reflections on lgbtq visibility this valentine’s day
For many years, I unknowingly suffered from a gay music deficiency. The gayest song I knew for most of high school was “Same Love,” a same-sex marriage anthem rapped by a straight guy.
I first heard “Same Love” in tenth grade. I was standing in the kitchen, lazily scrubbing a pot from dinner, when a friend turned it on. I was so shocked to hear the word “gay” in a song that I had to listen to it later to confirm I had heard it correctly.
For the next few years, these five minutes and 18 seconds of music served as a portal that transported me into the future I imagined. Sitting on the back steps of my school, doing homework in my room, or hitting the pavement for a run, I would pull up “Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Mary Lambert, plug in my headphones, and listen to it over and over again.
The song carried me through a lot, sticking with me as I moved from iTunes to Spotify, from high school to college, and from Atlanta to Providence. It wasn’t until I was in Vietnam for a study abroad program that my friend Lucy helped me see the gaping hole in my music collection. “Same Love” was fine, she said, but there was a whole world of LGBTQ artists making amazing music that I was missing out on. She diagnosed me with a lack of queer artists and prescribed various treatments: Watch the “Girls Like Girls” music video by Hayley Kiyoko (known to fans as “Lesbian Jesus”), listen to “Honey” by queer singer-songwriter Kehlani, and report back each day with thoughts on each new artist she introduced me to. Song by song, I slowly got a healthy level of gay music into my system and explored this new world of music that broke boundaries at every turn.
This music went way beyond what Macklemore had given me. His lyrics envisioned a future where people could love who they loved; this new wave of artists was already living in it. Kehlani casually sang about the girls she loved; gay pop singer Troye Sivan crooned about breakups with guys. Every time I played these artists, I was struck not only by the messages of queer love flowing through my headphones but also by how nonchalantly these artists expressed them. In many of these songs, the point wasn’t “I’m gay,” it was “why won’t this girl text me back?” or “when will this guy notice me?” or “I can’t wait to see this person again”—the same messages heard on Top 40 radio, just with different pronouns. Through these songs, I entered a world where queer love wasn’t a big deal, but was just as difficult, joyful, and confusing as any other romance. It just maybe lent itself to music that was slightly more fun to dance to. I eagerly listened to these LGBTQ artists, and by the end of 2017, I had compiled my own small-but-mighty “Gaylist” on Spotify. I was proud of this playlist and would have been perfectly content listening to this same rotation of songs for the foreseeable future.
But Hayley Kiyoko had other plans for me in 2018. Before I had even eaten breakfast on New Year’s Day, Lesbian Jesus had taken to Twitter with a prophetic message for her gay disciples: “It’s our year, it’s our time. To thrive and let our souls feel alive,” followed by a hashtag that would soon become iconic: “#20GAYTEEN.” Kiyoko was signaling that it was time for the gays to take over the world—or at least that 2018 could be an important year for LGBTQ visibility and acceptance.
Lesbian Jesus had spoken, and, as if she had sprinkled a cloud of rainbow glitter onto my Spotify account, songs to add to my Gaylist popped up at an astonishing rate. In February, genderqueer and gay singer-songwriter King Princess gifted the world with her debut single, “1950.” Hayley Kiyoko released her debut studio album Expectations in March. In April, Janelle Monáe came out as pansexual in Rolling Stone and released Dirty Computer, an album full of queer messages—from subtle references to bisexuality in “Make Me Feel” to bold and direct imagery in “PYNK.” Throughout 2018, new music flowed from every direction into my Spotify playlist; Rina Sawayama, Kim Petras, Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, and many other artists who identify as LGBTQ all released new music throughout the year.
Some of these artists, such as Troye Sivan or Janelle Monáe, made their way up charts and across the world. These artists redefined what it means to be pop stars, reaching global audiences with their own perspectives on love, gender, and sexuality, weaving LGBTQ love stories into mainstream pop culture. In 2018, I watched Troye Sivan strut across a stage within eyeshot of the White House. I turned on pop radio and listened to bisexual artist Halsey sing about love. I talked to friends who were surprised to find that half of their favorite new artists identified as LGBTQ. Other queer artists have stayed out of the mainstream, pushing boundaries even further and thinking imaginatively about what queer love can look like.
This music set the soundtrack for a year full of important moments for LGBTQ visibility. I turned on the Olympics and watched figure skater Adam Rippon skate and spin his way into our hearts as the first openly gay U.S. athlete to qualify for the Winter Olympics. Love, Simon hit the theaters, the first romantic comedy centered on gay characters that I could watch at Providence Place Mall. Each time I walked into my living room at home, I saw my siblings watching shows with LGBTQ characters; a record 8.8 percent of broadcast scripted prime time characters identified as LGBTQ in 2018, according to the GLAAD. And 50 percent of those LGBTQ characters were played by People of Color, another record high. A “rainbow wave” also swept through the political world this year. Over 400 LGBTQ candidates ran in the November elections. Jared Polis became the first openly gay man to be elected governor in the United States. And a record 10 representatives in Congress openly identify as LGBTQ. At times, it felt like I couldn’t pick up my phone without reading about important moments for LGBTQ visibility.
By giving 2018 a name, Hayley Kiyoko helped make the year one to celebrate each moment of LGBTQ visibility. 20GAYTEEN helped us recognize the enormous strides the LGBTQ community has made, both in that year and the ones before it. Moreover, 20GAYTEEN wasn’t simply a burst of rainbow fireworks and glitter that came out of nowhere; each step forward represented an accumulation of decades of efforts. Each time an organization pushed for a policy, an activist organized a rally, or people came out and shared their identity with the world, they added a multicolored drop to a big gay ocean that formed the rainbow wave of 2018.
However, underneath the layer of glitter that coated 20GAYTEEN, there’s still a long way to go. Even as mainstream LGBTQ acceptance seems to hit a new high, many queer people at Brown, throughout the United States, and across the world continue to suffer discrimination and silencing. For my friends who don’t feel safe coming out to their families, or for kids growing up in communities where being gay simply isn’t an option, no amount of LGBTQ characters on Netflix or songs with queer themes will be enough. Coming from accepting communities, it is easy for me to listen to this music that represents me, watch these movies that tell my story, vote for politicians who reflect who I am, and feel validated and excited to be living in this time period. I no longer need to listen to “Same Love” with my headphones in; I’ll blast Kehlani on my speakers for everyone to hear. I don’t need to watch Glee just to see a gay character; I can find non-token LGBTQ characters all over TV. On Valentine’s Day, I won’t feel like it’s a holiday just for celebrating straight couples; this year, it will feel more like a day to celebrate all kinds of love. But for people who aren’t accepted and supported, this wave of media and political representation feels like baby steps toward equality. The world continues to tell LGBTQ people they don’t belong. The Trump administration has actively worked to roll back protections for transgender people—banning openly trans people from serving in the military, for instance. “Homosexual activity” is still illegal in 70 countries, according to Equaldex. Thirty-five states have no laws preventing conversion therapy. Just last week, two people attacked actor Jussie Smollett while “yelling out racial and homophobic slurs,” according to Chicago police.
And that’s why the work that these artists, politicians, and activists do is so important. It’s especially clear on Valentine’s Day, which—whether you see it as a capitalist scheme, a day of romance, or an excuse to eat chocolate—is a day when love is incredibly visible. You can’t turn the corner without seeing advertisements for roses and dinner specials (okay, maybe it is a capitalist scheme). But, especially throughout the past few years, the picture of love in the United States has begun to change. Each time we’ve woken up on February 14, the idea of love that’s projected over the radio or broadcasted on TV looks a little bit different. This Valentine’s Day, we can be thankful for the artists and politicians who have bravely and boldly shared themselves with the world. We can celebrate the visibility that the LGBTQ community has gained in the past year. We can commit to doing more to spread this visibility—by being more open with our own identities, by using correct pronouns whenever possible, and by supporting organizations and representatives who are pushing for LGBTQ rights. And we can enjoy all of the amazing music that artists gave us in 20GAYTEEN. So this Valentine’s Day, blast your own Gaylist, scroll through Netflix, and think about all of the queer TV romances you can binge-watch that didn’t even exist last Valentine’s Day. And get excited about this year, because it’s #20BITEEN.