Actress Sarah Michelle Gellar wanted to know what being the LGBTQ community’s ‘mother’ meant.
The crowd laughed and chanted ‘mother!’ at Gellar, who earlier this year sat down in front of the audience in London for the live interview portion at the UK screening of her new drama series Wolf Pack.
When she turned the interview towards the crowd and asked them to clarify what it takes to be a ‘mother’—after being labeled as one for a long time—Sam Damshenas, entertainment editor of GAY TIMES Magazine, took the mic and said “When the gays love a woman, we think: Mother. You are mother.”
Gellar is one of many celebrities that LGBTQ folks crown ‘mother’ when they find solace in entertainment icons that are allies to queer and trans people. According to Pink News, ‘motherness’ goes beyond the label of having given birth to a child; being ‘mother’ means being an “icon. It means legend. It means star. It means any [woman] who has stuck it to the man, given the gays a shoutout, [or] appeared in an iconic piece of media.”
Having starred in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Scooby-Doo amongst many other projects, Gellar’s range in her acting garnered her icon status for many queer and trans viewers. “I’m honored to be considered any part of [the LGBTQ] community because I certainly didn’t earn my stripes,” she told People Magazine, acknowledging that she herself is not LGBTQ but feels closely tied to her fans who are. “I’m glad to have one more community that accepts me and loves me for me.”
How the ballroom scene birthed the term ‘Mother’
‘Mother’ and queer and trans people’s connection to non-biological mother figures dates back to how the ballroom scene reinvented the notion of family. Originally born out of New York City’s Black and Latinx LGBTQ communities in the 1970s, ballroom is a queer subculture whose inventive family structure challenged the idea of nuclear families, wherein a family strictly consists of a heterosexual mother, father and their kids. In ballroom, being a ‘mother’ does not simply mean being an iconic figure to the LGBTQ community; being a ‘mother’ in ballroom is real, hard work with real relationships with their chosen children.
A ‘mother’ is responsible for leading their families—also known as houses—to victory in ball competitions as well as their success in everyday life. Unlike ‘mothers’ in Hollywood, ballroom ‘mothers’ oftentimes receive their flowers in times they are successful. “A lot of people see the celebratory part [of being a ‘mother’],” LeeLee James, ‘mother’ of the Colorado chapter of the Royal House of LaBeija, told The Washington Post. “But there’s a lot of pain and trauma that is behind a lot of what people are glamorizing, and it is a disservice to just pick and choose the parts of ballroom culture that people find beautiful while ignoring the histories of pain that have led to that culture being the beautiful thing that it is.”
In ballroom, the role of ‘mother’ defies gender, with queer men taking on ‘mother’ roles. In the infamous 1990 documentary Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston, Livingston documented the underground yet dazzling ballroom scene in 1980s New York City. In one scene, Willi Ninja, a legendary member of the ballroom community and founder of the House of Ninja, explains to Livingston why gender isn’t a qualification of being ‘mother’.
“I am the mother of the House of Ninja because they say I’m the best voguer out [here],” he said. “To be the mother of the house you, have to have the most power [and] take a real family. It’s the mother that’s the hardest worker, and mother gets the most respect.”
For Aisha Diori, being a house ‘mother’ offered her an outlet to share the love she did not feel from her own biological mother. “I didn’t seek out motherhood; it found me,” Diori told Ebony Magazine, who was the mother of the House of Prodigy at the time. “The [ballroom] scene shatters the norms of family in many ways because it proves that blood is not thicker than water.”
Ballroom and ‘motherhood’ showed Diori that family support can come in different ways, even in moments when she failed as a ‘mother’. She believed that her failures weren’t her children’s failures, and that their successes weren’t her success either. “I am just here to give them the right resources to help them facilitate healthy and productive choices,” she said.
Why LGBTQ youth need supportive parental figures
Queer and trans youth are currently facing the brunt of anti-LGBTQ bills, from the banning of attending drag shows, losing access to gender-affirming care, and even the prohibition of discussing LGBTQ matter in schools. In a time where the government, healthcare and schools are at odds with LGBTQ youth, their need for a supportive family is more necessary than ever.
LGBTQ+ youth are less likely to feel depressed with parental support, according to a recent study by the University of Texas at Austin in the Child Development journal. One key element in the study was whether the LGBTQ children were out to their families.
“Our research showed that those who felt greater social support from parents tended to have fewer depressive symptoms, whereas those who reported greater psychological control from parents had more depressive symptoms,” one of the researchers Amy McCurdy, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Texas at Austin told NPR. “For youth whose parents did not know their LGBTQ identities, having a combination of high psychological control and high social support from parents was linked with greater depressive symptoms.”
For those who don’t have access to a ballroom family or don’t have the proper support from their biological family, it is no surprise that LGBTQ people turn to celebrities to project their own ‘mother’ figures.
Who else is ‘Mother’?
When she recently won RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 15, Sasha Colby, who is an openly trans Hawaiian drag queen, was already a beloved trans icon prior to the reality competition. Having won the crown in 2012 for Miss Continental, one of the largest drag queen pageants, Colby came into Drag Race as ‘mother’ to many—her fellow cast members, included. Joey Nolfi, RuPaul’s Drag Race reporter at Entertainment Weekly, took it to Twitter and said, “Sasha Colby is our nation’s Founding Mother of being hot.”
Colby is the ‘mother’ of her own House of Colby, echoing the ballroom structure of chosen family, as many drag queens have done. Her trans drag daughter Kerri Colby even called her ‘mother’ in a video message, saying “[I bet] you’re everyone’s mother [on the show], ain’t you girl?” Despite winning the season and being the reigning queen, Colby is still ‘mother.’ She herself agrees.
Despite having played a mother in Crazy Rich Asians, Michelle Yeoh became the LGBTQ community’s ‘mother’ when she played Evelyn Wang in Everything Everywhere All At Once. In the film, which she won an Oscar for, she contemplates what kind of mother she wants to be to her queer daughter. Twitter user @t_angsty said, “Michelle Yeoh is my mother. She is everyone’s mother […] If you are Asian and queer, you need to go watch Everything Everywhere All At Once. Everyone say, ‘Thank you, Michelle Yeoh.”
On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Yeoh shared her complicated feelings about representation of Asians in Hollywood. “[I] fluctuate between feeling very overwhelmed with joy but thinking ‘How could I be the first?’ because I know so many [Asian] actors,” Yeoh said. In response to the interview, Twitter user @hugeasmammoth_ said, “And this is why Michelle Yeoh is mother.”
In some cases, ‘mother’ actually means being a mother. For actress Gabrielle Union, her vocal activism for her trans stepdaughter Zaya Wade has granted her ‘mother’ status. Supporting Wade in her transition after publicly coming out at the age of 12, Union taught her how to love herself.
“[She taught me that] beauty is in yourself,” Wade said in a profile for Dazed Magazine. “It’s about being you and expressing yourself the way you want to. She tries to teach me that beauty standards are arbitrary and that they don’t mean anything. They don’t matter anymore; what people thought was the standard is not. And just that being myself is the best technique out there.”
‘Mother’ knows best
In a film project for i-D highlighting legendary mothers of ballroom, trans ballroom icon Sinia Alaïa shared her story of entering the ballroom community for the first time at twelve years old. After being turned away and encouraged to continue school, she returned to the ballroom scene a few years later and became a part of the House of Alaïa. Decades later, she wound up becoming the ‘mother’ of the House of Alaïa. For her, being a ‘mother’ is essential to the survival of generations of LGBTQ chosen families.
“The things that I’ve been through have created the treasure chest that I’ve become,” she told i-D. “To not give these jewels to the babies and the generations to come, it’s like... once I’m gone, that treasure is buried, and no one has those gems. It’s important to give your lessons to the youth because you make life better for them and for generations to come.”