Yes, We Know What She Means: An Interview with Butch Dyke Lea DeLaria

By David Goldberg

Lea DeLaria is one busy inmate. With season three of Orange Is the New Black on DVD May 17 and season four dropping June 17, her breakout butch-dyke character Big Boo will be getting a lot of screen time this summer. And with her new David Bowie jazz cover album, House of David, and her lecture series, A Man for All Seasons, the stand-up/actress/singer is more popular and prolific than ever. DeLaria spoke with OutSmart about Big Boo, fan reactions, and her future.

David Goldberg: How has your audience changed since Orange Is the New Black?

Lea DeLaria: There’s more of ’em. Last night, one of the producers of Orange, Neri Tannenbaum, came to my show [House of David], and she said that there are 80 million people who watch Orange worldwide. It’s a ridiculous amount of people. So, yeah: it’s much easier for me to fill a room. That’s the best part of it.

Does it feel strange for you to be suddenly getting this much mainstream attention?

I’m not sure that “strange” is the word that I would use. I think that it feels really great, honestly, and I’m incredibly grateful for it, you know what I mean? I’ve been a steady working actor, singer, and stand-up comic for well over 30 years. My joke about it has always been that for me it’s been a long climb to the middle. To go from having a fairly charmed life from before—and I would have been happy doing that for the rest of my days—and then comes Orange Is the New Black, and suddenly I can’t walk down the street without everybody I pass wanting my picture. It’s an interesting change, but I’m incredibly grateful for it. I try to use it for good. I know it sounds really weird, but I’m out there plugging away for my political ideologies and using what has happened with this show to further my own personal butch-dyke agenda.

Are you getting younger fans now?

Hundreds and hundreds and thousands and millions. They direct-message me directly, almost every day. This is the thing where I feel like I have some responsibility for what is going on around me in the world. What I mean by that is when they DM me it’s generally something like: “Oh my God, I love you; you are my wife; you are my mom”—that thing that young people do on social media. But I also get a lot of: “Thanks to you and your character and your show, I came out to my family, and I’m grateful for it.” I also get horrible ones, too: “I’m gay, I’m a lesbian, and I can’t tell my family or they will stone me to death.” Stuff like that. So I feel a great deal of responsibility about this, and I seem to be the one who gets these things. My theory is that Laverne [Cox] gets the same sort of stuff, you know what I mean, but because of my visibility, because of my butch-ness, because of my out-ness, because of where I am, the politics of it follows me.

Lea DeLaria. Photo: Sophy Holland
Lea DeLaria. Photo: Sophy Holland

But the flipside of this, which is interesting as well, is that wherever we go, when people see me, just the sight of me makes them happy. My fiancé calls me Bull Dyke Santa Claus. I’ve never been accosted in the street, and nobody’s ever told me that the show is horrible or that I’m a jerk since the show hit the air. Now, I walk down the street, I get on the subway, I go to a restaurant, I go to a bar—wherever I go, people are happy to see me, and that is really new for me as a butch dyke. You know what I mean?

It almost sounds like you are a male rock star.

Well, when I was on Conan and I said I was a fucking Jonas brother, I wasn’t kidding. All of that is most definitely there. But the thing is that, in my life and in my past, the sight of me didn’t always make people happy. In fact, it might cause violence and yelling and screaming. Just the sight of me would do that to people because of their own homophobia, especially around butches. And I perceived that within my own community as well. Now this has happened, and it’s a dream come true for me. So what I’m saying is that, finally, a quarter has been turned for butches and for queers and for trans people. We’re winning the hearts and minds of people, and I think my show has a whooooole lot to do with that.

So your stand-alone episode from last season was a lot about your butch appearance. I thought it was amazing that they let your character make a mess of her life. It’s so rare that we get to see a queer person be an asshole on TV.

I’m sorry, but I’m curious about the statement you just made. What in the flashback episode made you think she acted like an asshole?

They show how defensive and outspoken she is about her identity, but they also show that her abrasiveness leads her to alienate a lot of people in her life. I guess “asshole” isn’t the word, but her kind of militancy always comes at a cost. Does that make sense?

I view that differently than you, but that’s because I portray her, right? I love her, so I don’t think that anything she says is wrong. Do you know what I mean? So it’s interesting to me.

I just thought it was brave that your character wasn’t treated as precious because she is a lesbian, and that she could take her gloves off.

Our show doesn’t do that. It never has, it never will. Our show doesn’t write with kid gloves about anything. That’s the good thing about it, and one of the reasons we all love doing the show. It’s so real.

Did you relate to that episode?

Of course I did. All butches have a shared life experience, and they ticked all the boxes [in that episode]. I like that you said that she was defensive and has a chip on her shoulder, and I think they show why a lot of butches do have that, including myself. We spent a lifetime being told by everybody: “Why don’t you just be a man?” And our girlfriends were told: “Why are you with her, why aren’t you with a man?” After a while, it’s knee jerk. I have a chip on my shoulder, too. But I’ve earned it.

Fuck yeah. (Both laugh) What’s next for you?

Well, Orange got picked up for three more seasons, so what I’d like to do next is be on that show for three more seasons and for however many remain. That would make me really happy. And while I’m doing that, I’ll continue to put out albums and lecture at universities, act in plays when I’m offered them, be in movies when I’m offered them, you know what I mean? I’m going to keep plugging away and doing what it is that I’m doing and fighting the good fight as well. I know some people have an issue with how I am an activist, or the manner in which I am an activist, which usually has to do with being in someone’s face. But I think that if we are going to affect change within our society for my community, it takes all of us doing what we can to make that change happen. I reach people that Ellen DeGeneres can never reach, and she reaches people that I can never reach. And between the two of us, we have changed a lot of minds in the world, do you know what I mean?


David Odyssey

David Odyssey is a queer journalist and the host of The Luminaries podcast. His work is collected at davidodyssey.com.
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