little bit about the significance of even the title?
Felicia: Yeah, it's interesting because I'm not good at titles, that’s number one. We had a working title called Coochie. I actually was gonna go with it and then I was like, okay, it might be too much. But I just remember being like how to describe what this movie is, how to describe what we're going for in this film, and just working through tons and tons and tons and tons of titles with my home girl and our producer. And I just remember coming across tender and I was just like… You know, I think titles sometimes is one of those things where when you finally come across it, you're like, that's it. That's the one. And I just felt like it captured what we were going for.
You know, I also wanted to show like our hardness but how our defenses come down when we feel safe, and how our tenderness can come out when we feel safe. So yeah, that was… Oh, I didn't think we were gonna get it because I remember just coming down to the wires, I wanted to launch the crowdfunding campaign and still didn't have a title. And then it just came it came.
Dr. Joy: Yeah. Were you worried at all about some of the stigma related to one-night stands?
Felicia: I think a lot of times there's a lot of shame around black women's sexuality. There's a lot of exploitation around our sexuality so I just want us to have the agency. And, yeah, I wanted us to have the agency in that, one-night stand, and sort of normalizing that being something that black women can engage in. You know what I mean? Because we do.
Dr. Joy: Yes, yeah. And I know that you have ideas for expanding but I also appreciated, at least in this short film version of it, that it really was just them. It wasn't anybody else's opinions, there was no talking to the best friend the next day about what happened and it really was just their little world.
Felicia: Yeah, yeah. Thank you.
Dr. Joy: Can you give us any ideas or speak in terms of what you're thinking in terms of expansion?
Felicia: I wish I could because I don't even know. I am circling around this film, I'm like, what is the feature? I just know I have to do it, it feels like I'm called to do this feature. This was going to be a standalone project, Tender was going to be its own little thing, but just the reception to the project and people were like we need to see more, we need to see more. I'm like, okay, I need to expand it. So I'm circling around it. There are some things from the pilot that I think could be interesting for the feature, like seeing them in the workplace because they work together, so actually seeing the lead up to the one-night stand scene–that's kind of where I'm at right now. But I don't know, it could completely be different. I’m in the writing stage where I'm thinking. It's just like my head is like, what is the story?
Dr. Joy: I've heard other writers talk about how they will sometimes live with the characters and the characters will just speak to them and kind of lead you in terms of where the story will go. Can you tell us a little bit about your process?
Felicia: Yeah, I'm hoping they will talk to me. You know, I definitely have a more, I think, practical process because Tender doesn't have a deadline attached to it. A lot of my work has deadlines attached to it so I have to kind of systematize it. Because Tender doesn't have a deadline attached to it, even though I have thoughts around when I would love to shoot it, I do have some time to be in my head more and to kind of find the story.
And then what I've started is just what I call a beat sheet, is plot points that are really interesting to me. And then I also have like a character sheet, like what do I want these characters to experience and go through? What do they want that will color what they go through and experience? What do they need? What do I kind of see as their arc and where do they start and where do they end? And that really helps a lot. And then what do I want to really hone in as a theme? Those are the things that I sort of start with because the theme helps me to map out the emotional journey of the characters as well as the plot points of that.
That’s usually how I start from a thinking standpoint and I put that down on paper, then I go onto a beat sheet which is just the major plot points, and then I expand that beat sheet into an outline. I tend to spend the most of my time in outlining because I like to work out story problems and I get feedback on my outline. And then I go to draft because I try to write that draft as fast as humanly possible, because I think a lot of us get stuck in the writing process and we don't finish. I try to write that as fast as possible so I get into rewriting, which is our friend, and that's where I spend a lot of my time as well, is getting it right, but at least I have the bones there.
Dr. Joy: Yeah, so I would imagine that, again, I think we already talked about how artists can be sensitive about their stuff. How do you manage the idea of needing to get feedback but also not maybe internalizing some of the feedback?
Felicia: Well, I have trusted people that I go to. I’m in two writers’ groups right now, so I have a writer’s group that I trust. And even sometimes, then, depending on the project, I'd pick the people who I want to get feedback from. And I just don't go wide with feedback. I have friends who get a lot, a lot of feedback from me, it then starts to just become too much and overwhelming and confusing, so I keep my feedback circle pretty small for projects. Even for Tender like the rough cut, I sent it to three friends and then like key crew, but I kept it really, really small. So yeah, I just go to trusted people so I don't internalize that.
When you get notes from other people like when you're working on studio jobs, that can be a little bit more challenging. What I do is I let myself just like be mad at the notes for a day and be like “they don't know what they’re talking about,” and then get over it and get back to my job. My job is addressing their notes and then finding a way creatively to do that. And then also, again, realizing and affirming my creativity and my power as a writer and the reason why they chose me was because I'd be able to pull this off; I just kind of affirm that for myself.
Dr. Joy: Mm hmm. What else can we look forward to from you, Felicia, besides the longer version of Tender in maybe a year or so?
Felicia: Yeah, that's my project for the year, so thank you for that. Well, I'm currently working on an erotic romance with Will Packer Productions producing that we sold to Universal, so I'm really excited about that. I also have the indie feature, another indie feature that I hope to direct that is inspired by my mother, my sister and my niece, so I'm really excited about that. And then I just have some other things that are kind of cooking so we'll see where they go.
Dr. Joy: Very exciting. Well, where can we stay connected with you so we can find out about all the updates?
Felicia: Absolutely. You can follow me on Instagram and Twitter @feliciapride. You can also watch Tender at TenderMovie.com. We have a playlist there if you like the music in there, Asha Santee who was part of the group BOOMscat. Together, they did all the music in the film so there's a playlist there. There's behind the scenes stuff. Everything you can find at TenderMovie.com. And then my website is FeliciaPride.com.
Dr. Joy: Perfect. Well, thank you so much for sharing with us today, Felicia, I appreciate it.
Felicia: Thank you for having me and thank you for all the work that you do. It is so important and it’s valuable and also it's changing lives, so thank you.
Dr. Joy: Thank you.
I'm so thrilled we got to hear from both Mychelle and Felicia today. To learn more about them and their work, be sure to visit the show notes at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/session169. Don't forget to share your takeaways with us on social media using the hashtag #TBGinSession, and please text two sisters in your circle right now and encourage them to check out the episode as well.
If you're looking for a therapist in your area, be sure to check out our therapist directory at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/directory. And if you want to continue digging into this topic and connect with some other sisters in your area, come on over and join us in the Yellow Couch Collective where we take a deeper dive into the topics from the podcast and just about everything else. You can join us at TherapyForBlackGirls.com/YCC.