The Prom Star Ariana DeBose Talks About Facing Racism and Homophobia

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Ariana DeBose spoke to Glamour UK about coming out as queer and discrimination she has faced as an Afro-Latina. The actress, 29, who stars in Netflix's adaptation of The Prom with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, spent years on the Broadway stage, appearing in Hamilton and earning a Tony nomination for Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.

Even though she loved performing, she wasn't always confident about her appearance. "I never felt pretty," she said. "I equated beauty for a long time with what I saw on screen or on a television set. I never thought in a million years that I would end up in movies. I never thought I would be pretty enough to do it consistently."

In The Prom, she plays Alyssa Greene, a lesbian teen who is in the closet. Sharing her own coming out story made her feel empowered. She shared her truth with her mother Gina, a teacher, one day after dance class. "I was really lucky in my childhood. My mom was amazing. I didn't really come out," she recalled. "We were in the car and we had left an intensive dance class. Travis Wall, Elizabeth Jones, Martha Nichols — all these incredible dancers were there — and I was like, 'Gosh, they're all so beautiful. Ooh, I'm tingly all over!' And I said, 'Mom, I think I could like boys and girls. But I really think I could like girls.' She was like, 'OK, moving on.' It wasn't a thing. I got lucky. I think that's just how parents should react and then carry on."

To help other LGBTQ+ youth, Ariana and Prom co-star Jo Ellen Pellman launched the Unruly Hearts Initiative. The website provides a list of resources and organizations that help the LGBTQ+ community with safe housing, mental health services, and mentorship.

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"Acknowledging my sexuality for me has gone hand in hand in my journey with identity," DeBose said. "I'm a Black woman, I identify as Afro-Latina, and I'm queer." The actress is proud of her heritage. She has an Afro–Puerto Rican father and a white mother. "It's a constant journey of discovery of all of the layers that make you who you are," she told Glamour. "I believe in a sexual spectrum and I also am a woman. I also reserve the right to change my mind whenever I want so, I make space for all of that. I don't think that you're ever — or at least for me — really through with the journey of coming out."

She also shared why she chose "queer" as her word. "My journey with sexuality is ongoing, which is why queer is my word," she explained. "But I accept all the other words that are in our alphabet and I respect how anybody wants to define themselves. There's not one way to be gay. There's not one way to be straight. There's not one way to be Black. There's not one way to be Latina. There's just not one way of being human."

When she moved to New York City at 19 to pursue her showbiz dreams, she really learned what it meant to experience discrimination for her skin color. "When I was a kid, I never really had racial prejudice thrust in my face," she said. "People do discriminate based on the color of your skin in whatever way. Then three years into living in New York, I started dating a woman very publicly and the reality of walking down the street, holding a woman's hand, is not widely accepted, even in New York City. That was really hard."

Being biracial has also presented her with challenges in an overwhelmingly white industry. "I have been told, 'You're not Black enough. You're not urban enough.' But I'm like, 'What defines Black? Whatever, I'm over here doing me and if you resonate with the performance or what I'm offering you, what does my level of Blackness have to do with anything?' That's been an interesting journey to navigate," she shared. "I still navigate it and not feeling worthy enough at times, which is irritating. I can't believe that that's something that we still deal with, trying to feel worthy of acceptance within your own community."

DeBose is set to appear next year in Steven Spielberg's new adaptation of West Side Story, playing the role of Anita made famous by Rita Moreno. Moreno won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance.