Pop Music + Gay Icons: Who Gets to Be In the Club

Pop Music + Gay Icons: Who Gets to Be In the Club

By Sondra Morris

Cher. Elton John. Madonna. Freddie Mercury. Janet Jackson. Mariah Carey. Britney Spears.  Rupaul.

As the fight for LGBTQ equality blossomed into a full-on movement after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, pop music became the unofficial music of the queer community. It played loudly in gay bars, which were our only public meeting spaces, and blasted from boomboxes at Pride parades. Pop music holds such a revered place in our culture that we’ve created “gay icons”: artists we adopt as our own, providing them a loyal fanbase and financial support as their music speaks to and inspires us. In turn, these artists often release songs with ambiguous (and occasionally literal) queer themes, walk in our pride parades, and assert in interviews how thankful they are for their devoted queer fanbase.

According to Merriam-Webster, an icon can be defined as “an object of uncritical devotion” or “an emblem or symbol.” Gay icons have often embodied both definitions. However, as politics divide the nation and the fight for LGBTQ equality rages on, we have to ask: is simply being thankful for our support enough to earn that title anymore?

In 2015 when the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, many of our allies assumed the fight for LGBTQ equality was over. We’d been focused on and fighting for marriage rights for so long that people asked what else there was to fight for. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more. As I write this in 2018, the American Red Cross still refuses to accept blood donations from sexually active men who sleep with men, 28 states allow employers to fire individuals based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity, and in 36 states there are no laws protecting LGBTQ minors from undergoing conversion therapy.

As we continue to work towards full equality, it’s important that our struggles and our voices garner mainstream attention. We need to call for the music artists we designate as our icons from here on to be more than grateful for our adoration and the dollars we throw their way and to make an actual effort to stand with us.

Take, for example, English artist, Charli XCX. Popularized in the US with hits “Boom-Clap,  “Fancy,” and “Boys,” Charli XCX has prominently featured and worked alongside queer artists on her mixtapes, including producer Sophie, singer Kim Petras, and rapper Mykki Blanco. In June 2018, she appeared alongside Bebe Rexha and Cardi B on Rita Ora’s “Girls,” which saw Ora come out of the queer closet. When the song was met with controversy, Charli XCX stood beside Ora and her truth while taking in the criticism around the song and apologizing for any offense. As a major pop idol in UK, Charli XCX uses her fame to amplify the voices of LGBTQ artists.

Dan Reynolds, of pop-rock band Imagine Dragons, also leverages his fame to support the LGBTQ community. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), Dan chronicled his decision to stand for LGBTQ rights in the HBO documentary, Believer. Though he grew up in the church and cherishes his Mormon community, he finds fault in the church’s stance on LGBTQ equality. LDS not only condemns the LGBTQ community, they actively work to block equality (as seen in their tremendous financial support for Proposition 8 in 2008). In an attempt to encourage a change of heart within the church and to shine a light on the damage condemning sexuality does to LGBTQ youth, Dan founded LOVELOUD. LOVELOUD is an annual charity concert featuring LGBTQ artists and allies, as well as speeches from supportive and accepting members of LDS and the LGBTQ community. Dan understands that he could be excommunicated from the church for his work, but he feels this work is worth the risk.

Though sometimes problematic, Madonna earned the title of “gay icon” early in her career: she came into fame as the AIDS crisis tore through the queer community. As most people–doctors, friends, lovers, and family–turned away from the community and specifically gay men, Madonna turned towards us. She publicly talked about the issue and associated with HIV positive gay men, specifically her best friend Martin Burgoyne (who eventually died from the disease). In 1987, she donated the proceeds of her Madison Square Garden show to AIDS research and provided concertgoers with educational comic books that debunked harmful myths surrounding AIDS and informed fans of how to avoid contracting the virus. In years since Madonna has continued to support the community: she called Ellen to offer her support as she prepared to come out of the closet, spoke for LGBTQ rights in Russia in 2012, and continues to call for equality at concerts, gay rights events, and during interviews.

These are three examples of straight pop stars who have done phenomenal work and offer more than lip service to the LGBTQ community. Their work is iconic in that it symbolizes the best efforts of famous allies to bring queer issues up onto the stage and into the limelight with them.

“Who we designate as our icons reflects what we hold dear as a community.”

Artists within the LGBTQ community often ascend to iconic level by living their truth in the public eye. Elton John, RuPaul, George Michael, Freddie Mercury, Boy George, Adam Lambert, and Janelle Monae are revered within the community for embracing their sexuality. Older icons who rose to fame as mainstream acceptance of the LGBTQ community was still growing often waited until they were established artists to “come out.” Fans understood that artists might never succeed if they came out at the start of their career, and waiting for an artist to “make it” before discussing their sexuality became the norm.

Elton John came out as bisexual in 1976, seven years after “Your Song” became his first hit album. George Michael came out in 1998, 14 years after Wham!’s chart-topping Make It Big was released. Boy George avoided discussing his sexuality for some time, but eventually came out as bisexual in 1985, three years after “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” became an international hit. Freddie Mercury never openly commented on his sexuality, refusing to elaborate whenever reporters asked for clarification.

In contrast, artists who skip coming out and begin their careers as openly queer have often struggled to reach the same mainstream success. RuPaul’s highest charting single, “Supermodel” peaked at 45 in the US charts, though he is considered a pillar of the LGBTQ community and the most iconic drag queen in the US.

This trend looks to be changing for newer artists: While Janelle Monae and Brendon Urie (of Panic! At the Disco fame) waited until further in their careers to discuss their sexualities, American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert confirmed his sexuality during the competition and saw his first two albums debut at number three and number one on the pop charts, respectively. Sam Smith publicly acknowledged his sexuality the same month his debut album was released and has topped charts continuously since.

Up and coming artists Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko entertain growing legions of LGBTQ youth and are poised to break into mainstream consciousness any day now. Both artists are openly LGBTQ and create videos that feature queer relationships in an effort to provide representation they felt was absent when they were younger. They utilize social media to interact with and support fans going through the same things they have and it seems to be working: Kiyoko’s fans find her so inspiring they’ve dubbed her “Lesbian Jesus,” and Sivan built a dedicated fanbase on YouTube before “Youth” became a Top 40 hit.

Are these newer artists icons? Maybe not yet: aside from talent, it takes time to earn the moniker. Each of them has the potential to be an icon and, as their queer brethren, we should commit to supporting their music (if we like it) the same way we support artists outside of our community who stand by us as allies or who we simply find inspirational.

At the end of the day, who we designate as our icons reflects what we hold dear as a community. If we choose to become more discerning on who we give that title to, we don’t have to stop enjoying artists whose work for the community is less iconic. We can love artists like Beyoncé, Britney Spears, and Macklemore who are inspired by queer culture because they often inspire us and they take aspects of queer culture to the mainstream. But I move that we consider reserving icon status for queer artists, like Frank Ocean, who live their truth and give us bops just as fierce as anything on Top 40 or for artists like Lady Gaga, who often jumps from the stage into the trenches of advocacy with us. After all, if we are willing to allow someone to stand as a symbol for our community and our struggles, it should be someone who understands both intimately and cares enough to make a difference.

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