“You Are Not Alone”
Shonda Rhimes at The Human Rights Campaign Gala in Los Angeles, 2015
I have been a writer since before I could spell.
I used to dictate stories into a tape recorder with my sister Sandie. Then I tried to get my mother to type them up. I was maybe 3. And when I learned to spell…writing opened worlds.
Nothing else provides that singular hum in my brain, that special trip to the imagination. Writing was…well, for me it was like sitting down at a piano for the first time and realizing that I always knew how to play. Writing was my melody. Writing was who I was. Writing was ME.
I spent my school days writing in journals. I still have them. Little fabric covered books, frayed and fading. They’re boxed up in my attic — about 20 of them, I think.
Little books filled with hopes and dreams and stories and pain.
Let me describe myself as a kid: highly intelligent, way too chubby, incredibly sensitive, nerdy and painfully shy. I wore coke bottle thick glasses. Two corn row braids traveled down the sides of my skull in a way that was just not pretty on me. And here’s the kicker — I was often the only black girl in my class.
I did not have friends.
No one is meaner than a pack of human beings faced with someone who is different.
I was very much alone.
I created friends. I named them and wrote every detail about them. I gave them stories and homes and families. I wrote about their parties and their dates and their friendships and their lives and they were so very real to me that —
You see, Shondaland, the imaginary land of Shonda, has existed since I was 11 years old.
I built it in my mind as a place to hold my stories. A safe place. A space for my characters to exist. A space for ME to exist. Until I could get the hell out of being a teenager and could run out into the world and be myself.
Less isolated, less marginalized, less invisible in the eyes of my peers.
Until I could find my people in the real world.
I don’t know if anyone has noticed but I only ever write about one thing: being alone. The fear of being alone, the desire to not be alone, the attempts we make to find our person, to keep our person, to convince our person to not leave us alone, the joy of being with our person and thus no longer alone, the devastation of being left alone.
The need to hear the words: You are not alone.
The fundamental human need for one human being to hear another human being say to them: “You are not alone. You are seen. I am with you. You are not alone.”
I get asked a lot by reporters and tweeters why I am so invested in “diversity” on television. “Why is it so important to have diversity on TV?” they say. “Why is it so challenging to have diversity?” “Why does Cyrus need to be gay?”
I really hate the word “diversity”. It suggests something…other. As if it is something…special. Or rare.
As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV.
I have a different word: NORMALIZING.
I’m normalizing TV.
I am making TV look like the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50% of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL.
I am NORMALIZING television.
You should get to turn on the TV and see your tribe. And your tribe can be any kind of person, any one you identify with, anyone who feels like you, who feels like home, who feels like truth. You should get to turn on the TV and see your tribe, see your people, someone like you out there, existing. So that you know on your darkest day that when you run (metaphorically or physically RUN), there is somewhere, someone, to run TO. Your tribe is waiting for you.
You are not alone.
The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because, perhaps then, they will learn from them.
Perhaps then, they will not isolate them.
Perhaps they will even come to recognize themselves in them.
Perhaps they will even learn to love them.
I think that when you turn on the television and you see love, from anyone, with anyone, to anyone — real love — a service has been done for you. Your heart has somehow been expanded, your mind has somehow grown. Your soul has been opened a little more. You’ve experienced something.
The very idea that love exists, that it is possible, that one can have a “person”…
You are not alone.
Hate diminishes, love expands.
I do a lot of talking in my Writers Rooms about how images matter. The images you see on television matter. They tell you about the world. They tell you who you are. What the world is like. They shape you. We all know this. There have been studies.
So if you never see a Cyrus Beene on TV, ever? An older, bad ass, take no prisoners, Republican, conservative, Rumsfeld-ian gay man who loved his husband James so deeply and tried desperately not to kill him…
If you never see James dragging Cyrus into the 21st century…
If you never see young Connor Walsh on How To Get Away Murder getting to have the same kind of slutty dating life we’ve seen straight characters have on TV season after season after season…
If you never see Erica Hahn exuberantly give what’s become known as the Leaves on Trees monologue telling Callie that she’s realized she is a lesbian…
If you never see openly bisexual Callie Torres stare her father down and holler (my favorite line ever) “You can’t pray away the gay!!!” at him…
If you never see a transgender character on TV have family, understanding, a Dr. Bailey to love and support her…
If you never see any of those people on TV…What do you learn about your importance in the fabric of society? What do straight people learn? What does that tell young people? Where does that leave them? Where does that leave any of us?
I get letters and tweets and people coming up to me on the street. Telling me so many incredible stories. The dad telling me about how something he saw on one of my shows gave him a way to understand his son when he came out. Or the teenagers, all the teenagers man, who tell me they learned the language to talk to their parents about being gay or lesbian. The teenage girls who have found a community of peers and support on line because of the Callie Arizona relationship — Calzona. I get story after story.
There were times in my youth when writing those stories in Shondaland quite literally saved my life. And now I get kids telling me it quite literally saves theirs. That is beyond humbling.
And every single time it comes down to one thing.
You are not alone.
Nobody should be alone.
So. I write.
We are only on the edge of change. There is still so much more work to be done. I’m going to accept this award as encouragement and not as accomplishment. I don’t think the job is finished yet.
I have a lot of lesbian and gay friends whose marriages I would like to see recognized in every single state in this country. And there are so many minds and laws that still need to be changed. I want to applaud the HRC for their work in fighting so hard for equality and the end of discrimination of all kinds for the LGBT community. The work you are doing is tremendous.
Writing is no different for me now than it was when I was talking into that tape recorder with my sister Sandie. Yes, it’s on a larger landscape. Yes, it’s all of Thursday night. Yes, I am less shy, arguably less nerdy, clearly better styled. The glasses have been replaced by contacts.
I am still often the only black girl in my class. (Look around you.)
But here’s the thing: I am no longer alone.
The characters that lived inside my head are on the television screen. They are not just my friends now — they are also everyone else’s. Shondaland is open and, if I am doing my job right, there will be a person here for everyone.
I want to say how much I appreciate all of the support and kindness I have received. A lot of people out there have been quick to come to my defense in wonderful ways. Especially after I tweet angry. I’m very proud of what I said to the person who tweeted me the nasty comment about “gay scenes”. I would say Bye Felicia again and again. But sometimes I wish I thought first and tweeted later — because think of what an even more awesome thing I COULD have said with a rewrite and some notes?! But seriously, still, I am eternally grateful.
Finally I want to say this: if you are a kid and you are out there and you are chubby and not so cute and nerdy and shy and invisible and in pain, whatever your race, whatever your gender, whatever your sexual orientation, I’m standing here to tell you: you are not alone.
Your tribe of people, they are out there in the world. Waiting for you.
How do I know this for sure? Because mine? Are sitting at that table right over there.