’Tis the season in New York City, and I don’t mean Christmas. Pride is when we show up for each other and ourselves, so I was excited to meet Mal Wright from Netflix’s The Ultimatum: Queer Love, the binge-worthy reality TV series that puts five long-term couples to the test.
This season follows a group of queer and non-binary women in relationships over eight weeks as they test their commitment in what might be the greatest lesbian social experiment since The L Word, OG.
When we meet Mal on the show, she is partnered with Yoly, who has issued her an ultimatum: get engaged or break up. The other couples are in the same situation — add cocktails, heated conversation, partner swapping, and lots of feelings, and the potential proposals make for the perfect queer cliffhanger. Among all the dyke drama, Mal’s loyalty, maturity, and impeccable style as a masc-presenting lesbian has made her a fan favorite.
“I got given the ultimatum,” Mal tells me when we meet at the iconic West Village lesbian bar, Cubbyhole. “And so I thought, Here’s where we’re at in our relationship: We’ve been in weekly couples therapy for a year, and I’m thinking that what I need to show as a commitment to my partner is this: We need to come to the table with this decision, and we both need to decide on the same thing. And so the show was me showing my commitment to my partner, any way I could.”
The breakout star is in town from Atlanta, and I find many things consistent with her onscreen persona, such as her bone-crunching handshake and hug and her unwavering interest in authenticity.
She is dapperly dressed in black pressed pants, a kerchief, and a black cuffed beanie. Young queer women flock to get a photo with her. Good lesbian role models are always in demand, especially masc women of color, and so she’ll be hosting a Queer Garden party (and judging the twerking contest) in Brooklyn on June 25.
But this Monday night, we shout to hear each other over the noise as a group of college-age women do shots, distribute pizza slices and sing raucously to jukebox favorites such as 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?”
The key to Mal’s heart? Dive bars and hole-in-the-wall restaurants
Mal, 37, is a Virgo, which may account for her sense of order, and so I point to the chaotic, tchotchke-festooned ceiling of the Cubbyhole and ask her to pick one item that represents her. She chooses a papier-mâché sun wearing dark glasses. Optimistic and cool, just like her, which is how she got through 8-hour days with a nest cam in every room.
“It’s rather bold,” she says. “You know you’re on camera. You know what you’re doing. Nobody’s forcing you to do anything. Even the drinks. They make them available to you. But they’re not forcing you. I just know myself.”
And when it comes to date night, she’ll take a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned — “I like boozy, strong drinks” — preferably in a dive bar, then dinner in a “mom and pop, hole-in-the-wall restaurant that is authentic to the culture of the person I’m dating. Dive-y, small, where we could be intimate and talk about things.”
And dancing afterward? “Yes, absolutely.”
At home in Atlanta, she enjoys the lesbian bar My Sister’s Room, where she recently held a viewing party for The Ultimatum. She loves the LGBTQ+ scene at home. “Atlanta’s such a Black Mecca. Even the white people you meet understand that it’s a different level of inclusivity.”
We head to Corner Bistro, the last of New York’s late-night, midcentury West Village bohemian joints for cheeseburgers.
As we share a plate of fries in a sidewalk booth and soak up the atmosphere blocks from The Stonewall Inn, where on the evening of June 28, 1969, queer activists changed the course of history.
Summer in the city
It’s been a long journey for Mal to find her queer community. She recalls growing up in small-town Florida, where she was prom queen. “I remember a girl in class was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what if the prom queen was gay!’ And I remember one of my friends who knew coming to my defense, ‘What if she is?’”
Her parents, old-school immigrants, took her to the doctor as a teen over her sexuality. They’re better now, even if they question the necessity of rainbow flags. “When I see a rainbow flag in a restaurant or neighborhood, it’s a symbol of safety,” Mal says. “This place accepts who I am.”
“I’ve been othered often in life. I treat everyone like you belong here,” she says. And she feels she belongs in New York City.
“What I notice about summer in New York City is that people are so friendly and warm, everyone’s happy, it feels good, we’re greeting each other. I love to be outside, I love community, I love meeting new people and hearing their stories,” she says. “I love the huge melting pot. Everybody’s giving you the best of their culture.”
As Mal and I tuck into our burgers, she says, “I think the ideal night out is anything that’s not contrived.”
And this applies to relationships, too. After the bombshells of The Ultimatum, she is clear on what she looks for in a partner: “Self-sufficient, feminist by nature. A woman that prioritizes centering the most vulnerable in any situation and is committed to harm reduction. Someone that’s very self-aware. Someone deeply committed to being their best self. That’s why dates can’t be extremely distracting because I really want to know who you are as a person. Fundamentally, how you think about the world.”
And our night, with Pride in the air, isn’t very far from what she’s described.