Samira Wiley Wants To Remind You Queer People Have *Always* Existed

With HBO Max’s new docuseries 'Equal', the actress hopes to save lives through representation.

Samira Wiley has won awards for queer visibility and widespread acclaim for playing a lesbian character, Poussey, on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. But having come out publicly just a few years ago, she’s still quick to remember her privilege and what it’s like to be closeted—how it feels to weigh the costs of going public with your queerness. It’s an experience the actress brings to her latest role, the famed playwright Lorraine Hansberry, in HBO Max’s docuseries Equal out Oct. 22.  

Hansberry, who wrote A Raisin in The Sun and was the first African American woman to have a play performed on Broadway, was a radical voice within the Civil Rights Movement. She also lived a double life as a queer woman—marrying a cis male friend but traveling in West Village lesbian circles and using pseudonyms to write extensively about gay oppression before dying at age 34 in 1965.

Equal, a four-part docuseries narrated by Billy Porter, remembers forgotten LGBTQ+ heroes such as Hansberry and Stonewall’s Sylvia Rivera, while exploring the landmark events that shaped our country and community. The series culminates with Stonewall in 1969 (the start of the Pride movement and a riot, as many activists have reminded us this year) and spotlights multiple revolutionaries per episode, showing the dangers they faced, the sacrifices they made, and also the joy, pride, and freedom they gave to our world. 

We spoke to Wiley about playing Hansberry, the dangers of coming out—then and now—and the power of representation, below. 

HG: What was your level of familiarity with Hansberry before this show? I knew about her work, for example, but I didn’t know about her lesbianism.

SW: Look, I wish I did have the ability to say I knew that, but I was not well-versed, either. Of course, I know who Lorraine Hansberry is, but I did not know who Lorraine Hansberry is in full. And being able to identify with her on so many different levels [and] all of the things that I know about her now…I almost feel like, how did I not know this? Thank god Equal is telling this story so that people don’t have to say that anymore. 

HG: All of Hansberry’s quotes would ring true at any Black Lives Matter protest today, particularly: The whole idea of debating whether or not [Black people] should defend themselves is an insult.” What was it like to play her during such a similar moment in time?  

SW: It’s kind of crazy how pressing these stories are right now. Being able to bring her to life in this year and during this time [with] who we have in office and all of those things, they’re just glaring—the similarities, the relevance there. It sort of lights a fire in me, understanding the places where we intersect.  

HG: You’ve received visibility awards and have referred to your visibility before as a “privilege.” What did it mean to you to play a woman who died closeted? 

SW: I think about who Lorraine was and I really do think that her being closeted—and honestly, I must say, I don’t think of Lorraine as fully closeted—I think of her protecting herself when it comes to her public image. I think if Lorraine was alive today that she would not be closeted. I really do think it was just about survival, and I think it was courageous for her to walk around New York City and be in these queer circles and be out in that way. I really just see it as a point of where I happen to be in history that I’m able to be who I am. 

I wonder if I was alive at the time that Lorraine was, would I be able to live in the way that I am now, and I do not think so. I don’t want to think I’m so much more courageous than she was in terms of being open in my queerness. I think it’s just sometimes about life and death, and I think that was a real question for her at that time—of her being out or not. 

HG: Coming out can be oversimplified, but Equal does a great job of showing the danger and kind of disruption that comes from living through your truth. Can you talk about the representation of that courage, that struggle, and what it means to you? 

SW: I think sometimes people can look at my journey and think I’ve always been so comfortable with myself or I’ve always been out, and I haven’t been. Especially being in the public eye, I sometimes question myself, like who I want to be and what are the benefits of me being out. I am so happy that I have come to the conclusion and the decisions I have, but it hasn’t been an easy one. And honestly, I don’t exactly remember the question that you asked. I’m just thinking about my journey right now. Could you repeat?

HG: I was talking about how the show does a great job at showing the danger in coming out, and it’s a really honest representation of that struggle that sometimes kind of gets lost in the celebration aspect. What are your thoughts on what Equal represents?

SW: I’m so happy you brought that up—the danger versus highlighting how awesome it is. There was real danger. Even still now in certain parts of the world and in certain parts of our own country, there is so much danger. Being able to really see that, I am able to see the connection there—to really look at that and see the danger and think about [it]…or even my perceived danger—to what I thought my journey was going to be. I remember people telling me that I needed to stay positive, that I needed to, when I walked some red carpets, maybe have a male friend walk me down them.

[That question is] so much more real for [Hansberry], so much more real for her to the point that she actually really had to engage in those things that I have had the privilege to not do. I’m able to hold my wife’s hand, you know? I’m able to do that without thinking that someone literally might be waiting for me at my home with a weapon. It’s such a privilege, and being able to see that journey and being able to see where [Hansberry] was then and where we are now, it is very important to acknowledge that.

HG: The show is called Equal. What does equality look like to you? 

SW: It’s almost like I can’t even sometimes imagine what that would look like because we have been denied it for so long. I can only sometimes think about what the next step might be. I know that what I want—I can say it in the simplest terms—is that every single thing that you have that I don’t have, that’s what I want. 

Or not even just me. I don’t have as much fear walking around my neighborhood in LA holding my wife’s hand as I think somebody in middle America, some teen in middle America, might have. I want my privileges to also be extended to them. I want people to be able to see the humanity in their fellow [person]. There’s something so easy about accepting someone who looks like you, who thinks like you, and lives like you. But the real challenge and something that is so beautiful is being able to see the humanity in someone who doesn’t look anything like you, who doesn’t think anything like you. That is where the challenge is and that is where we need to be. 

HG: What do you hope people take away from this show? 

SW: The main thing I want people to see is, I think a lot of times there can be this idea that queer people haven’t always existed. You know, there’s this message sometimes from other communities that have loud voices that all of sudden these people are coming and they’re ruining everything or whatever. Being able to say that, “No, we have existed forever and our stories are just not being told in the same way that other communities’ stories are being told,” literally can save people’s lives.

Showing that you exist and your story is valid. I know for me being able to even see Black women in media, on TV, in films growing up made me dream in ways that I would not have without being able to see them. When I think of the next generation of queer people being able to watch this series and possibly dream bigger—that is what I really really hope for. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.