No Shade to Pop Allies, But It's Time for Pride Festivals to Book More LGBTQ Artists

Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images
Kehlani performs at the LA Pride Music Festival on June 9, 2018 in West Hollywood, Calif.

Even at the festivals created to celebrate the queer experience, LGBTQ artists are not being given the spotlight that they deserve. That needs to change.

Every June, millions of LGBTQ people across the United States celebrate love, inclusivity and their impermeable identities as a part of Pride Month. In 2019, Pride Month will be bigger than ever: with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the event that began the now-annual Pride Month traditions, queer people everywhere will be searching for ways to celebrate the progress we have made since then.

Along with the almost always present Pride parades, it has become a custom for cities of all sizes to host weekend-long festivals, where musical acts from all genres come to celebrate LGBTQ love with crowds of thousands. And yet, heterosexual one-hit wonders far outpace rising queer artists when it comes to booking these events. That fact should be alarming.

Even at the festivals created to celebrate the queer experience, LGBTQ artists are not being given the spotlight that they deserve. Instead, event boards habitually favor straight performers, seeing them as being more marketable over queer artists — a sentiment that echoes through the music industry.

The simple truth is that Pride festivals have a responsibility to represent for their audience of LGBTQ people, not those around them. By allowing a bevy of straight performers to prance around our stage at our event, we are telling the world that this level of representation is okay with us. If we won’t create and uplift our own celebrities, why should anyone else?

Take, for instance, rising country artist Brandon Stansell, an out performer who regularly sings about his experience as a gay man in a genre where that is still considered taboo. Even after being approached as a potential headlining act in a major city, he was rejected from at least one Pride festival this year. “A couple of cities have jumped on board for this year, but we’ve also been told flat out by other festivals that he ‘isn’t high profile enough,’” his manager Ryan Aceto tells Billboard.

Stansell, mind you, is not some complete unknown, either. His video for “Hometown,” which explicitly tells a gay coming out story, was premiered on CMT. The video even landed on Rolling Stone’s list of the ten best country music videos of 2018, alongside country stars like Kacey Musgraves and Brothers Osborne. “He’s pushing into a genre that is woefully lacking in diversity, so to be told that he’s not doing enough to be booked at a festival specifically meant to celebrate diversity feels pretty ridiculous,” Aceto says.

In the age of social media and streaming, indie LGBTQ artists are managing to find an audience. Why not allow them to grow their platforms in a live setting? Instead of throwing money at forgotten pop stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s, make an investment in the community you are celebrating. Something as simple as a modest booking fee could be the difference between obscurity and a breakthrough for independent artists — that fee could fund their next music video, help pay for studio time or even help them book another gig.

Not sure where to find queer talent? Allow us to briefly assist: Want someone who can rap? Artists like Mykki Blanco, Kodie Shane and Roy Kinsey all produce excellent and completely different sounds across the hip-hop genre. Perhaps you’re looking for a lady to bring the pop magic? Consider Kim Petras, Slayyyter, Gia Woods or Fletcher, all of whom fall somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum. Interested in booking an EDM entertainer? Look no further than GRiZ and Kandy, who have found audiences in the dance scene. And if you’re still concerned about popularity, there is a laundry list of out musicians making waves in the industry to choose from: Troye Sivan, Halsey, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Janelle Monáe, Tegan & Sara, Adam Lambert, Kehlani, Hayley Kiyoko and dozens of others have found mainstream success while being out and proud.

Should straight artists be banned altogether from performing at Pride festivals? No. Icons like Madonna and Cher, along with modern stars like Kacey Musgraves, Ariana Grande and Dua Lipa consistently use their platforms to uplift and enrich our community. Grande, for example, has been announced as the headliner for this year’s Manchester Pride Festival. While the festival has been met with controversy due to a price hike following their announcement of Grande, her inclusion is not undeserved; not only does the star have a history with the city, but she has been unwavering in her support for the LGBTQ community since her days as a Nickelodeon star. For their continued activism, stars like Grande should be welcomed with open arms to join in the celebrations.

But in booking straight allies, the vetting process should be thorough. Any pop star can pander with a quick “Happy Pride Month” shoutout on social media, or wave a rainbow flag on stage. But if they want a spot at the microphone during Pride Month festivities, they should take real, genuine actions that bolster the community year-round.

Look to L.A. Pride as an example. Last year’s lineup included two queer women in both of the coveted headlining slots: Kehlani and Tove Lo. That energy certainly didn’t end there: A majority of the remaining acts in the show’s stacked 2018 lineup were openly LGBTQ. (Billboard was attached to L.A. Pride as a media sponsor, but had no involvement in the curation of the festival's lineup.) By including up-and-coming queer artists in their lineup while also managing reaching maximum capacity, L.A. Pride has proven that this booking model can be both meaningful and profitable.

Gregory Alexander, a board member at L.A. Pride who leads artist programming, said that having queer talent at these festivals is vital to the integrity of the event. “It’s important for our community to feel represented, so seeing somebody like themselves on stage helps to promote that,” he tells Billboard. “It also helps to amplify voices that can speak to our experience authentically.”

Popularity cannot be the standard for Pride events, as the LGBTQ experience exists, historially and culturally, outside of mainstream culture. It is not about booking the biggest names that you possibly can. It is about celebrating what it means to be queer in the modern age. And the best artists to represent that experience are the ones who have lived it.