By Andy Emitt
Despite our worldwide obsession with Kanye West’s every move, we’ve been ignoring a crucial facet of his career, cachet, and appeal: Kanye West is a gay icon. Well, he should be, anyway. His millions of devoted fans surely include many LGBTQ people, like any pop star on his level. More importantly, though, his music and public persona contain clear echoes of queer life — and it's time to start celebrating them as such.
All this has been happening as former fundamentalist Nick Jonas is subject to the press’s years-long campaign for his gay iconhood — waged primarily on the merits of his Calvin Klein bulge and subsequent #sexicon certification. (Why fashion spreads of Jonas in briefs — plus a few minor gay acting roles — qualifies him as a gay icon while Kanye owning up to a leaked dick pic somehow does not, I’ll never know.) Jonas has so quickly become an “icon” by “queer-baiting” gay fans, a savvy career move he chose to make around the time his fans outgrew his promise band–wearing band’s faux-sexual puritanism. West, meanwhile, is a logical magnet for queer admirers because of the fire we all know and love, hate, or some mix of both.
Obviously, becoming a gay icon is not as simple as being beloved by gay men. Imagining West as one such icon is difficult, because making a gay icon out requires a celebrity who already “looks like one” to the media and queer subculture. Icon status has thus far been reserved as the exclusive territory of our female entertainers (with a few male exceptions). Sometimes tragic and most always marked by scandal, these women — like Judy Garland, Cher, and Britney — have defined “what it means” to be a gay icon up till now: female, sexualized, glamorized, and devastated. These icons seem to represent to gay men that a person can face devastation, painfully live through it, and come out with a life worth dancing over. More than “woman” or “diva,” then, pain and (eventual) triumph are the true hallmarks of being a gay icon.
Who has personified the balance of pain and success more brilliantly than Kanye West?
In a post-Madonna world, though, gay icons are expected to do more than merely “represent” some otherwise unrepresented facet of the queer experience. Our new gay icons must take an active stand against some form of injustice, and here again he meets the mark: Few stars can match Kanye’s history of standing against inequality in its many forms.
In 2005 — long before it was remotely “safe” to speak up for LGBTQ people (let alone a smart career move) — Kanye sat down with MTV News and discussed how “everybody in hip-hop discriminates against gay people.” West explained that he wanted “to come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends,‘Yo, stop it.'” It’s striking how little attention this point in his career receives. The interview gave a classic MTV moment by reflecting a broader cultural shift, but it never really joined the official ranks of “MTV moments” — probably because the interview was just one month before West’s most controversial quote ever: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
In retrospect, these quotes testify to the way Kanye is kin to the queer spirit: He speaks up about social ills and suffers the consequences.
Despite this, Kanye is largely seen as out of his mind when he takes on politics. Kanye’s “craziness” usually involves how he overshares, is “too much,” or otherwise behaves in a way the public deems “excessive.” Classic gay icons like Judy Garland and Joan Crawford all performed and lived out “excessive” femininity, just as Kanye is now accused of machismo. LGBTQ people, too, are often told they are acting “too gay,” “too butch,” etc. — Kanye, then, is the gay icon of not apologizing for being too much of anything.
This tendency toward excessiveness is well-established. “He’s just too much,” detractors often say, but rarely does this tendency get explored as anything more than a character flaw. His over-the-top qualities represent something greater when he is approached from a different angle: As a gay icon, Kanye is not “excessive” but rather “flamboyant.”
Kanye works so well as a gay icon because he overwhelms us with a new flamboyance that seems (despite being a decade in the making) to be geared up for our present moment. In 2016, Kanye’s muchness feels both complicit in oppressive power paradigms and completely beyond them. He’s a capitalist, but he has $53 million in debt from living a life that defies financial responsibility ideals; he replays tired gender politics, but he attacks them on the same album; he is married, but mainstream sexual morality is one of his biggest targets on The Life of Pablo. His contradictions are our own. If he were white, he’d likely already be called “flamboyant” and celebrated for this rush of muchness — but, as with the dick pic versus Calvin Klein photo shoot dynamic, Kanye’s (melo)dramatic flourishes earn him diagnoses or condemnations. Reevaluating Kanye as flamboyant, it’s suddenly easier to understand his habitual grandiosity as a stylized identity rather than an oblivious one.
All gay icons are stylists; all devotion to gay icons means style. As a person, West is impossible to identify with, but as a style, he becomes representative of all that we secretly believe about ourselves — namely, that we can be this as well as that. As a style, we can don Kanye selves and see, in his resolution of his contradictions, the potential in our own.
'Ye’s swagger is the most basic starting point for understanding why so many queer people idolize him. He is the freshest model alive for anyone hoping to surpass all limits and become something more. Rather than an icon of bruised femininity, he is an icon of being everything all at once. “I'm too black, I'm too vocal, I'm too flagrant / Something smellin' like shit, that's the new fragrance / It's just me, I do it my way, bitch,” he raps on “No More Parties in L.A.,” a charming moment of his signature self-convincing braggadocio. Queer swagger, like Kanye’s, lives somewhere between self-hype and self-consciousness.
Kanye West is a gay icon if for no other reason than he dared to seize the possibility in so many areas that expand the boundaries of what we all can become. He’s releasing a video game featuring his late mother; he’s working on an affordable fashion line in hopes of helping to democratize style; he’s gearing up for a new release and world tour he’s comparing to Star Wars with Walt Disney–level innovation. It’s absolutely ridiculous, and that’s why he’s such a fitting gay icon: He's always there to spit back at the voices telling us how far we can dream or how much of our identities we’re allowed to explore. He will always tell us “go.”
The unstoppable daring of Kanye’s own ambition makes him the gay icon you never knew you could have — the gay icon who was too much to be a gay icon.