Lena Waithe strode onto this year’s Met Gala red carpet with an unmistakable message that came in a bright rainbow cape draped around her shoulders.
The Met Gala – an annual fundraiser for New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and one of fashion’s most visible nights – was themed “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” after a new Vatican-approved exhibit of the same name.
Waithe’s bold choice of dress rivaled others in looks. Other celebrities donned stunning outfits such as that of an angel (Katy Perry), the Sistine Chapel (Ariana Grande), and a papal outfit (Rihanna).
But what Waithe’s getup lacked in intricacy was made up for in symbolism.
At a time when the Catholic Church continues to discriminate against LGBTQ people – in saying “all are welcome,” yet firing them from schools, excluding them from fundraisers, or instituting discriminatory adoption policies – Waithe stepped out into the middle of it, and proudly stood her ground.
Her defiance vis-a-vis the religious theme was equal parts regal and daring. Waithe’s wardrobe choice for the event shows the same kind of grit and authenticity that LGBTQ Catholics have exhibited in recent decades, as conversations using the archaic term of “same-sex attraction” become increasingly prominent in our cultural and religious spheres.
Waithe did not offer an outright criticism of the Church: she merely wore a rainbow overtop her suit, and stood proudly. Silently, her wardrobe spoke for her.
This same message covers the shoulders of many LGBTQ Catholics. In a Church that is often considered regressive and repressive in regards to sexual ethics, Waithe’s simple act of showing up and being herselfwas revolutionary. In one small act, she represented those who are queer and in the Church; instead of blending in, she chose to stick out.
In her Emmy acceptance speech last year, Waithe gave a shout out to the LGBTQ community, comparing them to superheroes while referencing the “imaginary capes” they wear living their everyday lives:
“I love you all and last but certainly not least my LGBTQIA family … I see each and every one of you. The things that make us different, those are our superpowers — every day when you walk out the door and put on your imaginary cape and go out there and conquer the world because the world would not be as beautiful as it is if we weren’t in it.”
She carried the idea to this year’s Met Gala, and decided to make an even bolder statement. In an interview with Vogue, Lena explained the symbolism more fully:
“Tonight, this cape is not imaginary, it’s rainbow-colored,” she said. “And we got the black and brown, you know. I’m reppin’ my community, and I want everybody to know that you can be whoever you are, and be completely proud, and be doin’ it, so… let’s not be afraid of who we are.”
In moment of intersectionality, Lena’s mention of “black and brown” is a nod to Philadelphia’s updated Pride flag, which adds a brown and a black stripe to honor the founders of the modern gay rights movement , many of whom were people of color (notably Marsha P. Johnson).
In her work and public appearances, Waithe often discusses intersectionality: as a gay black woman, her identities often converge. At this particular moment, Lena chose to highlight the intersection of queer identity and religion – and in doing so gave a necessary presence to the people who struggle and face contradictions of this reality every day.
This intersection calls some people closer to the Church, instead of away from it. In light of the Met Gala and its representations of Catholicism, Xorje Olivares, a queer Catholic blogger, wrote about how queer Catholics enact Waithe’s example:
“Those of us who continue pursuing our faith do so because of our close, personal relationship to God and not because of our opponents. We as LGBTQ parishioners do as we please (much like high fashion risk-takers) because we alone are the beneficiaries of such pleasure. We do what makes us happy because it’s our God-given right to afford ourselves that luxury. Would it be nice to secure the approval of others? Sure. Is it required? Absolutely not. We present as our true, authentic selves as a (new) testament to the journey that brought us here, and we have come to the understanding that such a journey is usually made alone. Just like no one dictates our respective fashion choices, no one speaks to our queerness. It is for us to share on our own terms based off our own definitions.”
Queer Catholic blogger John Paul Brammer echoed these contradictions, saying:
“Queer Catholics exist. I know many of them. There are many things about Catholicism I find beautiful, beyond the imagery. But its historic wrongs against LGBTQ+ people ought not be ignored on a highly public night when it stands atop the innovations of queer people to rebrand itself to a younger audience. Some aspects of the Church can be beautiful, as the “Heavenly Bodies” exhibit illustrates, while others can be oppressive. Many contradictory things can be true at once. If there’s one thing I learned in Catholic school, it’s that.”
In the same vein, Waithe’s cape has highlighted the choice to live visibly and authentically, even in spite of religious obstacles. With a church that preaches love but often continues to exclude, the rainbow cape points out these obvious contradictory actions performed not out of love, but out of obedience to “Church teaching.”
“This is like my skin, I’m proud to be in it … I’ve got the community on my back to make sure they know I’ve got them all the time. The theme to me is, like, ‘Be yourself.’ You were made in God’s image, right?” said Waithe to the New York Times.
We agree, Lena.
–Lindsay Hueston, New Ways Ministry, May 18, 2018