'American Idol': How the Show's Inclusive New Season Reflects the Country's Progress on LGBTQ Rights

From left: Ada Vox, Adam Lambert & Jurnee
Getty Images, Courtesy of ABC Networks

From left: Ada Vox, Adam Lambert & Jurnee

Since debuting 16 years ago on Fox, American Idol has featured a handful of LGBTQ contestants who waited until after their Idol journeys ended to publicly disclose their sexual orientations and identities, whether by personal choice or by producers’ choice. Now in its 16th season as a reboot on ABC, the Idol franchise is experiencing its most LGBTQ-friendly season ever by letting the diverse singers proudly live out loud on television.

In one recent episode alone, openly lesbian singer Jurnee impressed the judges with a fitting rendition of Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” and drag queen Ada Vox, who previously made it to the top 50 as Adam Sanders in season 12, earned another golden ticket with a soulful take on the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” Most notably, both entertainers’ audition segments highlighted their true selves, a striking difference from past seasons and a reflection of how far America has progressed since 2002, when Idol became a phenomenon before any states had even legalized same-sex marriage (Massachusetts was the first in 2004, and as of 2015, it’s legal in all states).

The moments, to no one’s surprise, have attracted polarizing opinions from viewers across America, but the positive feedback about the overdue open LGBTQ representation is refreshing to see in Idol’s life cycle. “The season of the gays, i LOVE it,” one young viewer proclaimed on Twitter. Another viewer used the moments to educate his child, revealing that Idol “provided a great forum to continue the conversation with my 10-year-old daughter about LGBT equality and gender identity/expression tonight. Thank you. Truly. Thank you for normalizing humanity in all its beautiful and wonderful ways of being.”

Jurnee’s segment detailed her coming out story and her love life as a military wife, including photos of the couple getting engaged and kissing. “At times I would be dating guys just to test and make sure I'm not missing out on anything,” she said. “It wasn't until my freshman year that I knew for sure guys were not for me, they're not my cup of tea, so I came out to my family who was extremely accepting and it's just been rainbows, pun intended, ever since.”

Ada Vox’s clip started with her journey from timid teen to confident drag performer and ended with a raving review from celebrity judge Lionel Richie: “You're owning who you are. We've had a lot of artists come on here talented but a bit confused. What you're giving us right now is a clear understanding of who you are, coming with an amazing amount of talent.”

Judge Katy Perry, who routinely stands up in support of the LGBTQ community, even provided this season with a queer-friendly viral moment when she understood Internet slang-adept contestant Noah Davis after he uttered “wig,” a word that has permeated the queer lexicon on social media. “Wait, did you just say ‘wig'?” a surprised Perry asked Davis as fellow judges Richie and Luke Bryan appeared flustered. “I know, wig. … No, it’s not your language. It’s just for us.”

That “just for us” is now for everyone, and it’s only just the beginning as more shows, not only Idol, shine the limelight on LGBTQ people. NBC’s The Voice featured transgender contestant Angel Bonilla this season and previously showcased Christian singer Chris Weaver’s drag persona Nedra Belle. Netflix’s Queer Eye revival and VH1’s Emmy-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race are dominating pop culture, while new shows with prominent LGBTQ characters like the CW’s Black Lightning, Freeform’s Grown-ish and NBC's Rise seem to be popping up more and more regularly.

Idol alums paving the way

Every day, people come out at their own pace at different stages in their lives, and the same holds true for former American Idol contestants. Multi-platinum Idol alums Adam Lambert (season 8) and Clay Aiken (season 2) both famously came out publicly in magazines in different ways following their impressive runner-up stints in the singing competition. “I don’t think it should be a surprise for any­one to hear that I'm gay," Lambert told Rolling Stone just two days after the season 9 finale in 2009, alluding to the mid-season tabloid photos that surfaced exposing him kissing an ex-boyfriend and dressing in drag. Meanwhile, Aiken confirmed his homosexuality five years after his 2003 finale amid public speculation. Aiken told People, “Yes, I’m gay,” and explained in the cover story how becoming a parent influenced the decision. “It was the first decision I made as a father,” Aiken said in 2008. “I cannot raise a child to lie or to hide things. I wasn’t raised that way, and I’m not going to raise a child to do that.”

It took 13 seasons before American Idol truly began to shift toward open representation by featuring its first openly gay contestant. After then-judges Jennifer Lopez told contestant MK Nobilette that she’s “not the typical American Idol” and Harry Connick Jr. questioned whether she “fit in,” Nobilette responded, “I’m very obviously gay.” In that moment, Nobilette became the first person to come out during an Idol episode. “There are always going to be people in America and everywhere else who will definitely hate me, but in the last two years, there’s been a lot of things that have really changed that and have made that a positive thing."

At the time, in 2014, more than a dozen states had legalized same-same marriage, up from zero when Idol debuted 12 years earlier, and athlete Michael Sam became the first openly gay NFL player. “The world is changing,” replied Lopez and fellow judge Keith Urban after Nobilette came out. And Idol was just starting to reflect those changes, although it was a rocky shift into the right direction with questionable judges’ comments and editing choices for another season 13 contestant, Keith London, who sang Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love" for his Hollywood Week performances. Connick Jr. noticed that London didn’t change the pronouns while singing “If I Were a Boy.” Connick Jr. said it was a “weird choice” and Lopez described it as a “bizarre” decision. After the episode aired, London cleared the air with a coming-out tweet: “Wait, did I just basically come out on National TV? Oh well cats out of the bag! I truly can say I sang from my heart!” Idol had definitely progressed since its first season, when Fox, in a behind-the-scenes move, encouraged finalist Jim Verraros to delete an online journal entry about his sexuality, citing his identity could give him an unfair edge in voting.

Out Idol contenders have found chart success over the years. Both Lambert and Aiken achieved commercial triumphs with their debut albums, and Lambert’s 2012 sophomore album, Trespassing, even topped the Billboard 200, making him the first openly gay artist to reach No. 1. Previously, Aiken’s debut album, Measure of a Man, peaked at No. 1 in 2003, but he wasn’t openly gay until a half decade later.

Drag entertainer Adore Delano soared into Idol's seventh season’s top 16 as Danny Noriega. Later, the non-binary performer finished in third place on season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Delano has since clocked two charting albums, with the sophomore effort, After Party, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Dance/Electronic Albums chart in 2016. Adore Delano isn’t the only drag performer who has seen chart success, and this bodes well for current contestant Ada Vox’s post-Idol career.

Season 2’s Frenchie Davis and season 9’s runner-up, Crystal Bowersox, both identify as bisexual. An outspoken LGBTQ advocate, Davis competed on Idol before becoming a Broadway performer and appearing on The Voice. Bowersox’s debut album, Farmer's Daughter, and second album, All That for This, earned spots on the Billboard Top 200.

More recently, season 14 top four finalist Rayvon Owen came out to the masses in his 2016 “Can’t Fight It” music video and just this year got engaged onstage at a Demi Lovato concert.

Owen recently told Billboard what advice he’d give someone who may be afraid of coming out: “Take your time. Listen to your heart. Listen to your instincts. I feel like as I’m growing, I’m learning more to trust my gut and trust my instincts, because I think that means something, and to not be afraid to walk into what that means. Explore what makes you happy. You need to be accepting of yourself, and just be patient. Try not to let society dictate how you feel, because it’s so easy to feel pressure from other people. Listen to what’s inside you, because that means something.”

All of their journeys are inspiring a new generation of LGBTQ singers and viewers because representation does matter, and that perspective isn’t lost on current contestant Jurnee: “Really knowing who I am is giving me the chance to change my entire life and hopefully inspire someone else to put their full life and dreams out there as well."