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Raven-Symoné Recalls Industry Pushback in Her Teen Years: ‘She Looks Too Much Like a Lesbian’ 

One of the most recognizable child stars in Hollywood history, Raven-Symoné grew up in the public eye on “The Cosby Show” and “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper.”

Now 33-years-old and an executive producer and star of “Raven’s Home,” a spinoff of her 2000’s Disney Channel show “That’s So Raven,” in recent years, the actress and singer has chosen to speak out about her sexuality to help her younger fans, though she admits she didn’t feel comfortable in her own skin until she was in her late 20s. While she referred to herself as a lesbian on a 2016 episode of “The View,” the former co-host firmly states that she does not subscribe to labels.

“While it was a selfish thing for me to keep my secret to myself for as long as I did, I am very happy that I’m out, if only to help someone else feel comfortable,” Raven-Symoné tells Variety as part of an interview for the inaugural Power of Pride issue. “It is about that one person who you’ll never see or meet who watches the show and feels that confidence to just say, ‘Hey, guess what? I’m gay. And if you can’t accept me, it’s okay, because I see Raven pushing through.’ That feels good. It’s a hard journey, though. It’s difficult.”

Here, Raven-Symoné discusses her struggle to discuss her sexuality publicly, the pressure the industry places on women to look a certain way and the pushback she received from her personal management team when she was a teenager.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen in regards to LGBTQ representation since you started out in the industry is a young girl?

That it’s actually being represented in a positive light, that there are shows geared to and catered for the LGBTQ community without making an apology, that it’s okay and it’s acceptable to be your authentic self in public within the industry. But it does depend on your confidence level and it depends on your level of celebrity that was created before this turn.

When you say it depends on your level of celebrity, how do you personally feel you’ve been treated?

I feel that I’ve definitely been accepted regarding my placement in the LGBTQ community by those in the community and not in the community. I think that’s because I was so young when I started in the industry that my sexuality did not have a spotlight on it. I started at such a young age that my sexuality or my gender preference was not a big part of who I was, so I was able to express who I was with a clear slate. Also, the age bracket that I live in is a part of that journey of coming out — I am who I am am, accept who I am, no labels. I think that as this beautiful wave continues to engulf everybody and accept everybody in living as your best self, people of all age brackets and generations will feel more and more comfortable on coming out and being accepted.

With this new wave of acceptance, do you feel hopeful for future generations?

Yes, of course. I feel very hopeful for them that they can live within their true skin at an earlier age. I feel like the turmoil that I’ve been through as a young child with family around talking about a guy — I didn’t appreciate that — so the conversation in the family unit will be a lot broader, so that the shackles won’t go on so early to confine to someone else’s community. I think that my generation and generations to come will understand that we need to guide our children from right from wrong obviously, but it’s about what they want in their life in order to be their most healthy mental and physical self.

At what point did you feel that you could live in your true skin?

I was probably about 28 or 29, and I’m 33. And even now, I’m still morphing. Like, “Ugh okay, I’ll wear a dress today, but I don’t want to wear a dress tomorrow. I don’t feel like being super feminine. I don’t feel like being super masculine.” It’s always a journey of someone who has been caged to portray something for so long to find yourself. I’m going through my teenage years of different hair colors and black nails right now. When you’re in the industry, you still have to find that happy medium. I’m not going to go out the way that I look at home — I’ll put on some rouge. It’s definitely a journey to still find that authentic self on the [red] carpet versus at home where I don’t have people going, “Omg! What is she going through?” You don’t want that from the public.

Do you feel that there still is pressure from the industry to look a certain way?

I don’t know how to answer that because I’ve pretty much told the industry, in my head, that I don’t care what they say. There are two brains of me: there’s the brain that’s been in the industry forever that’s like, “I hate you and I’m never going to do anything you’re going to say again,” and then there’s the brain that’s like “I can’t hurt my career,” so I think the pressure is something I’ve created for myself. I think that now with social media and the authenticity of public figures that did not grow up in my generation, it has made it easier to just come out however you need to, but again, I grew up with certain constraints that still are building blocks in my foundation in how I live within society and within my career, so I definitely teeter-tottered and figured out what I like. I actually get less backlash now that I’ve said that I’m going to wear whatever I want to and do whatever I need on the carpet, rather than maybe seven or eight years ago where everything I wore was like, “What is she doing? Blah blah blah.” It was really back in the day when I wasn’t out, but now that people see that I’m more comfortable, I think I’m more accepted.

You said you didn’t feel that you could live in your true skin until you were around 28. Were there times that you felt you couldn’t come out and couldn’t be your true self specifically because of constraints in the industry?

Yes. I remember that I went on tour for the last season of “That’s So Raven” — by the way, this was not Disney; Disney has always been accepting of me, but this was someone in my own camp, like industry people, agents and managers — I remember that I wore Abercrombie and Fitch jeans, a stereotypical lesbian vest, a tie and one of the members of my team went up to my mom and was like, “She looks too much like a lesbian. Can you tell her to put on a skirt and makeup? Because then they’ll accept her and come to her concert.” I could not! It always happened when I was on tour because I’ve always been myself in hip-hop clothes and not necessarily super feminine — look at my first album from when I was younger [“Here’s to New Dreams,” 1993]. So seeing the reaction of people in my own camp who were trying to mold and publicize me in the way that they think girls should look like just blew my mind. The way I got back at them was the next year, I put on a corset and a tutu, and my mom was like, “You look crazy,” and I was like, “Well, this is so that they shut up. I’m wearing a tutu, so how about that!” I was so rude because I was just so over it, and I hadn’t come out to anybody. I knew in my heart and my friends knew, but I was just like, “You guys just need to stop. It’s ridiculous.”

You said Disney has always been very supportive of you. Disney has gotten much more inclusive over the years with its programming, especially “Andi Mack,” the first Disney Channel series to feature a gay main character. How do you think children’s programming has progressed and how will it help future generations?

The one thing about the entertainment industry that I do love is that it reflects the society that it caters to. It has to. I think that children’s programming is doing it very tastefully. It’s not promoting; it’s not under-promoting; it just is. I think that’s very important to just be, because then it’s not stigmatized or anything of that nature, and that’s very important because we are molding the minds of young people everywhere and entertaining them and making them smile, laugh and cry, and you want to make sure that you are catering to every type of person out there — yes, business-wise for ratings, but also just to say that this is what our society looks like right now. I’m very proud of those taking on that journey and not being afraid.

Do you pay attention to any hatred on social media toward LGBTQ programming?

One of the things that I hate about the close-minded human is people who say, “It’s an agenda! They’re trying to set an agenda!” I’m just like, “What are you talking about?” I just don’t understand what that is. Television is not just for one type of person. If there is any agenda, it’s to make sure that everybody is represented on television. They could have said that about any moment in history when a certain group of people were trying to combine themselves with the normal fabric of society. It happens with every smaller group. The LGBTQ community wants to be represented on a medium that they watch as much as everybody else, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It makes me happy because I never had television when I was younger that made me so happy to see. 

What is the most rewarding part about being on the Disney Channel as an adult in terms of what you hear back from your younger viewers?

The best part about working for the Disney Channel is that I get to see kids’ faces light up from ear to ear. That is so enjoyable. But it’s also enjoyable to see teens, young adults and older adults say that they watch television together and that they enjoy the family content and that we are a place they can go together to feel safe. That brings me joy. 

Have you ever had fans tell you that you have helped them come out?

When I was on Broadway, I was seeing someone, and I was in the closet hardcore to the world, except for all of my friends. One of the cast members came up to me and said, “If you don’t come out, little kids are going to wither away.” And I went, “What! How dare you put the pressure on me. This is my life.” Now, I am in deep debt to him, and tell him at least once per week, “Thank you for pushing me.” I know where I stand in the eyes of the community, just being on television for as long as I have and dealing with children’s comedy for as long as I have, and it’s important that there is some person or character in their life that has the confidence to be their authentic self and to not apologize for who they are, so that they have someone to look to when they are putting on their armor to venture out into this world. 

In 2014, you said you do not like labels. Do you still feel that way?

Oh, I still feel that way. I do not like labels because labels have certain historic connotations that don’t describe who I am fully. If I use a certain label, our world view of that word or image will go right to the negative, every single time. I think as my generation and the generations after me continue to grow, we’re changing certain labels, but it’s still a part of the fabric of society. I’m labeling myself, but in the way that I want to. I know that I am a “human of the world.” Yes, I can jump within different categories that live in the world, and I know my history and I know my ancestry comes from Africa, I understand that, but where I am in my head and where I am in my generation and the things that I’ve seen — I’ve traveled and I’ve talked with many different types of people — I am a human of the world. If anybody is sad, I’m going to be sad with them. Whatever their plight is, I’m going to understand it. I don’t want to push myself in a corner from one label just because I’m supposed to be that. I need to have empathy for everybody and understand it as an entire unit, rather than many units across the earth. I don’t grasp that, so I’d rather be human of the world.

When you were on “The View,” you said during a conversation about the dating world with men, “I’m a lesbian!” What do you remember about the reaction from viewers after that?

What did I say? I don’t remember anything that I said on that show.

During a conversation on the panel about dating men, you said off the cuff that you are a lesbian so you don’t deal with dating men. Joy Behar was laughing. Maybe it didn’t feel like a coming out moment to you, since it was so off the cuff, but I’m curious if you got a lot of feedback after that episode, or was it no big deal?

I know what you’re talking about. Sometimes when I go on stage, I blackout and don’t know what came out of my mouth, and then I go home and watch and I’m like, “Oh. My. God. Did I just say that?” And then I kind of smirk, and then I’m like, “Yes, I totally said that. Yay me!” But yeah, it freaked me out. It freaked me out, dude. Sometimes I surprise myself with how much of a lesbian I am. It really freaks me out. I’m like, “Dang! I really need to calm it down!” But it freaked me out because I was never allowed to say that before and it wasn’t a word that existed in my vocabulary.

After the freak out, did it feel good that you could say that after you weren’t able to say it for so long?

I moved on. I didn’t relish in it for too long. I don’t deal with issues very well. I just see it, smirk and move on. Some things I said, other people would stress about it, which would make me continue to think about it, but most of the time, as long as it doesn’t make my insides feel icky, I move on. And I smirked. I was happy. It didn’t bother me.

Do you still find it difficult to talk publicly about your sexuality?

I still have my reservations about how much I want to divulge and how much I want my career to be defined by my membership within the LGBTQ community, how much I feel necessary to say because my journey is my own, and how much I’m obligated to say because of the position that I’m in and that I can help somebody get out of their shell. It’s a delicate balance of what I’m comfortable with, what I know I’m supposed to do and what I really want to do. I’m still very cautious about when I get a new partner, not releasing their identity off the bat. I’m very cautious about my topics that I talk about because these conversations can get deep and I like to keep it real surface — I’m not trying to get into any trouble in my life right now! It’s just finding that right balance of who I am in the eyes of others and then how much I can speak for myself because in this industry, it’s really important to have a little bit of yourself reserved for yourself.

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