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Character Profiles

Sense8 | Lito and Nomi: Sensates and Queer Struggle

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In 2015, Netflix premiered a new sci-fi show from the Wachowskis, famous for The Matrix, and J. Michael Straczynski: Sense8. Its premise focused on eight strangers scattered across the globe who develop a new ability to connect their thoughts and feelings to one another. They have become a new type of human known as homo sensorium, or sensates. 

A few good-to-knows about how sensates work: each sensate is part of a cluster of seven other people. Sensates can feel and communicate with other members of their cluster without speaking; they call it “visiting.” They can also adopt one another’s skills, whether it’s speaking French or fighting like Jean-Claude Van Damme. If a sensate makes eye contact with another homo sensorium, they are also connected. 

There are also norms and rules around interacting with other sensates. As the cluster of eight people we follow quickly discover, sensates don’t announce their abilities, they avoid crowds. They take pills that stop them from communicating with other people, even within their own cluster. If they’re visiting with people outside of their cluster, they take extra precautions to conceal their location. They take all these precautions because one power-hungry doctor is hunting them. Among sensates, he’s known as The Cannibal. 

I’ve watched this show several times now. On a more recent re-watch, something caught my attention. And once I noticed it, I couldn’t unsee it. 

All of these elements of being a sensate? They have a lot in common with what it feels like to be a queer person.

See also: Star Wars | The Queer Potential of Luke Skywalker by Issy Flower

Figures of Eight

Plenty of queer elements ARE explicit in the show. Several characters are part of the alphabet mafia, a tongue-in-cheek term I recently heard to identify folks who are LGBTQ+ that I adore. We spend the most time with Lito Rodriguez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) and Nomi Marks (Jamie Clayton). 

Lito is an actor; one look at him and you know he’s the guy in the movies who always gets the girl. He’s all broad shoulders and rippling muscles. No wonder he’s one of Mexico City’s hottest action stars. He always has a young ingenue on his arm, but they never last. He’s doing everything he can to keep the paparazzi away from the truth: he’s gay. Keeping this part of himself secret from the rest of the world makes him constantly on edge. He has sworn his boyfriend to secrecy, refusing to be seen with him in public. Fear has made his world small and fragile. 

When Lito becomes a homo sensorium, he leans on his skills of self-preservation and deception. He can see Nomi and the other members of his cluster. Can anyone else? He can’t tell anyone else that he has these… visions. They would think he was hallucinating. He stays quiet, keeping his head down. In many ways, Lito looks like every other human. He can pass. His world seems like it gets even smaller despite having these new, amazing abilities.

Nomi, in contrast, has refused to cower. She works as a hacktivist, living in San Francisco with her girlfriend. As a trans woman, she refuses to wilt under her mother’s withering gaze. Instead, she has cut her family off, only seeing them for major life events like weddings (where there’s also plenty of champagne to help her get through it). In the opening episodes, Nomi has to face off with trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) and maneuver through a labyrinthine medical system that seems hell-bent on making her life harder. Instead of focusing just on the challenges she faces, the show also shows the joy she’s created in her life. In the opening episodes, she and her girlfriend lounge in one of the parks, happy and in love as they eat pot brownies. Nomi gleefully preps for the Pride parade with a neon pink bikini top, big hair, and plenty of glitter. After years of fearing Pride, she now embraces it. She marches for the part of her that couldn’t for so long. 

When she becomes homo sensorium, she tells her girlfriend soon after. The girlfriend nods in understanding. Cool, I’m on board. Even though her girlfriend can’t see any of the other members of her cluster, she learns who they are easy enough. Nomi being a different type of human turns into dinnertime conversation, something small and manageable. 

Amita (Freema Agyeman) and Nomi (Jamie Clayton). | Netflix, 2015.

Nomi gives us the first taste of how important it is to find your people. Lito shows how being alone can suffocate. He’s so used to his self-imposed isolation, he could probably stay like that. Except Lito isn’t alone in figuring out what it means to be homo sensorium. He has seven other people in his cluster who can turn to for support. He can compare notes with Sun (Bae Doona), the CFO from South Korea, or Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), the safecracker from Berlin. 

The queer community has a term for building a group of confidantes: found family. They’re not typically not blood-related; instead, they are people who love and accept you for you. Lito has stumbled into a sci-fi found family who sees that he has these new abilities and delights in him regardless. 

Through this unusual setup, he also gets a chance to tiptoe into what it would be like if the rest of the world knew he was gay. When he crosses paths with Wolfgang, Lito hesitates. He knows how guys who look like Wolfgang behave. They shrug off affection; they use misogynistic language to make sure other people know they’re not weak. True, the Berliner is quiet, a bit gruff, always dressed in black and handy with a gun; it’s clear he separates himself from much of the world. But when given the chance to reach for cruelty, he instead reaches for kindness — with Lito and with other people he cares about. 

Wolfgang is openly affectionate with his best friend. He helps Lito fight off homophobic assholes without question. He seems at ease around other men, not like he’s trying to prove something, especially when sex and nudity are involved. “Germans are not so uptight about nudity,” Wolfgang explains. He sees Lito as a full person, not just as a stereotype and a blank slate for all of his worries about masculinity to be cast upon.

See also: The Matrix | Trinity, Major Kusanagi, and Redefining the Nonbinary Experience by Meggie Gates

The Boy Who Cried Wolfgang

This kind of trust — of knowing the world, on the whole, doesn’t like you, but being open anyways — is tenuous. Lito may be opening up with his cluster, but when he interacts with strangers, his guard is still up. Only now, he is protecting two sides of his identity. 

And then, Lito’s worst nightmare comes to pass. A misogynistic, homophobic man gets explicit photos of Lito and his boyfriend. If Lito doesn’t want the paparazzi to get these photos, the man hints, Lito will have to do what he wants. And what he wants will put one of Lito’s closest friends in danger. It should be a quick, hard no. And yet, Lito considers it. And in that pause, his cowardice is revealed. What’s worse is that his cowardice is also putting other people in danger too. His boyfriend can’t bear it. He has stood by for so long that he’s gotten used to being a secret. But when he sees how Lito treats one of their closest friends, he breaks. He loves Lito, but he can’t stand by and let this happen. 

Lito, despite his heartbreak, lets him walk. He can’t tell the truth, he insists. Because… well, bad things would happen. This is the way it has to be. He’s so used to this prison of his own making that he can’t see outside of it. And he’s so used to being alone with his secrets and his shame that he isn’t great at asking for help. He sprawls in his empty hot tub half-naked, a sticky blender of strawberry margaritas spilled next to him. He calls his boyfriend and leaves messages until the inbox is full. 

If Lito were alone, he might drown in his shame. But now, thanks to his cluster, he has Nomi. She is a bit of a queer elder; she consoles him and offers insight into what we lose when we hide. Yes, there are some bad consequences to coming out, she concedes. But there are also some wonderful ones too. 

Still, Lito wallows. And then, something wonderful happens. When Wolfgang can’t lie to get out of a sticky situation, Lito is able to give him the language to buy time to escape. He uses his skills to tell people what they want. “Lying is easy,” Lito admits. But Wolfgang won’t let him wallow. Instead, he gives Lito a new language to think about his shame. “Sometimes when we make a mistake, we have two choices. We can live with it or we can fix it.” So go fix it.

That’s the kick of courage he needs. But Lito isn’t a fighter. When he needs to use his fists, he falters. Wolfgang steps in and helps, throwing punches to get them out alive. (I’m realizing that this essay is turning into a love letter for why Wolfgang is a great character. I stand by it.) The photos may come out, but he will have saved his friend — and that makes all the difference. 

Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) lets Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) lead in ‘What is Human?’ – S1, Ep10. | Netflix, 2015.

Lito comes back for his boyfriend, who’s stunned by the risk he took. Lito stands taller, his eyes looking forward, not down. His cluster showed him how to save himself. Nomi helped show him how small he was making his world out of fear. Wolfgang offered his skill to kick the misogynist’s ass. No one can do it alone, the show reminds us, whether it is navigating moving through the world as a queer person or as someone with new abilities. 

The blackmailer delivers on his promise. Once the photos go public, the response is swift. The paparazzi swarm Lito’s apartment while graffiti screams a slur at him from the street. His landlord kicks him and his partner out of their apartment, citing a morals clause. His agent and his movie studio drop off, all but ending his career. He checks his phone from bed, seeming to relish the pain that comes with knowing everything he feared has come true. All the movie roles that come in have typecast him.

See also: Doctor Who | Thasmin is the Gay Love Story We Deserve by Alice Walker

The End of the Rainbow

But amidst all the darkness are flashes of warm, welcoming light. His mother hugs him, so proud that he told the truth. Nomi gives emotional support when he gets scared. Wolfgang stands by him, offering support, usually of the illegal kind. A new kind of offer comes in, to be the Grand Master of the São Paulo Gay Pride Parade. Standing on the stage, he shows his partner how he has grown by announcing to the throngs of people, “This is Hernando. He is the love of my life.” Hernando, so long in the shadows, is shy under the spotlight, but pleased. Lots and lots of ecstatic people scream in delight. 

Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) and Lito at São Paulo Pride in ‘Isolated Above, Connected Below’ – S2, Ep6. | Netflix, 2017.

Lito was both right and wrong. He was right that all the bad things that could happen would. But he was wrong in thinking that nothing else comes after. No matter what, he can’t do it alone. And thanks to his cluster, he now has a community to help him through it. 

Is it any wonder, then, that Lito takes the extra step to finally reveal to Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) and Dani (Eréndira Ibarra), his friend, that he is a different type of human? “That is so freaking cool,” Dani squeals. Hernando shakes his head. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. I can feel my ideas of self expanding.” They don’t tell him he’s hallucinating. They don’t tell him his lived experience isn’t true. Instead, they see him, really see him, and say We believe you. And we still love you. When we’re introduced to new ways of connecting to one another, some surprising, exciting things may emerge. And that is something worth celebrating. 


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Megan Hennessey is a freelance writer and editor. You can catch her analyzing TV shows and movies at home or rolling up her sleeves at wineries around the world.

Follow her on Twitter @HegMennessey or say hello at meganhennesseywrites.com.

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