Arts & Culture

Billy Dee Williams: Him/Her

By Brian Oaster

It was May of 1980 when Lando Calrissian first swaggered onto the screen, sporting a jaunty cape and his signature celestial smile. The Empire Strikes Back did something groundbreaking by giving the galaxy’s most interesting role to a Black actor. The charm Williams brought to Lando’s duplicity made him more complex and dynamic than the other characters in the original Star Wars world, many of them dime novel stock roles by way of Joseph Campbell archetypes. While other movies were killing the only Black character in the first reel, Star Wars had audiences falling in love with Williams.

And now Billy Dee Williams, the man—ahem—the person who brought Lando to life, has given us a gift. He’s revealed his gender fluidity. Speaking to Esquire, Williams referred to himself or herself with multiple pronouns. “I never tried to be anything except myself,” she said. “I think of myself as a relatively colorful character who doesn’t take himself or herself too seriously.” She elaborates: “And you see I say ‘himself’ and ‘herself,’ because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine. I’m a very soft person. I’m not afraid to show that side of myself.”

Coming from a style icon like Williams, an intergalactic ambassador of sex appeal, this statement makes waves. And all the more so considering the actor is coming up on her 83rd birthday.

Nonbinary Gender Expressions Aren’t New, They’re Just More Visible

There’s a popular myth that gender nonconformity as a lifestyle of the young and privileged. But nonbinary expressions of gender have always existed. They’ve flourished in the fringes, harbored in the counterculture, hidden in the closet, and taken root in minority communities. Black activists in particular have always had a place on the frontlines of trans rights. Black queens have set the stage in drag culture. Indigenous communities have embraced full gender spectrums and open sexuality, until colonization. Williams’ embracing of multiple pronouns is a timely reminder that nonbinary people have always been here, and are all around without anybody necessarily knowing about it. The only thing changing is visibility, and hopefully the safety to be visible.

Bears: a Love Story

Williams also said she considers some of her finest work to be in Brian’s Song. “It was a love story, really. Between two guys. Without sex,” she says. The 1971 ABC movie of the week was about two Bears (as in, players for the football team) who become roommates after one is diagnosed with terminal illness. The film is considered to be among the finest made-for-TV movies ever to be produced, and it landed Williams an Emmy nomination for her understated, tear-jerking performance. “It ended up being a kind of breakthrough in terms of racial division,” Williams says.

Lando’s Queerness Supported by Writers, Donald Glover

Back in the galaxy far, far away, Williams isn’t the only one to bring a touch of queer to the character Lando Calrissian. A writer for Solo: a Star Wars Story confirmed that young Lando was written as pansexual. Donald Glover, who played young Lando in the film, supported the idea. “How can you not be pansexual in space?” he asked. “There are so many things to have sex with!” Though there are no overt same-sex romantic exchange on screen, Lando’s omnidirectional flirting is interpretable as sexually charged, including much of his banter with Han Solo.

“There’s a fluidity to Donald and Billy Dee’s [portrayal of Lando’s] sexuality,” said Solo co-writerJonathan Kasdan continued. “I mean, I would have loved to have gotten a more explicitly LGBT character into this movie. I think it’s time, certainly, for that, and I love the fluidity ― sort of the spectrum of sexuality that Donald appeals to and that droids are a part of.”

When told about the LGBTQ edge Glover brought to the character, Williams said “Really?” and called him “brilliant.”

In a time when so many of prominent figures are revealing themselves to be predators in disguise, homophobes or TERFs, what a joyous relief it is to have the wholesome support of a legend like Ms. Billy Dee Williams.


Brian Oaster

Brian is a Choctaw writer in the Pacific Northwest.