Seeing Myself in Dear White People's Lionel Higgins

'I watched Lionel, popularized by Houston-born DeRon Horton, grow from season to season as he blossomed from finding identity, purpose, and love.'

By Eric Ford December 23, 2021

Does anyone miss Dear White People, or is it just me? The dark comedy series delivered a striking image of a queer character that I can't let go of. It's one of the few series that showcase Black lead characters in ways we have never seen before. Especially characters like Lionel Higgins, a black, queer, awkward, nerdy college student from Houston, pursuing a writing career.

I watched Lionel, popularized by Houston-born DeRon Horton, grow from season to season as he blossomed from finding identity, purpose, and love. It's very reminiscent as I compared his story arc and how it parallels my own college years at Texas Southern University. His evolution in the Netflix adaptation of the film brought forth a new, unfamiliar life of the Black queer man from the South.

Dear White People, written and directed by HSPVA graduate Justin Simien, first premiered as a movie at a Sundance Film Festival competition in 2014 and was theatrically released months later. In the film version, Lionel was portrayed by Everybody Hates Chris's Tyler James Williams, whose character lived his life mostly outside the ecosystem of blackness, until he attended the fictional white Ivy League institution, Winchester University. At Winchester, he navigates racial tension, identity, and community.

Three years later, Dear White People's theatrical success sparked a new adaptation with a Netflix-exclusive streaming series that aired from 2017-2021. In the series, DWP's efforts to further develop Lionel’s persona filled a void of erasure and misrepresentation among communities that are normally left behind in popular culture, specifically Black gay men from Houston. The show was proof that portraying marginalized identities could be done successfully within television.

Representation is important to how we create art that accurately depicts our reality and shapes the future of our cultures and communities. 

Growing up in Texas, my queerness was welcomed by my family, but I had no connection to the queer community around me. Lionel and I share this commonality, finding our own paths in non-queer environments. Understanding who you are in the midst of surroundings that don't cater to your existence as a person could at times cause a struggle of acceptance within yourself. Not all Black gay men have the access to each other to learn about who we are.

We see Lionel wrestling with his Black, male and queer identities in season one of DWP as he ponders the reality of his sexuality through a one-on-one conversation with his editor-in-chief. Like Lionel, I had to come to the realization that I wasn't privileged to be surrounded by those who felt the same sexual and romantic desires as myself. I questioned if my truth was worth being explored or expressed. Lionel and I had to rely on our own interpretation and acceptance of ourselves to arrive fully ourselves.

Before DWP, I struggled to find nuanced representations of Black gay men in pop culture. My only examples are characters from film/television like Wayman from Low Down Dirty Shame; or Omar Little from The Wire played by the late Michael K. Williams. None of them spoke my language, embodied my culture, or resembled any characteristics I could compare to my own. DWP shifted the progression of the television and film industry from outdated, generic, and offensive character plot points to realistic and expanding storylines.

The less you see yourself represented, the less you see yourself actually succeeding in real life. Lionel's portrayal broke the ceiling of Black, gay, Southern representation and showed how a lead television character from Houston can be inspiriting to people like me.

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