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‘Russian Doll’ Co-Creator Leslye Headland: How I ‘Broke Up’ With Being Straight

Leslye Headland
Courtesy of Paula Andrea

Writer-director Leslye Headland is a celebrated indie storyteller and authority on the triumphs and struggles of contemporary women. Now shepherding the “Star Wars” TV series “The Acolyte” for Disney Plus, her credits include “Russian Doll,” “Sleeping With Other People” and the comedy “Bachelorette.” Here she shares her coming-out journey.  

The saddest night of my life was the 2012 Los Angeles premiere of my film “Bachelorette.” It was not without warning.

Earlier that year, when my directorial debut premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, I was flooded with both relief and anxiety: relief, because my work was being recognized; anxiety, because when your dreams come true and you’re not living as your authentic self, it is a particularly painful experience. After years preparing for failure, nothing had prepared me for success.

Months later, at the premiere, I was blonder, thinner and “straight”-er than I’d ever been. My hotel was across the street from the building where, at 24, I’d been an abused and overworked assistant. Now a filmmaker at 31, I should’ve felt proud. All these amazing things were finally happening, yet they did not alleviate the pressure to present myself as a sexually desirable heterosexual woman. I felt a deep sadness that I now would describe as being “in the closet.”

Though that phrase never really resonated with me personally. I wasn’t consciously hiding who I was from others. I was so separated from my queerness that, for me, it wasn’t even an option to be gay. This was due to being raised straight and very religiously. But also, as a female filmmaker, I had already felt so much animosity and distrust from certain collaborators that to be a “lesbian,” a word I had heard used many times on set or in meetings as a derogatory term, seemed like a career-ending prospect.

So my journey was less “coming out” and more of a slow painful break up with “straightness.” Actually, the first time I ever said, “I’m gay,” out loud was after a breakup in 2013. A close friend asked how I felt, and I simply said, “I’m gay.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was exploring all of this creatively. “Bachelorette” is about straight women who hate almost every single facet of being straight women (a concept most critics loathed 10 years ago). “Sleeping With Other People,” from opening image to credits, is the heteronormative fantasy that I tortured myself over not having. I never would’ve been open to dating women if I hadn’t made that film and let it go into the ether like a shiny balloon.

The love story I have with my wife is so much more beautiful than anything I will ever write. The recovery I have made to become a healthy person was hard won. I turned 40 last year, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I consider myself very lucky to be an openly gay woman in a creator position on a massive intellectual property. And despite some minor incidents, none of my major fears about living visibly as a queer person in Hollywood materialized.

That being said, our industry is complicated. It prizes authenticity, but it also rewards assimilation. Acceptance and condemnation can exist at the same job, in the same sentence, on the same night. The hotel of success and the office of abuse are on the same block after all. For queer people, this can mean feeling like an outsider even when all the insiders shower you with praise.

Recently, in his interview with Oprah Winfrey, Elliot Page beautifully articulated this experience when it happens while you’re a working creative. He touched on how our industry’s “rewards” (awards, premieres, press) can be confusing and sometimes painful for LGBTQ artists still in the process of discovering who they are. After hearing his story, I was inspired to write my own in case it helps someone else. For me, following my dreams has been thrilling, but taking care of my heart has been the biggest success of my life.

As told to Matt Donnelly