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How the Gay Icon in Music Has Evolved Since Mariah Carey

There will always be room for the ‘divas’ of the musical world. But queer identities are as complex and multi-faceted as straight identities—it’s only fair this is reflected in our many brilliant musical idols.

af Jake Hall
29 juli 2016, 1:00pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

Growing up as a closeted gay man in a working class Yorkshire village wasn’t easy. I spent my former years acutely aware that I wasn’t traditionally ‘masculine’ the way I was encouraged to be by the men around me. I hated football, was more interested in flipping through fashion mags than customising cars, and my favourite film was Mean Girls. By contrast, the popular boys were busy kicking the shit out of each other in the school field, drinking White Star in the local park, and intent on putting their tongues down as many girls’ throats as humanly possible. They seemed swaggeringly confident, able to land a punch, and referred to anything that wasn’t socially acceptable as “gay”, and gay men as “faggots”. I would learn this was social masculinity in its most exaggerated – occasionally toxic – form, but all I knew back then was that these boys were celebrated by the community around me, and for a long time, I wished I were more like them.

Just like the dudes in Bronski Beat, I eventually left that small town, met hoards of like-minded people, and became comfortable with my sexuality and identity as a whole. Ten years later, I feel immensely proud to be gay. What I wasn’t prepared for though, was the limited stereotypes that would come with coming out; the expectations that would attach themselves to me, like moths, on my way out of the closet. Being a gay man wasn’t enough – I was expected to adhere to a certain set of gay interests, as if it were 2002 and I’d emerged fresh off the set of Sex and the City as Carrie Bradshaw’s best mate Stanford. At times, these stereotypes felt just as limiting as being back in my hometown, trying desperately hard to pass as straight.

Gay stereotypes come in many guises, some of them subtler than others, but one that always struck me as strange was the concept of the classic ‘gay icon’ – the idea that I should worship at the altar of divas like Mariah Carey, Cher and Madonna. I’ve been to pre-drinks and had straight girls chuck on a Kylie Minogue song while looking at me expectantly, perhaps hoping I’d combust with some sort of flamboyant, squealing excitement. I’ve had people genuinely try and guess whether I’m a “top” or a “bottom” based on my Spotify playlists, and I am all-too-often asked for a solid opinion on a Spice Girls reunion without Geri Halliwell. Gay men themselves have approached me in the smoking area of clubs to ask my favourite Britney deep cut, as if the lyrical content of her back catalogue was downloaded onto my brain during a homosexual conversion ritual at puberty.

Before I go on, I must emphasize that there is nothing wrong with adoring these brilliant, powerful women, and I appreciate their music as much as the next person; gay, straight or otherwise. There is enough homophobia in the world without a gay man sneering at another gay man’s interests, particularly when it’s bound up with inferences of being “too camp”. This is the sort of attitude embodied in the “straight-acting only” preference you read on in Grindr profiles, or when gay people wince at the unashamed flamboyance of public figures like Alan Carr, or the drag queens on RuPaul. But just because I’m gay, it doesn’t mean I automatically listen to a certain handful of predetermined artists. Queerness is just as multi-faceted as straightness – so it’s only natural that its representation should be too.

Of course, there is a reason traditional music ‘divas’ like Mariah, Madonna, Cher, Kylie, Britney, Christina etc have historically been framed within an LGBTQ+ context. Many of them have engaged with our community and been outspoken and supportive of our struggles, but there are also less tangible, more complex reasons. Some have argued that, as women, they have faced a struggle that mirrors that of gay people, and that their power in the face of adversity is what makes them most appealing within the community. As Heather Love, a professor of English at Pennsylvania University, explained in The Huffington Post: “One can analyze this attraction [to female icons] in terms of what these figures represent: a highly stylized femininity and toughness combined with abjection, a kind of overexposed and highly theatrical situation of longing and self-making.” A Salon article titled “Where Have All The Drag Queens Gone?” makes a similar argument. The writer claims that queens imitate women like Judy Garland, Dolly Parton and Cher “because they overcame insult and hardship on their path, and because their narratives mirror the pain that many gay men suffer on their way out of the closet.”

Since the heyday of artists like Madonna and Cher, though, LGBTQ+ culture - and, significantly, pop culture’s representation of it - has evolved massively. For one, the mainstream is finally starting to pay attention to the voices of trans, non-binary, POC and queer communities, as opposed to honing in solely on white, cisgender, gay male identities. Because of this progression, the notion of the ‘gay icon’ feels both outdated and reductive. Being LGBTQ+ means different things to different people, and by its nature, defies sweeping cultural generalisations.

What’s perhaps most distinctive about the role of the queer icon in today’s musical landscape is that it’s no longer interchangeable with “pop icon”. When Missy Elliott was asked why she hadn’t joined in with the lesbian love-in between Madonna, Britney and Christina at the 2003 MTV VMA Awards, she seemed shocked. “No, no, no” she said. “Hip hop would never do that. Never, never, never in a million years.” But 13 years have passed, and hip hop is doing that. From Le1f to Cakes Da Killa, Zebra Katz to Angel Haze and Frank Ocean, some of today’s most talented and celebrated rappers are openly queer. And then there are artists like Mykki Blanco, who defy genres entirely, flitting between hip hop to punk to poetry to straight up experimental noise. To me, Blanco is representative of today’s quintessential LGBTQ+ icon. By refusing to shut herself into a box, she fits into a generation who refuses to do the same, becoming a relatable role model for queer kids worldwide.

The past few years have also seen a noticeable shift in our queer icons as predominantly straight women, as they historically have been. As LGBTQ+ people in the public eye have become louder, prouder and bolder, our icons have changed accordingly, and arguably represent the community more authentically. Anohni, for example, consistently uses her platform to speak publicly about issues affecting herself as a trans woman, particularly in relation to her career. As she wrote in an essay for Pitchfork: “I was told during my 20s and 30s there was no chance that someone like me could have a career in music… As a transgendered artist, I have always occupied a place outside of the mainstream. I have gladly paid a price for speaking my truth in the face of loathing and idiocy.” For turning up the volume on a trans voice (her own), and refusing to pacify her politics, it’s fair to say that Anohni is a very modern LGBTQ+ icon.

As the whole world veers towards mass sexual fluidity (recent studies found that 1 in 2 young people say they are not 100% heterosexual), the traditional “gay icon” is simply too archaic a concept. Héloise Letissier, who goes by her moniker Christine & the Queens, has spoken at length about her pansexuality: “I fell in love with a girl, then I fell in love with a boy, then I fell in love with somebody who’s trans. I was like “What the fuck?! Feelings created this.” Her gender identity is similarly visible in her lyrics: “She wants to be a man / but she lies / she wants to be born again / but she’ll lose / she draws her own crotch by herself / but she’ll lose because it’s a fake”. Her fluidity is representative of a shifting public perception about what sexuality and gender actually is, and in light of this, how can anyone say, with certainty, that everybody who isn’t straight must like the same things?

Throughout my adolescence I was in dire need of role models. I was in a small village with little access to cosmopolitan culture and little knowledge of queer history. I knew hardly anyone that was going through the same experiences, which meant I was left to discover my identity vicariously through the tropes I saw on TV, or in films, as well as the musicians that celebrated their identities. For today’s queer children struggling to accept their identity, it’s refreshing to know they have an array of talents at their disposal that are every shade of sexuality and gender, with more mainstream visibility than they would have had previously. There will always be room for the ‘divas’ of the musical world; in a society still full to the brim with hostility, their flamboyance and unwavering confidence is much needed. But queer identities are just as complex and multi-faceted as straight identities – it’s only fair that this is reflected in our many brilliant musical idols.

You can find Jake on Twitter

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