It’s a chilly evening in New York City when we get a message from Jae, out star of fyi’s #BlackLove docu-series, that she’s held up at the office but making her way uptown. She’s picked the perfect gem in her Harlem neighborhood for our interview—Chéri, a cozy French restaurant that has more the feel of dining in someone’s home. Soon, Jae struts in, greets the team, and orders the sangria, which she swears by. After a round of rapid-fire questions to break the ice (not that we need them…Jae welcomes us with a warm hug and is all smiles from the get-go), we launch into an honest and laughter-filled conversation about finding love, finding herself, and why Black women aren’t broken.
ELIXHER: Coffee or tea?
JAE: Tea. Chai tea.
ELIXHER: Wine or cocktail?
ELIXHER: Day or night?
ELIXHER: Beach or city?
ELIXHER: East coast or west coast?
JAE: East coast.
ELIXHER: Breakfast or dinner?
ELIXHER: Flats or heels?
JAE: Heels, without a question. [Laughs.]
ELIXHER: You’re one of the five women #BlackLove follows dating in New York City. You and your cast mates go through coaching, attend workshops, and go on blind dates. What’s been the biggest surprise on the show?
JAE: The experience has been really surreal. It’s one thing to say, Okay, I’m going to do this show on love and have the opportunity to just sit and meditate on how I think about relationships with some girlfriends. But then there’s that whole public therapy aspect of it that is really the most frightening part. You’re being asked to delve into some really intimate things and then you’re having these experts tell you what you’re doing wrong. It’s already challenging to go through therapy; it’s already challenging to put yourself through self-work, and then you’re doing it in the public eye.
ELIXHER: Did they set it up that way when you signed up to do the show?
JAE: The way I understood the project when I signed on to it was that it’s going be like a reality TV version of Girlfriends or Sex in the City if they were going through these self-improvement workshops. And that’s pretty much what it is. The other aspect of it is that I have a different idea about relationships than the other women on the show and so I felt like I needed to constantly defend or justify my queer point of view. I am a queer woman and I’m saying I’m not sure I’m coming into this with the idea that I want marriage in the end, at least not right now. And the other women are in other places—some of them want marriage right now, some of them don’t. I often felt that my age and the fact that I was not sure about the whole settling down aspect was being pathologized a little bit.
ELIXHER: How has being queer and non-monogamous added to your relationships?
JAE: The ability to communicate your feelings and be honest from the beginning about who you are and what you want, that’s something that’s extremely important. That’s something that I think thrives within an open relationship. One of the main things I’ve found in the relationships that I’ve had was that I felt extremely independent and supported because if I say from the beginning that this is who I am and what I want and you sign up for it, then nine times out of ten, you’re probably on the same wavelength. I don’t get the sense of possessiveness.
There’s also a lot of self-work that happens within open relationships. You find yourself insecure about someone’s relationship with another person. You can’t push that onto the other person, right? Because you signed up for it. So then it’s up to you to deal with it within yourself. What is it about this situation that is making me feel insecure and jealous? There’s a lot of growth that happens. At the same time, it’s challenging. I’m not saying they’re perfect relationships. But just like traditional relationships can be flawed deeply, so can more non-traditional relationships.
ELIXHER: How has the self-work that you’ve done during the show impacted your relationships and your understanding of yourself?
JAE: If I’m honest, after constantly being questioned and told my ideas about relationships were problematic or flawed or coming from a place of hurt, I started questioning if there was something wrong with me or with what I want. I also had to question if I was just being rebellious from a need to prove that my desires weren’t from a place of hurt.
ELIXHER: In terms of the visibility of bi women of color, do you feel like there’s been a shift in bi acceptance as the media landscape changes?
JAE: One thing I can say about the show that I appreciate is the fact that there is visibility and how they normalized it. This week I went on a date with Nneka, next week I’m on a date with a guy. They’ve done a really good job letting it flow and be natural that way. But it’s not perfect and that’s a reflection on society as a whole.
Honestly, in my experience, I have been very lucky that the people I’ve surrounded myself with have always supported me—my parents support me, my close friends support me. I’ve always been part of the brown queer community; I’ve always felt kind of in this bubble and insulated a little bit. With time and more media, resources, community organizations and publications that are constantly providing a place for LGBTQ stories, the landscape has no choice but to change and evolve.
ELIXHER: What has been the response from folks to your being on the show?
JAE: On social media, I get a lot of everything: “I’m really happy to see your story.” I also get: “That chick is just crazy.” Or: “She just wants her cake and to eat it too.” For me, it’s all about creating new representations about what it means to be not just a queer person but also a woman, and a brown woman at that—and then a dark-skinned brown woman. [Laughs.] That’s like major. There’s this horrible gender dichotomy that’s like if you are a woman who isn’t chasing a ring, then what are you doing? I’m exhausted with the narrative, especially within Black communities, that we choose love or we choose career. I believe we can have both and, in fact, I’m trying to shape my own vision of what that would look like, so fucking let me. [Laughs.]
That’s one thing we as a society need to work on: allowing women space and flexibility to be everything as we do with men. The conversation is never about a man giving up his chance at love and a family when he decides to put his career first in his twenties or thirties. A part of it is owning your own story and not rehashing the same narratives over and over again within your own head. I’ve noticed recently that the conversation around the show is: Why are Black women undesirable or why are Black women having such a hard time finding a husband? Overall, society is so not use to seeing diversity among Black women and they’re not used to seeing Black women get along within our differences like we do on #BlackLove. They’ve tried so hard to find some way to link us, so they’ve just tacked on that same narrative that we’re undesirable and that’s actually not what our show is about at all.
ELIXHER: Can you talk a bit about being a queer woman of color in tech?
JAE: Working in tech is extremely rewarding. It’s challenging because of a clear lack of women and people of color, but I chose to enter into the realm precisely because of that. I think it’s a superpower—being able to program and build something that is actually used and you can see the tangible results of hard work. That’s super cool and for me, creating new representation is a major part of my life—not just in the media but creating it in real life, in three dimensional space. I’ve always been into the humanities. I’ve always been very right brain and terrified of anything math or sciencey and so, in part, I did it to challenge myself and prove to myself I could do this. So, yea, I did it.
ELIXHER: Where are you now on your journey? How would you now describe some of your #relationshipgoals?
JAE: For me, I’ve come to the conclusion that my ideal relationship may not be an open relationship but may be one where I feel free to communicate everything that I need to communicate, I feel accepted for who I am, and I feel a clear sense of self and independence within the partnership. Oftentimes, in my past relationships, I was expected to just settle down and my life was all about the other person and I’m just not here for that. That sense of independence is extremely important. I’m still trying to decide whether commitment is in the cards for me right now.
ELIXHER: What can we expect to see next from Jae on the show? We want some tea. [Laughs.]
JAE: You don’t need any tea, you can have some sangria. [Laughs.]
I’m just working on admitting to myself some fears that I have around relationships and love, reconciling the idea of childhood trauma with challenges that might stem from that. Part of me wants to be rebellious and be like, No, fuck you guys. Don’t just jump to the conclusion that the fact that I may not want to settle down is because of childhood trauma. It could be but that shouldn’t be the default conversation. For me, I’m constantly trying to make sure I’m not just rebelling against that idea but also allow myself to delve into why I feel this way about relationships. Part of me is like, What the hell? No one is saying to Jimmy over here who doesn’t want to settle down, “Do you have deep childhood traumas?”
We all have issues and who knows how all of our many issues growing up in this country affects us. But don’t make that the constant narrative around Black women that we’re broken and need fixing.