On a recent July morning, a sprawling studio complex on the west side of Los Angeles looks like the site of the queer prom that so many teenagers around the country probably dream of. The guests, dressed up in striking suits and luxe fabrics, appear both nervous and excited to mingle with their peers, take photos and maybe show off a few dance moves, should their song come on. (And when Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” blares through the speakers, it quickly becomes clear that it’s everyone’s song.)
These aren’t just any partygoers: They’re five of the most exciting and accomplished LGBTQ musicians in the industry, gathered together in a rare moment for Billboard’s first Pride Roundtable. There’s Big Freedia, 41, who has helped bring New Orleans bounce music — and its rich queer history — to the mainstream with albums, TV projects and collaborations with Beyoncé and Drake; Tegan Quin, 38, of pop-rock duo Tegan and Sara, who in 2016 established their own foundation to improve the lives of LGBTQ women and girls, and who this year celebrate two decades in the business; rapper-singer ILoveMakonnen, 30, who became one of the most prominent gay men in hip-hop after coming out in 2017; breakout pop singer Hayley Kiyoko, 28, known to her fans as “Lesbian Jesus”; and Adam Lambert, 37, whose work as a solo artist, with Queen and on American Idol a decade ago has helped pave the way for many queer artists today.
Together, their diverse professional journeys, as well as their personal paths to self-acceptance, illustrate just how many possibilities exist for LGBTQ artists in the music industry now (as well as the challenges that persist for them). As they discuss everything from their coming-out stories to what meaningful allyship constitutes, it’s clear they are all inspired by one another, too. “You guys are legends to me,” Makonnen tells the group upfront. “I feel very happy to be a part of this company.”
You all show up for the LGBTQ community in many ways, but I’m guessing you also don’t want your identity to overshadow your work. How do you approach visibility without letting the industry put you in a box?
Tegan Quin: It has been a double whammy throughout our career because I got put into the lesbian box, but also there’s something inherently uncomfortable about always talking about your sexuality with your twin. When we started, it was really strange to be sitting predominantly with straight men like, “So, you’re 18 and gay. Do you guys want to talk about that?” And it was always like, “Not really!” Not because I wasn’t proud, but because it was just awkward.
Adam Lambert: When I started my professional journey, in the mainstream media there weren’t a lot of [queer] people, so that was the thing the media wanted to talk about. I loved talking about it, but at the same time I was like, “Can it not precede me?”
Hayley Kiyoko: It’s so hard to come out to yourself, so I was like, “I don’t want to have to go through this process again.” I tried the best I could to utilize my art to tell people who I was. It is so difficult to love yourself, and then to have to explain yourself to people? It can be challenging.
Big Freedia: Definitely. The first 10 years of my journey, I was still figuring out who I was, and then I had to redo it all over again when I became bigger. So instead of saying, “I’m gay and this is me,” I started telling the story through my music. You want to pull back sometimes, but it’s hard. I can’t pull back. I’m 6 foot 3, I’m tall, and I’m gay. I light up the room.
ILoveMakonnen: Same for me. In hip-hop, it wasn’t very supported to come out, so I knew this would be a big thing for me. But we are on the main stage of the world, and to act like [queer artists in hip-hop] don’t exist? A lot of people in the industry get their creative inspiration from the gays but don’t want to give it up to the gays. Somebody needs to be talking about these issues and showing that you can be yourself.
“Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X is now the longest-running No. 1 single in Billboard Hot 100 history. When he came out on Twitter in June, the response was positive but also, it seemed, equally chill. What have you taken away from watching his success and the reaction to it?
Lambert: The world is changing, especially in the United States. We’re moving forward, and that is direct evidence. But also it helps that he had a No. 1 song. I feel like it gave him the confidence to be like, “I can do whatever the heck I want!”
Quin: These moments are incredibly important, and they do trickle down. Not to be the “whomp whomp” person in the conversation, but we hear these stories all the time [that show how a victory like this] is not necessarily making it better for the average person who’s living in a rural community. Sometimes that leads the media to believe that everything’s fine, but there just has to be more done on a foundational level to change the system.
Kiyoko: I agree, because I’ll do interviews, and [reporters will] be like, “What’s it like [now that] everyone just loves everyone? We love the gays! Rainbows everywhere!” But we’re interacting with kids and adults all over the world…
Quin: They’re not having that same experience.
Freedia: It’s going to keep taking all of us to educate folks and tell these stories.
Lambert: And the history, too. A lot of people I meet in this generation coming up aren’t necessarily aware of everything that has come before them. Like, let’s talk about the fundamental building blocks of the gay civil rights movement.
When you’re a queer artist, there’s an assumption that you will also be a queer activist. How did you decide whether or not to take on that role?
Lambert: I was really overwhelmed in the very beginning. American Idol was so fast. All of a sudden I was on magazine covers. I was dealing with the personal adjustment I had to make, and then on top of it, there was all this energy behind being the gay guy doing it. I knew I was comfortable saying, “Yes, I’m gay.” But educating the masses? I didn’t get into this business to be an educator. I just wanted to wear glitter and sing.
Freedia: Same with me. When I was doing my TV show [Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce aired on Fuse from 2013 to 2017], I was educating the masses as well. All you can do is go out there and be the best you. I get DMs all the time: kids who don’t know how to come out to their parents, parents who don’t know how to deal with their kids who are gay. I try to give the best advice I can. That’s all I can do.
Lambert: Leading by example is a form of activism.
Quin: I felt a lot of pressure to be more political. Back in the late ’90s/early 2000s when Sara and I started, not a lot of women in our age group were out. We used to joke that only one queer female group was allowed to be popular at a time. It was like the Indigo Girls handed [the baton] to Tegan and Sara: “Go forth and be our lesbian ambassadors.” But even when I sometimes felt deeply irritated and resentful, there would be these incredible moments when parents packed all their kids into a car and drove nine hours so they could meet us because their youngest had come out and used us as an example: “Look at Tegan and Sara, they’re well adjusted-ish and normal-ish!” You think to yourself, “That’s why we’re doing this.”
Kiyoko: I was one of those! I would listen to Tegan and Sara in my car on a road trip and be like, “If they can do it, I can do it. They have short hair, I have short hair. I look just like them.”
Kiyoko: Sometimes you get overwhelmed: I’m not doing enough, I’m not saying enough. I just focus on keeping people alive. If you can inspire hope and give light when people are in that darkness, they will help you make this world a better place.
Makonnen: Yeah. I don’t really feel a pressure — more like a responsibility. [My fans] look up to me and support me, so when they ask for advice or anything, the least I can do is respond in a Snapchat message or Instagram. We owe those people. They’ll come out [to shows], they’ll buy your merch, they’ll sing all your songs. They really listen to you.
The language around queerness has changed so much over the years. Many younger artists coming up today embrace fluidity — they don’t feel the need to label their sexuality or gender. Does that speak to any of you?
Lambert: It’s a full-circle thing, because in the ’70s, that was all over the place. In the ’80s, there was a moment where androgyny [was trendy] and it was cool to be in the middle. Look at Boy George in the early ’80s. In the ’70s, look at David Bowie, look at Freddie Mercury.
Freedia: Everything circles back around.
Lambert: [Then] in the late ’80s into the ’90s, people were scared. We had the AIDS crisis, we had a lot of conservative forces in our country that freaked everybody out. And then in the ’90s, it started to explode again. It just does this. So I’m excited about where we’re at. It’s creating a lot of freedom for people.
Quin: It has made it feel more like a community, too. For a lot of my career I felt very separate. When Sara and I started identifying as queer, we took a lot of heat from the lesbian community because they felt like we were rejecting that word, but for me, it embodied not just my sexuality, but my gender. I don’t feel super feminine. It doesn’t mean that I don’t identify with my female side, but to me, “queer” was a less female-sounding word. And now it’s so cool to see all these people talking about “smashing the binary” and “the future is fluid.” I’m all for it — we’re stronger when we’re not so siloed.
Lambert: When I first started, I was wearing a lot of makeup, and a lot of Middle American fans associated my visual appearance with my sexuality. I know a lot of gay guys here in L.A. that would be terrified of wearing a stitch of makeup. I was dressing more like my heroes, people like Mick Jagger and Bowie. Explaining that to Susie Homemaker in Ohio was interesting, because they didn’t quite understand that the makeup didn’t mean gay. And now we’re in a place where people don’t jump to those conclusions as quickly. Expression is expression, and fashion is fashion.
Makonnen, in interviews before you came out publicly, you embraced that ambiguity: “I don’t want to say I’m gay, I’m straight, I’m bisexual … who cares.” Was that easy for you?
Makonnen: Yeah, because I’m still living and learning. Like, if I had an experience with a girl last night and I say I’m gay, then what am I? I didn’t want people to start labeling. Because [if someone says], “Oh, my friend’s gay,” then it’s, “He can’t come over.” Or: “She’s a lesbian,” [then others might say], “Well, we don’t want to hang out.” None of that really matters.
Lambert: I agree. The fact that your sexuality doesn’t necessarily indicate your entire identity — it’s an important step that we’re taking as a society.
Freedia: They always ask me, “What’s your preferred pronoun?” And I’m like, “It don’t matter. You can call me ‘he,’ you can call me ‘she.’ I’m comfortable with who I am, and I’ll answer to either.” Sometimes I want to be Freedia, sometimes I want to be Freddie — just depends on how I feel that day. I never let no one put a label on me. I just live.
Kiyoko: I didn’t want a label at all, but once I released my music, there was this outpour of support for the fact that I did like girls. I learned that by embracing my label as a lesbian, I was helping normalize that for so many other people.
Quin: Where the labels get uncomfortable is when they’re used against us, right? Because I love being [described as] queer or gay, but when it’s used as a way to marginalize me, then it’s different. At the beginning, what I was rejecting wasn’t just the gay label, it was “Canadian folk duo! Lesbian twin sisters Tegan and Sara!” [Headlines like] “Double trouble! Gay twins from Canada!” felt like coded language that said, “Hey, straight people. This isn’t for you. Hey, men, this isn’t for you.”
Some of you have been out from the beginning of your career, and some of you came out later. Walk me through what those decisions were like.
Makonnen: I came out Jan. 20, 2017 — the day Donald Trump got inaugurated. [The person] who really inspired me was my friend Marcus. He passed away in 2017; he was an older gay guy in Atlanta, and he was black, and [he had] always been out. He was just so strong and fearless. He was like, “Whenever you’re ready, I’m here to support you to get your wings and fly.” That’s what really made me come out in my career, and also a lot of my fans. I felt like they’ll see a mirror in me. My music goes [to places] where it’s not supported to come out as gay, [where] your family will turn their back on you. I just wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the world.
Adam, you had a very orchestrated coming out in a Rolling Stone cover story.
Lambert: It was so weird because I was out already, but that wasn’t part of the conversation because on American Idol, at least back then, they weren’t letting you interact with the press. All I was being asked was: “Why did you choose this song this week? Who’s your favorite singer?” I look back on it now, and maybe it would’ve been cool to make a stand and proclaim it, but it just didn’t come up. After the show ended, all of a sudden there was all this talk. That’s when [my team and I] decided, “Why don’t we do this with a responsible journalist who won’t steer it the wrong way, who’ll ask the right questions?”
You bring up a great point: There’s the personal coming out, and then there’s often the career coming out. Tegan, did you and your sister decide to be out from the beginning?
Quin: Sara and I actually didn’t ever come out to each other, and we didn’t ever talk about being gay. So our coming out was kind of strange and disconnected, and our career coincided with it because we signed a deal right out of high school.
But Elliot Roberts, who signed us — he managed Neil Young — had a conversation with us one afternoon. Sara just burst out like, “We’re gay. Is it OK to talk about?” He just kind of chuckled and said, “Then say you’re gay.” I think I just melted into the chair, I was so embarrassed. Talking about sexuality, it feels like you’re talking about sex. [Being out] was part of our narrative, but there was no talking about it, really, because everyone was so awkward about it.
Freedia, what about you?
Freedia: For me, what’s understood don’t need to be explained. I came out at a very early age. I sat my mom down at my 12th birthday party and told her in front of my friends. She said, “Baby, mama already knows, and I’m going to love you regardless.” Once I got my mom’s support, there was nothing else I needed.
A lot of non-queer artists are figuring out how to be good allies right now. Hayley, you were just in Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” video, which featured many queer performers and directed viewers to a petition for the U.S. Senate to pass the Equality Act.
Kiyoko: I’ve always had mixed emotions with allies and trying to understand the relationship. I had a moment during World Pride in New York: I was on the float, I had my best friend beside me and everyone who works with me, and they’re all very straight. They were cheering and crying. They were supporting Pride because they loved me. So allies are just as important as anyone who’s in the community. These are people fighting for you when it doesn’t have anything to do with them. So I’m very grateful for Taylor’s support.
Lambert: With Taylor, what was impressive is she put this petition out there. She’s moving people to take action. But there is criticism when an artist is just doing it for personal [or] commercial gain.
Freedia: It needs to come from the heart.
Lambert: Sometimes when this ally [conversation] comes up, you see a straight male pop star or an actor being like, “I like gay people.” And I’m like, “I don’t give a shit if you fucking like gay people! Why do I need your approval?” That’s the hard side of me.
Quin: Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons started LoveLoud Festival [in 2017] in Utah to raise money for the LGBTQ community, and youth specifically, and I’m involved on the board and with the speaker and performer side of it. It is absolutely fucking impossible to get people to come.
Our “allies” are often just saying they’re allies. Sometimes it feels like unless they’re getting a prize or an award, they don’t come. I want them to show up, I want them to put a petition at the end of their video. Dan wraps himself in a rainbow flag every night and cries real tears. He understands the language, he sits down and has the conversation, he makes space. I’m like Adam, there’s…
Lambert: …the chip. I think that chip comes from being in the business as long as we’ve been in it.
Quin: Yeah, I’m a dinosaur.
Kiyoko: You guys! No, you’re not!
Lambert: (Laughs.) Not saying that we’re so old, but more that it has changed so much. Ten years ago was a totally different vibe.
Kiyoko: Eventually we want to just be ourselves and not be judged and not have to rely on validation from an ally. We’re still in that world where you have to get that approval.
Makonnen: Yeah, like a cosign.
Were there any cosigns that made a real difference for you?
Makonnen: Lil Peep [who died in 2017]. He was like a new, younger artist [who said], “I still love you and want to work with you.” Actually, I’ve seen a lot of withdrawal and turn-the-other-way [reactions] since coming out, but it is what it is.
Lambert: I saw the same thing. When I did it, which was before I released any solo music, I [saw comments like], “You lost a fan!” I’m like, “I didn’t want your kind of fan anyway.”
Quin: The internet is a garbage can, but I feel like our community has been able to support each other in a way that didn’t exist even 10 years ago. Because I’m not going to say that I didn’t want our straight contemporaries in the music business to reach out and support me — I would’ve just really loved if someone gay had. And a lot of that was because there was no way to do it.
Freedia: Yeah, it wasn’t just that you could reach out.
Quin: Now I’m like a psycho. Every time I meet a new young, up-and-coming LGBTQ artist, I push people out of the way like, “My name is Tegan, I play in a band called Tegan and Sara, and if you ever need anything, please hit me up. I will be happy to stand up for you, mentor you.” Because it was so lonely.
Freedia: That’s how I felt when RuPaul came for me [to collaborate on music in 2012]. That was mother rescue right there. It definitely feels good when you have somebody in the walk of life that you’re in say, “Hey, here’s a helping hand.”
In the style of a RuPaul’s Drag Race finale, I want to ask you all: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger queer self?
Lambert: “Relax, it’s all going to be fine. You’re beautiful, you’re not ugly, you’re not going to be alone.” There was so much shame and self-hatred. I would just try to calm myself down.
Kiyoko: “It’s OK that you’re not super feminine, and it’s OK that you’re also masculine. There are other people out there like you across the globe.” I am grateful for the internet. My fans are my community that I never had growing up, and so I would tell myself, “You will find your people.”
Makonnen: “Be happy.” It took me a long time to figure out, like, “Why are they picking on me? Why are you all bothering me so much?” I would just tell my younger self, “Don’t stress it. You’ll find out soon enough what it is.”
Quin: I needed somebody to tell me it was as hard as it felt. Everyone’s always telling you you’re living your dream: “But you’re having so much fun!” And I am, but I would just like to visit early-2000s us and say, “It is absolutely really hard, and it’s OK sharing a Econo Lodge hotel room with your twin sister. That’s part of being an adult; that’s part of building a career.”
Freedia: I would have been more patient. I would have started thinking about things that can set me up for a better future. But it’s important that we all went through the journey that we went through. That’s what makes us who we are. All of those hiccups and all of those triumphs and tribulations? It’s the basis of the story.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of Billboard.