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Griffin Matthews Is Fighting 'Butch' Tyranny as a Black Gay Actor

Griffin Matthews

The Dear White People and The Flight Attendant star discusses pushing back against prejudice in his youth and Hollywood.

The following interview is part of The Advocate's "Rocky Road" series, which is inspired by the upcoming Amazon Prime Video film Uncle Frank, out November 25, and its themes of family acceptance, coming out, and revelatory road trips.

It was a rocky road for America this year. The summer saw the historic uprising of Black Lives Matter, in which millions took to the streets to protest systemic racism.

Amidst the protests, Dear White People, a Netflix series that explores racial bias at an Ivy League school, surged in viewership. The show centers on Black students as they tackle issues like police brutality, cultural appropriation, and privilege -- a microcosm of what is happening in America.

On the Justin Simien-created show, Griffin Matthews portrays D'Unte, an unapologetically gay character who helps one of the leads, Lionel, navigate queer life at Winchester University. It was a breakout role, which demonstrated to an international audience that a Black queer character can embrace his femininity as a strength.

Above: The Advocate's interview with Griffin Matthews.

Matthews felt this impact firsthand as he received social media love from younger fans who found their experiences reflected through D'Unte. "To think about liberating kids through a TV series -- especially now because we can all be together and to know that there are people in quarantine watching here --while people are getting lessons on race and sexuality and freedom? It really it's moving for me," Matthews said.

D'Unte, with his Pride and crop-top wardrobe, has been a role model for Matthews as well. The actor, now 38, was 23 when he came out to his mother. At first, she was "shocked." Then, she revealed to him that when he was 2 years old, she had taken him to a therapist.

"The therapist said to me there's nothing wrong with him, let him be himself," she recounted to her son. Her response was an affirming one for Matthews.

"This is not something that I came up with in college because I went to drama school," he realized. "I've always been like this. And so I think that was the start of me really ... accepting that I've been told some lies about myself through religion" and society.

Now, he talks with his family every week on Zoom. "We are having some of the most intense family conversations we've ever had because of everything that's going on in the world, including about my childhood and my sexuality and what I went through in school," Matthews said. "I don't think my parents, they had not really understood what I went through in high school, being Black and gay."

And Matthews is not talking about blatant bullying necessarily, like being beaten up in the bathroom. He referenced the million different ways LGBTQ+ people are repressed, like how he and a group of friends from jazz choir were all closeted in high school. It took growing up for them to realize their shared connection.

"You're in puberty, and you're sitting next to boys and everyone's trying to be butch. And then like, you know, cut to five years later, we're all out," he said, adding, "I had to take girls to my dances when I wanted to take boys." And that baggage carries to adulthood -- particularly the pressure to act butch.

"You're playing catch up and you're trying to accept yourself and get muscles," said Matthews, who found himself trying to overcome arrested development in his 20s while resisting the pressure to conform to a supposed ideal.

His advice to others going through a similar journey is simply to relax. "Be," he said. "Just breathe and be and be accepted."

Community is also essential. Attending Carnegie Mellon University's prestigious drama department helped Matthews find other "freak show kids" who aided him in his coming-out process. "I think my classmates, really, really became my teachers," he said, pointing in particular to Leslie Odom Jr. and Josh Gad. Billy Porter was also an inspiration as a teacher during his first semester. "He was like, you're enough. Do you. Do it just like that!"

The process of expanding his circle is ongoing. "I keep feeling like I picked up more found family as you go, which is beautiful and I encourage it. Never stop finding your family," he advised.

Now, as a working actor, Matthews has encountered some recurring themes from his earlier years. "I've done many TV shows and I still have to deal with butchness, and it drives me insane that we are still doing it," said Matthews. "I wish that we could push the narrative of what gay men, Black gay men, sound like, walk like, talk like."

Dear White People has offered a salve to that butch culture -- and a reason to hope. "Do I think that Hollywood has made progress? I do. I think there are many, many, many more steps forward. And I pray that I'm a part of those steps," Matthews said. "I don't want to be the only D'Unte. There better be many many more behind."

Matthews also praised his upcoming role of Shane in The Flight Attendant, the upcoming HBO Max murder-mystery miniseries starring Kaley Cuoco, as being deliciously subversive. Plus, he got to visit Rome, New York, and Thailand for filming before international borders closed this year. "I'm just so grateful that I got a chance to have that last hurrah," he said.

In addition to having a Hollywood career, Matthews is married with two kids. Is this a reality he ever envisioned when he struggled with his sexuality in his youth? "Of course I imagined that. Artists do nothing but sit around and think," he responded. "The question is, can you get it? And what I learned inside of ... that question, is that it takes communities to help people to get it, right. It's hard to get it by yourself. You need your found family, you need communities, you need policies, you need government to fix that dirty policy over there so you can get it."

"Keep the dream going because the dream will push the reality," he advised. But Matthews also warned against losing sight of one's accomplishments by comparing them to others. "Once you hit your dream, you'd better acknowledge your dream, acknowledge the moments of joy in your life."

As Thanksgiving approaches, Matthews is looking forward to more moments of joy with his family, which also includes a dog and multiple chickens (who will certainly be thankful for the turkey). Matthews, whose birthday falls on Christmas, also recalled with a laugh his mother's tradition of baking a cake that began with "Happy birthday, Jesus" before his own name. Since this cake is usually inedible to the lactose-intolerant Matthews, his husband will make a vegan cake that prioritizes his name.

"We're a beautiful, beautiful mess and so we will be doing more mess this year I have no doubt," he said of his family gatherings, be they in Zoom or in person. "That's America."

Watch the full interview with Matthews above. And don't miss Uncle Frank, a new Amazon Prime Video film by Alan Ball premiering November 25, which also addresses these themes of family and the "rocky road" toward acceptance and self-acceptance.

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