More Than One Way to be Queer

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

This last summer, Season 3 of Netflix’s teen comedy Never Have I Ever premiered. Created by Mindy Kaling, the show has quickly become a fan favorite with youth and beyond. The show centers around an Indian American teen (Devi) and her family and friends as she wades through the intricacies of puberty, high school pressures, and love, while also balancing her family’s culture with her US identity. With a special focus on racial diversity and sexual exploration, the show’s success reflects what audiences want to see – a collage of true American diversity with a helping of dramedy, hold the pomp and circumstance.  The show is a perfect reboot of the coming-of-age stories of the 80s with the present-day actuality of diversity in the 2020s.

Standout actor Lee Rodriguez portrays Fabiola, Devi’s best friend, who is enjoying her own character arc as we’ve seen her character blossom from robot obsessed nerd to a compassionate and strong girl battling her own struggles with coming out, all the while crushing on a fellow student. The media was immediately swept up by Lee’s character story, creating an interesting flurry of questions and assumptions. And while she celebrates her queer sexuality, she is not defined by it.

I get the question a lot, “Are you really gay?” For a while it made me question, do I not look like I’m a queer person? What about me doesn’t read gay? That’s something I just had to be okay with. I’m always going to get the question. I know who I am. I know what I like. I guess it just comes along with the job – especially depending on the kind of story you’re telling. There are so many things I focus on rather than my sexuality. It’s an important part of me and a part that I freely share, but I just have so many interests.

Once her queerness became a focal point, headlines started to include mention of her sexuality. With her take on being labeled, does she think the constant mention of an actor’s sexuality helps or hinders the progression of LGBTQ representation?

I think it’s somewhere in the middle. It helps because, through Fabiola, so many queer, young people have been inspired to come out because of her story. I do think it is important and we should continue to talk about it and have these storylines. But it goes beyond coming out and there’s more to a person than their coming out story. That’s just life, everything goes beyond just one piece of you.

I feel like I do create space to be able to talk about other things. In a way, I am similar to Fabiola in the sense that she’s not really hip with pop culture and queer culture. I always like to talk about that as well – there’s no one way to be queer. You can really do whatever you want. You can talk about it as much or as little as you want.

Lee publicly came out on National Coming Out Day two years ago. While it was news to Hollywood, it wasn’t to her immediate family. Even with progression in LGBTQ representation, certain cultures, such as Lee’s heritage of both Mexican American and African American, can be more resistant to the news.

It wasn’t like I discovered my sexuality when I publicly came out. It was way before then. My family knew about it way before then as well. But to come out publicly, I knew that all of my family would see, and they would have questions. I think my family members who do agree and support me are people that I constantly stay in touch with and care about and value. And the ones who don’t, I don’t really talk to them.

Lee’s view of Hollywood is unique. While enjoying a lead role in a major network show, she is also representing not only queer actors, but Latinx and Black minority groups as well. Is racial diversity in Hollywood really getting better from her standpoint?

I think it is starting to become more of a part of the conversation. I feel like it’s being talked about a lot more, which is cool.  Even audition-wise, I’ve been starting to notice that I’m going out more for Afro-Latina roles, which I think is awesome that it’s a category now. So, yeah, I think there’s some progress.

Celebrating other minority groups, Never Have I Ever features a lead female protagonist, her female friends, her cousin who is fighting the norms of arranged Indian marriages, and a single mom struggling to keep some sanity in the household – all created by Mindy Kaling, one of the most powerful female voices in comedy today.

This show highlights women supporting women. I mean, there are so many storylines like Devi and Aneesa fighting over a boy. Usually, this would result in two women hating each other. But not here. They were still able to be friends and support each other, which I think is cool. It’s important to show healthy female friendships and just supporting each other and calling each other out when you’re wrong. This show does a great portrayal of female friendships.

A relative newbie to TV, Lee started performing on stage when she was in 8th grade at her performing arts junior and senior high school. She listed herself with a talent agency and shortly thereafter appeared in her first TV show Class of Lies, then Grown-ish, to her current role in Never Have I Ever. During the three seasons as Fabiola, Lee has evolved.

Being a part of the show has allowed me to grow professionally as an actor as well as build friendships and connect with a lot of people through Fabiola’s storyline, which has been so awesome and so inspiring.

Lee’s character is at times nervous but always kind, caring, and intelligent. She is skilled in robotics and science, just not in the gay dating scene. Often presented as a tomboy of sorts, she still isn’t pigeonholed into an assumptive gay stereotype. How is Lee most unlike her character, how is she most like her?

I mean, our style is probably the main thing. It’s so funny because I get the comment all the time, “Oh, you look nothing like Fabiola. You act nothing like Fabiola in real life!” And I’m just like, still me y’all, still the same person. But I totally get it, style-wise, completely different. We’re also not like each other through robotics. I don’t know anything about robotics. I’m not good at it. But we’re both queer, we’re both a good friend, and can be awkward at times.

The writers have done such a great job at telling Fabiola’s story. I find myself relating to the character or realizing, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know I felt this way.” It’s really cool to have those moments of realization and bring them to the character and find out other people think, “Oh yeah, I kind of feel this way as well.” The writers are just really on it and brilliant.

Another aspect of Lee’s life that holds her passion is her music. As a young child, she reveled in the world of music and will soon put out her first EP.

I love writing music because it’s more of me and my own thoughts and I control the narrative. I hear an instrument, like someone playing guitar, or myself playing the guitar, then I create a melody and then lyrics. That’s usually how my process goes. It’s fun and creatively fulfilling.

Her inspiration for music would come from the unlikeliest of places.

This is going to be so funny, but I started to really love music was when I was nine or 10 and I would watch Hannah Montana. She lived the best of both worlds. And for some reason, that just really inspired me to want to do music. Hannah Montana was my musical awakening, I guess you could say.

Looking forward, Lee is equally interested in pursuing horror and drama, as well as continuing in comedy. She wants her passion for acting to fill many different spaces and genres. If her short time on-screen has been any indication, the sky’s the limit. The show has become a fan favorite, Lee has become a fan favorite. Her social media continues to climb as she spreads messages of equality and activism for LGBTQ causes, the hungry, and climate awareness. Her message to her fans?

Thank you for supporting me and believing in me and seeing me grow. I hope that I’m doing some sort of good and spreading a good message.

You can follow Lee on IG: @LeeRodriguez

Last modified: October 3, 2022