The Lasting Lesbian Power of Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black will go down in history as a watershed moment in lesbian representation. Whatever its faults, the Netflix drama was Sapphic smorgasbord of delight from start to finish. The irresistible smile of Poussey Washington, Nicky Nichols as Litchfield’s Lothario, Big Boo’s wisecracking and sage advice, Daddy’s swagger, and even the never-ending dyke drama between Piper and Alex – they will always hold a special place in my heart. Because OITNB is the reason I decided to come out.

I was 20 years old when the first season of Orange is the New Black dropped. And still very much a closet case. Having furtively worked my way through every episode of the L Word while my grandparents went to church each Sunday, I was ready to binge some more lesbian content on the DL. True to stereotype, a series set in a women’s prison filled the void in my gay little heart. Watching Alex beckon Piper to come closer, there was an unmistakable throb in my chest cavity – and somewhere lower, too.


Although the Ross and Rachel nature of this relationship eventually got tired, there was something magical about the way Piper and Alex were drawn to one another. No matter what obstacles came between them, the force of their attraction pulled them together like magnets. Piper/Alex felt inevitable. And at that point I’d never read or watched any stories where lesbian love was positioned as inevitable. Since the heady days of pulp fiction, same-sex relationships were framed as nothing more than an immature detour on the path to heterosexuality.

Piper’s rejection of Larry – and her ultimate commitment to building an ordinary, steady life with Alex – completely subverted the expectations heterocentric media places on bisexual characters and, more generally, relationships between women. But, long before the finale, it was clear that her feelings for Alex were a meaningful and even defining aspect of Piper’s life. It was one of the very few times I’d seen love between women taken that seriously on-screen. And that got me thinking. Plus, the sex scenes were hot.

Watching Piper come to terms with her sexuality, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own. At 13 I had come out to my mother as bisexual, picking at the cuff of my Funky Friends pyjamas rather than looking her in the eye. An out lesbian, she took it in her stride. Besides, I’m pretty sure my obsession with Miranda Priestly had given the game away when we went to see The Devil Wears Prada. It’s worth noting that bisexuality is a valid orientation in its own right, not a stepping stone on the path to Dykesville. Still, I began to realise that it didn’t fit my own desires or hopes for the future.

Inspired by OITNB, I admitted to myself that I didn’t feel anything remotely like attraction towards men. And I certainly didn’t want to spend any part of my future in a relationship with one. The clincher came when I caught myself thinking that a prison wife would be a definite silver lining to incarceration.

I’ve got to confess, it might be one of the stupidest things I’ve ever thought. Despite the Sapphic shenanigans of various Litchfield inmates, federal prison is not some lesbian holiday camp. Race, class, and migration status all play a role in determining who is criminalised in the United States. Prison a la Orange is the New Black – where inmates carry phones largely without consequence and even build their own secret dens to evade guard detection – is a far cry from reality. And yet this naïve moment of speculation was what led me to come out as a lesbian. I thought to myself: if you want a life with a woman so much, why not just admit it?

A lifetime of Catholic conditioning had left me with the impression that lesbian desires and relationships were somehow shameful. OITNB got me to let go of internalised homophobia and confront the truth: my cherished hope for the future was to make a long-term life with another woman.

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Through Poussey Washington, Orange is the New Black provided me with something television never had: a positive Black lesbian role model. Okay, there’s Bette Porter in the L Word. But she’s controlling, white passing, and raped Tina at the end of season one – a horrific scene that was never fully addressed. Poussey was a charming, considerate lover and – a definite plus point – didn’t violate anybody.

Although her sudden death was trauma porn geared towards liberal white viewers, the memory of P lives on. Orange faded to black with the announcement of a real-life Poussey Washington Fund, helping newly released women find financial security to break the cycle of poverty and prison.

And in real life Samira Wiley demonstrated the same lesbian appeal as her beloved character. Lauren Morelli – then one of the OITNB writers – fell in love with Samira. It was her first same-sex relationship. The two have since married. A true testament to the lasting lesbian power of Orange is the New Black.