When Niecy Nash realized she had fallen in love with her best friend, another woman, the acclaimed actress didn't know what the reaction would be if she made their relationship public. She was warned that coming out might jeopardize her career and ruin everything she'd worked so hard for. And she had a lot to lose. Now an Emmy Award-winning performer known for shows like Claws, When They See Us, Scream Queens, and Reno 911!, Carol Denise Nash ("Niecy" is short for Denise) made her film debut in 1995's Boys on the Side and then spent the last 25 years working to reach this pivotal moment in her career.
She was finally in high demand in Hollywood, starring in multiple series, with her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and her own daytime talk show about to launch. Personally, at the time, Nash was a twice-married (and recently divorced) woman of deep faith -- a former pastor's wife with three children (she'd kept her first husband Don Nash's last name instead of reverting back to her birth name, Ensley).
Even as Nash became a big star, family remained key to her. The loss of her 17-year-old brother, Michael, to gun violence in 1993 spurred her mother, Margaret Ensley, to found MAVIS (Mothers Against Violence in Schools) to advocate for nonviolence and support parents and schools in violence prevention. Nash helped her mother run the organization and was a spokesperson for MAVIS for years.
Nash couldn't know how well her family, especially her mom -- let alone her friends, her church, her fans, and the entertainment industry -- would react to the news of her new relationship. She could lose it all.
But a part of Nash didn't care what the ramifications would be. That was how in love she was. So thoroughly and totally in love -- butterflies, fireworks, every delightful cliche -- that she wanted to share it with the world. She didn't want to lose what she had, but she also wasn't willing to keep her relationship a secret, to force it to exist only behind closed doors.
Months before, Nash found herself sitting on the couch next to Jessica Betts, a singer and a close friend of many years. The night was, or at least was supposed to be, unremarkable. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary in their relationship to grab takeout and watch a movie, except at that point, newly single for the first time in almost a decade, Nash saw Betts anew. It was intoxicating.
There on the couch, she reached out and gently placed her hand on the back of her friend's neck. Betts initially freaked out. She'd assumed that Nash was 100 percent straight, just as Nash had assumed herself to be, but after a brief moment, Betts too began to see the brilliant possibilities of their future together.
Betts admits she thought rather unexpectedly, Damn. I could love again.
But potentially falling in love with such a dear friend is a big deal, no matter the gender. It's not something either of them took lightly. Nash needed some time after that night to figure out what she wanted. She promptly began ignoring all of Betts's texts to her.
"Good morning." Crickets. "Good afternoon." Crickets. "Good evening." Crickets.
Betts persisted and eventually Nash did come back around. This is a love story, after all.
"She was all I could think about," Nash recalls. "I was like, I never want to imagine a future without this being.... I don't want that."
They started small, sharing their relationship with family and friends. When friends asked how they should respond to people who might ask questions about their relationship, Nash replied, "Tell them I'm happy."
But keeping their relationship secret from the wider world still caused an inordinate amount of stress.
"When we first started dating, when no one knew, she would just cry," Betts recalls. "She would cry because it was almost as if she was not able to show her love. And we had to tell each other we loved each other in secret."
They were grocery shopping one day in the middle of lockdown when Betts heard the sudden sound of Nash's crying.
"I'm just standing in the middle of the aisle like, 'Ahhhhh!'" Nash admits, making the sound of someone stabbed in the heart. "She [Betts] comes from around the corner and said, 'What's wrong with you?' I was like, 'I just want to hold your hand in the grocery store.'"
Nash hasn't been hiding or even grappling over the years with her identity. It'd be reductive to claim this as the reason her first two marriages ended. The expanse of Nash's sexuality was a part of her, always, even if she didn't know it was there until Betts came along.
Nash says she didn't know what was going to happen when the world found out that she'd fallen in love with a woman, but that's not the same thing as being closeted. She hadn't been hiding her real desires, wasn't burying anything under the guise of heterosexuality.
"It wasn't like I was living a lie. I loved the people who I loved when I was with them. Do you understand me? I wasn't living a lie," Nash says. "And I didn't want that to be anything that was kept in the shadows or in dark corners even. So it wasn't as much about me coming out as much as it was about me coming into myself, owning that I allowed myself to not only feel what I felt but then to do something about what I felt. And then to love her enough -- and myself enough -- to be able to share our truth with the world."
Labels and declarations of identity were secondary to that which was most important: Nash wanting to feel like she had the freedom to hold the hand of the person she loves while buying groceries at the store.
Nash and Betts got engaged in the middle of July 2020, and six weeks later, after everyone was virus tested, they were married in front of 24 friends and family members. Now it was time to tell the world.
"I don't want to be outside walking down a street somewhere with this lovely thing and [have] somebody tell my story," Nash says. "Like, 'Oh, I saw Niecy Nash with a woman down at the Piggly Wiggly.'"
Two days after exchanging vows, Nash posted a photo of the two from the ceremony on Instagram, alongside the caption "Mrs. Carol Denise Betts" and the hashtag #LoveWins.
Describing what led up to that moment, the women adorably rush to finish each other's sentences. Nash recalls, "I could not wait to just--" and Betts offers "love you."
Nash clarifies, "Love you out loud. I couldn't wait."
Still, Nash acknowledged, making the leap to coming out about the relationship was scary. "I cried about it. I prayed about it. And then once we posted that picture...I felt so free."
"We jumped," Betts adds.
"We jumped," Nash echoes. "We jumped off the cliff and I felt so free."
Amid a global pandemic, during a summer that included wildfires of biblical proportion, foreign insects nicknamed "murder hornets," and a social justice reckoning where "Black Lives Matter" became an overdue rallying cry chanted across the globe, the news of their matrimony landed on the internet with the force of an earthquake. This celebration of Black queer love rippled and arrived just when we needed it most. Whether we were stuck on the frontlines, or inside and living our lives entirely online, Nash's love story provided a rare glimmer of hope during a year of endless trauma.
In some ways, it was a remarkable step: a major Black TV star coming out about her relationship with another Black woman, also a performer. In other ways, it was completely mundane. They were just a couple announcing their love and their marriage to the world.
"We do what we do," Betts explains. "We love each other. And it's bringing normalcy to a place that people still at this day and time feel really uncomfortable with. And we don't feel uncomfortable at all."
They are also working together, with Betts appearing alongside Nash as the latter hosts the reboot of Don't Forget the Lyrics! for the 2021-2022 season on Fox.
The number of out LGBTQ+ people in entertainment has exploded in recent years. Although Black women like Janelle Monae, Robin Roberts, Raven-Symone, and Wanda Sykes give us examples to celebrate, the number of visible Black queer women in the entertainment industry remains small. The number of Black queer women who are household names and in relationships with other Black women is minuscule.
Nash's marriage and public announcement will likely have a bigger impact than Nash and Betts realize, in part because they are simply two people in love. But their willingness to share their love with the world is a beacon. For many fans, the acceptance that Nash feels about herself and her relationship may be the only example they have of people who look and love just like them -- whether that person is a teenager with their first crush or a middle-aged mom like Nash, who may be wondering if it's too late to pursue her own happiness when doing so could contradict the world's expectations of her.
Nash decided that first night on the couch with Betts that she was going to be open to whatever God was sending into her life. Faith is an important aspect in each of their lives and it led Nash, at 51, to a partnership unlike any she's ever experienced before.
"When we stood in our backyard and took our vows," Nash says, "I don't think I've ever been in a relationship where I have ever felt this fully seen by my partner, and the love that we felt on that day is what I hope we are putting into the world."
"Love has no gender," Betts adds. "It has no boundaries. And a person, regardless of whatever race or sex they are, should be free enough to love who you want to love and be very unapologetic about it."
Listen to the full interview on The Advocate's interview podcast, LGBTQ&A. Available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.