A week after I officially became a citizen of the U.S., the character I play on a television show — a fictional first female president of this same country — stood before members of the White House press corps and announced that she is gay.
Of course, I had filmed this months before on the set of Apple’s For All Mankind but the timing of the episode’s release was not and could not be lost on me. There have been a lot of curious, sometimes heart-wrenching moments of synchronicity throughout playing Ellen Wilson, but this one carries significant weight. I’m a newly minted American and, like Ellen, queer, and reeling in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and the bourgeoning threat to LGBTQ+ rights.
For those who don’t watch the show, this fictional first female president is elected in our imagined world in 1992. That alone moves me. I suppose it doesn’t take much these days. But as a lifelong member of “the second sex,” standing, sitting, acting in that Oval Office felt like conjuring a truer and more beautiful world*, one that I trust a lot of us long for. A big part of our show is about considering the ripple effects that an even slightly different event or decision might have had on our actual history and so embodying this alternative has made me do just that. But to spend too much time thinking about what America might look and feel like should this fantasy have been real is a trap that only offers frustration and sadness. I’ll just say the words “Monica Lewinsky” for a second, the words “Anita Hill.”
I’m not suggesting that a female president in the 1990s would have been a cure all for patriarchy and the abuse of power. But I can’t help but wonder: If an out gay woman had been the face, voice and the symbol of the free world, would we now be living in a much more equitable, diverse, accepting time?
I recently walked through Hampstead Heath to get to the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond, one of my favorite places to spend time in London. On my way, I passed the Men’s Pond and the field that rests just on its border. Perhaps it won’t surprise you to hear that it was filled with beautiful, buoyant, male-identifying people who I believe I can safely say were members of London’s queer community. The joy and togetherness was infectious. I didn’t try to hide the grin on my face as I walked by. To see the freedom, the celebration of life on their terms, made me emotional.
The women’s pond is perhaps less distinctly queer (though that depends on your definition), but no less a pocket of “utopia,” as I have described it on more than one occasion. But why that word? Why do these spaces, filled to the brim with people who push against the default constructs of our culture, still feel utopian to me? Why do they require that descriptor when they are not imaginary? They’re real and growing by the day, overflowing into all areas with the same pride and self-expression. Perhaps it’s obvious. After small bursts of fragile progress, anything more than our very existence still seems to enrage those who seek to reinforce and reimpose the tired and dangerous status quo.
But we are here. We always have been. And now we are inside their living rooms, behind presidential podiums, declaring our truest selves with confidence and compassion, even if fictionally.
And what of that ripple effect? Rather than speculating with a heavy heart about what might have been, I allow myself (as indulgent and self-congratulatory as it may seem) to consider what the impact of telling this story, slowly over the course of three seasons, creeping into the consciousness of folks in even the most conservative patches of this country, might be. Ellen is a Republican after all. And I suppose that might go some distance in bringing certain audience members along for the ride.
In that culminating scene — the one I mentioned earlier — where President Ellen Wilson publicly comes out as gay, it is her openness and honesty, in a society where we are taught that openness is weakness rather than strength, that leaves the greatest mark.
Her vice president confirms as much in a subsequent scene. He shakes with fury as he reports news of possible impeachment as a consequence of her act. He warns that he will not allow her to “destroy the Republican party.” To destroy it by telling the truth? To destroy it with transparency and vulnerability? To destroy it by simply being exactly who she is?
How fragile must it all be?
It doesn’t always feel fragile, though. It often also feels terrifying. It is terrifying — and profoundly harmful. And I write that as a white, cis, queer woman who bears the least of the brunt. Much like when Trump was elected, when the Roe decision came down there was a stirring in me that whispered “I don’t want to live here anymore. I want to leave.” But, of course, there is a more important alternative to that fear-, rage- and exhaustion-based impulse to survive. And that is, as the extraordinary writer Ocean Vuong puts it: “to stay and complicate.”
It’s what Ellen does, as she looks her VP in the eye and says, “Maybe it needs a little destroying.” She’s going to stay and complicate America’s idea of a president.
It’s what we are all doing by not shrinking, not staying silent, not looking away when reinforcers of the fragile status quo work to take away our freedom. We stay and complicate all the old ideas of what life is “supposed” to look like, who is “supposed” to have power and self-determination and equality and justice. And part of that “staying” requires being seen. which can be frightening, which can be, and is, life-threatening for so many. So what do we do? What do we do!
There is so much to do.
One small thing we can do is to share stories, because we care. As much as it’s been suggested otherwise, and we’ve been encouraged not to. Caring is as fundamental to being alive as breathing, as eating and as procreating.* A human face, with a human body and a beating heart on your screen might perhaps crack something open in you, even just a millimeter, imperceptibly at first, at first.
What felt initially like something just for me (only just having come to terms with my own queerness), a healing moment in the form of acting, has begun to feel like more than that. Is it possible that it might be? Can the fictional female president you’ve come to root for, standing in her truth as a proud gay woman, begin to destroy even a little bit of hate?
I think I’m going to choose to believe she can — that stories have that kind of power — and continue to feel enormously grateful that I got to be a part of telling this one.
* I have the podcast We Can Do Hard Things With Glennon Doyle to thank for both of these concepts. Look up the Vagus Nerve.
Jodi Balfour plays President Ellen Wilson on Apple’s For All Mankind. The drama has been renewed for a fourth season.