Jake Shears, Frank Ocean, Hayley Kiyoko, Troye Sivan, King Princess and Lil Nas X

Queering the Mainstream: How Acceptance for LGBTQ Pop Stars Evolved In the 2010s

After 13 consecutive weeks of his supreme reign at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, rapper Lil Nas X took to his Twitter and, as if it were almost a passing thought, let his fans know that he was gay. "Some of y’all already know, some of y’all don’t care, some of y’all not gone [fuck with me] no more," he wrote in a series of tweets at the end of Pride Month. "But before this month ends I want y’all to listen closely to 'C7osure' ... deadass thought I made it obvious."

Just a few weeks prior, alt-pop singer Kristine Flaherty (otherwise known as K.Flay) and indie darling Miya Folick came out as a couple in similarly nonchalant Instagram posts. "Happy 1 year to the best person I know," Flaherty wrote. "Happy Pride." In March, actor/singer Ben Platt came out in the moving music video for his song "Ease My Mind." In an April interview with Out, Clairo spoke at length about identifying as "not straight." Pop superstar Sam Smith spent much of 2019 sharing their personal journey of coming out as non-binary, culminating in the public changing of their pronouns in September. 

2019 was a year where musicians from all different types of genres and backgrounds owned their queerness both in their art and in the public consciousness, refusing to hold themselves back based on the traditional industry logic about public figures and sexuality, bringing the representation queer music fans so desperately crave firmly into the mainstream. 

"We are seeing queerness portrayed with a lot more sensitivity and authenticity than we’ve been used to seeing in previous decades," singer Jake Shears tells Billboard. "We’re getting characters with depth and stories that feel really legit. "

If the 2010s are, in fact, the decade where being both openly queer and a popular artist were no longer mutually exclusive identities, then what changed in the music industry, in the performers themselves and in society that allowed for this shift to occur? 

The simple answer: A lot has changed. Trying to minimize the scope of what has helped LGBTQ acts rise to prominence only further diminishes the accomplishments made for the LGBTQ community at large throughout the last decade. As GLAAD's chief programs officer Zeke Stokes tells it, the shifts that have occurred in the last decade are not isolated to one particular area — they're everywhere. "When you think about just how far we've come, when it comes to acceptance in the last decade, so much has changed," he says. "A lot of that had to do with moving culture forward."

Dr. Michael Bronski, a Harvard professor of women, gender and sexuality and the author of A Queer History of the United States, also points out that it is important to note that what has truly changed for openly queer artists isn't necessarily acceptance, but rather visibility. "I think that's important, to think about the number of visible queer artists, and how it is unprecedented in the history of the industry," he says. "But the question then is why would that be? Is it easier to come out now? Is there a larger queer market for the music industry? Or is there in fact a crossover market where the notion of being queer no longer precludes the audience?"

Miller Mobley
Lil Nas X photographed on Aug. 30, 2019 at Jamaica Bay Riding Academy in New York. 

The answer to all of those questions, it appears, is yes. According to a 2017 study put out by GLAAD, 20 percent of all millennials identify as LGBTQ, compared to 12 percent of those aged 35 to 51, and 7 percent of those aged 52 to 71. It may not be easier to come out, but it certainly is more common. As for a larger queer market, a 2017 report from GLAAD, Nielsen Music and the Music Business Association concluded that 92 percent of all LGBTQ consumers considered themselves music fans, 68 percent attended a live music event that year (compared to 63 percent of non-LGBTQ respondents), and more LGBTQ consumers purchased (54 percent) and streamed (44 percent) music than their straight counterparts (44 & 38 percent, respectively). 

"The takeaway there is that LGBTQ people over-index when it comes to music consumption and buying power," Stokes says, in reference to the report. With that power, he says, comes more interest from big labels in capitalizing on it. "Nothing speaks to a capitalist industry more than the bottom line. It's not just the right thing to do ... it's just good business."

The presence of an extremely mobilized market is not the only mitigating circumstance in the music industry that has allowed queer artists to emerge throughout the 2010s. In a November interview with Billboard, Mary Lambert eloquently stated that the change in the industry is not necessarily coming from the hearts and minds of its top executives. "The reason is not because the music industry is changing, it's because the music industry is imploding," she said. "I think we're all trying to figure that out. But what that does is, once that door busted open, everybody got to come through." 

Stokes says Lambert hit the nail on the head. "The idea that there are these gatekeepers that have absolute veto over the decisions of artists is pretty much a remnant of the past," he says. "To some degree, most artists have the ability to go directly to their fans. They don't need the permission of a record label to create their music, to distribute their music, or to play their music. They can create it, they can get it to their fans, and have great success."

Since his cult-favorite band Scissor Sisters went on an indefinite hiatus back in 2012, Jake Shears has been operating as a solo artist in an independent capacity. He says that decision is something that ultimately benefitted his creative vision, especially as a queer artist. "At this point I operate independently and haven’t been in an office with a label executive in years," he says. "I’m just thankful I have the capability to make what I want and present it however I want to."

That shift in the music industry also points to a much larger change in culture over the last 10 years that greatly affected all artists — the advent of social media. With the rise of Twitter and Instagram in the early '10s (and Facebook's continued expansion), the world was suddenly connected like never before. Instead of waiting for their favorite star to do a high-profile interview or make a television appearance to hear what they had to say, fans now had instant, constant access to them. "Artists can promote differently, in huge waves of tweets to huge numbers of followers," says Dr. Bronski. "This is where you get into stan culture ... people feel that they know the artists more and more personally."

One of the earliest and oft-cited cases of an artist using their online platform to speak directly to their fans about their queerness came in 2012. Just ahead of his soon-to-be critically-lauded debut album Channel Orange, Frank Ocean posted a story on his Tumblr page about his first love at age 19, who happened to be a man. He didn't come out in an interview, or in a song, or on television, but through a touching piece of prose, posted directly to his fans.

But even beyond the new avenues with which individuals can come out, social media's rise to prominence also presents artists with an opportunity to cultivate their own fanbases directly, regardless of what labels or industry wisdom tells them to do. 

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Troye Sivan attends the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 6, 2019 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Take, for example, Troye Sivan. A year prior to releasing his first major label EP Trxye in 2014, the Australian pop singer publicly came out to his dedicated online fanbase — which at the time was already comprised of nearly half a million subscribers on his YouTube channel. The star went out of his way to make his sexuality an inexorable part of his brand and identity, so that when the time came for him to sign his record deal, there was no going back. "In some way, that takes some of the risk away from the decision makers in the industry," says Stokes. "They know they're signing someone, or are putting their resources behind someone who already has a built-in fan base that's proven that they can sell records."

Not all aspects of being an out artist on the Internet are ideal, of course. As Shears points out, queer artists are mainly being shown to those who seek out LGBTQ content thanks to targeted algorithms on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. "I suspect often that those who are seeing it are being shown by the algorithms," he says. "Nobody is necessarily seeing the same thing. We’re looking and listening all day to feeds that are being catered to our online behaviors. Everyone just wants to see themselves, literally and figuratively."

Laws have changed for the LGBTQ community, too. In 2009, the United States was living in a pre-marriage equality world, where "don't ask, don't tell" was still a regular practice in the military and federal protections for LGBTQ people were nearly non-existent. Throughout the Obama era, much of that changed — queer people were no longer barred from serving in the military, same-sex couples were granted the right to marry, and more advancements were made.

With that progress came a major shift in public opinion on LGBTQ rights. The Pew Research Center has been polling Americans since 2004 on whether they approve of same-sex marriage. In 2009, 54 percent of Americans opposed marriage equality, while 37 percent said they favor it. But ten years later, the data shows that those roles have completely switched; in 2019, 61 percent of Americans were in favor of same-sex marriage, with 31 percent opposed. 

But for the last few years, those protections have been put into jeopardy under the Trump administration. Whether in the rollback of protections for transgender students, in the transgender military ban, or in their support for legal discrimination against LGBTQ Americans in three different Supreme Court cases in 2019, the current administration has proven to be stalwart in its lack of support for the LGBTQ community. "When you think about just how far we've come, when it comes to public opinion and acceptance in the last decade, that has to play a big part in that success [of queer pop stars]," says Stokes.

With the general increase in LGBTQ acceptance from the public, but the decrease in support from the federal government, Bronski says this puts queer artists in an unprecedented position. For example, Bronski says queer artists likely expected Hillary Clinton to win the 2016 election, and probably continued making the kind of music they would have made regardless. "I think the music you are hearing that was intended for a Clinton administration most probably did continue as resistance, but was not made as resistance at first," he says. "People were probably thinking, 'Oh, we could do more under Obama, let's keep doing it.' When all of a sudden it was Trump, it became, 'Now we have to do it.'"

With major changes over the last decade with regards to how we consume music, how we connect online and the massive cultural shift toward acceptance, things seem to be better than ever for queer musicians in America. But by the end of the next decade, where should we aim to be? What still needs to change in the music industry to give more opportunities to queer artists?

Meredith Jenks
King Princess photographed in 2018.

According to Shears, the pressing issue for queer artists has little to do with their queerness, but rather their role as an artist. "I think the deeper question is straight up how artists are being treated and marketed. The way we listen and consume has built a system that makes it more difficult for the creators," he says. "Music itself has become the sidebar."

For Bronski, there is a real difference between being an openly queer artist and making openly queer content. While the number of artists singing about queerness in no uncertain terms has certainly increased (Halsey's "Bad at Love" is the rare instance of a song about queer love reaching No. 5 of the Hot 100 in 2018), Bronski wonders if there could be more explicit expression in the future, and points to one artist as an example of where we could be headed. "King Princess not only says 'I'm a dyke,' but there's hand-holding, there's explicit lyrics, she has a song that's based on The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith," he says. "It's one thing for an 18-year-old college kid to say 'I love this artist, she's queer.' But it's quite another thing to say, 'I love this artist, she sings lesbian love songs.'"

In order for content like that to be made, Stokes says, the conversation cannot end at simply signing more artists who are queer. "It's about putting queer people in places inside the corporate structure who can see the full swath of what's out there," he explains. "Make sure there are some queer writers, queer producers in the room."

So yes, there is still much work to be done to make the music industry as inclusive as possible for queer artists. But if the progress we've made in the last decade is any indication, then it's clear that that progress is not only possible -- it's inevitable.