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All The Ways to Love You: Tracing The Evolution Of LGBTQ+ Representation In Pop Music

We need to support artists in the LGBTQ+ community not just during Pride Month, but all year round

By Lucas Villa

Representation of LGBTQ+ love in music has come a long way in this past decade alone. Today, artists across the queer rainbow spectrum like Troye Sivan, Hayley Kiyoko, Frank Ocean, and Halsey haven’t compromised their positions about who they truly love for their positions in pop stardom. More importantly, they don’t have to. That an openly gay person is able to lyrically and visually share their story of a dreamy romance with accurate pronouns and a devoted fan base cheering them on should be the norm as much as it is revolutionary.

Take the ascendent Australian superstar Sivan, for example; "Boy, tell me all the ways to love you," he sings to the guy of his eye in "Lucky Strike." Hearing and seeing a man in a music video daydream about another man is I can relate to and, for once, feel seen by the media that previously paid no mind to stories like Sivan or my own.

As more queer people like myself are coming out and embracing their sexual and gender identities, pop stars like Sivan, Kiyoko, Kim Petras, and more are reflecting the times, telling our stories, and spotlighting our relationships through their music. In a media-driven society, it's important to keep our voices present and afloat with intentional language like pronoun use and outright visibility. Musicians are finding themselves more free to push back against hateful and exclusionary thinking, and using their art to continue to uplift the LGBTQ+ community. The world still has a ways to go in accepting queer PDA — both in music and on a larger social scale — but the strides being made are something to be proud of.

In a recent Gallup poll, 4.5 percent of Americans polled identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) in 2017, an increase from 4.1 percent in 2016 and 3.5 percent in 2012. My own coming-out story is forever tethered to pop music when, in 2006, viruses on the family computer stemming from the file-sharing program Limewire laid bare which kind of music I was gravitating to, and in turn served as a good a time as any for me to declare that I'm attracted to men and not women. But when I first came out, I only knew of a few LGBTQ+ artists; it would take over a decade for the pendulum to shift in a meaningful way.

As a gay music fan, it's been empowering to see and hear how the music industry has become more inclusive to queer love, especially as it mirrors the U.S.’s significant LGBTQ+ rights wins over the past decade. Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004; a host of states followed suit unitil same-sex marriage became the law of the land in 2015. Accordingly, artists in the LGBTQ+ community and allies alike have stepped up like never before to show and tell their stories of queer love.

While the people we know today as queer icons — Queen's Freddie Mercury, Elton John, and George Michael of Wham! — were open about their same-sex relationships at points in their lives, that wasn't directly reflected in their music at their career peaks. That's not to say there weren’t efforts to convey those feelings; rather, their sexualities were suppressed, either by themselves, the people around them, or the music industry as a whole. In 1981, John commissioned a video for "Elton's Song" where a schoolboy crushes on a male classmate. At the time, it was deemed so controversial that it was never played on TV and was only released on a VHS version of his album The Fox. In the '80s, an artist’s queerness were often coded, by way of their flashy and flamboyant stage personas and music videos, a concession that was nevertheless groundbreaking for representation.

Throughout this decade, queer artists have been brave in gradually shining light on their true relationships in their music. Lady Gaga's self-love anthem "Born This Way" hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2011. She later performed it as part of her set at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2017 and became the first artist to sing the words "gay," "lesbian," "bi," or "transgender" at the event, proudly representing her bisexual identity to 117.5 million viewers. Ocean revealed his attraction to men in a 2012 letter following the release of his landmark debut, Channel Orange. Panic! At the Disco’s Brendan Urie, came out as pansexual in 2018. Expectations singer Kiyoko's admiring, queer audience calls her “Lesbian Jesus," and she refuses to diminish her sexuality in any way. Halsey and Lauren Jauregui collaborated on the bisexual anthem, “Strangers” in 2017. German star Kim Petras, whose debut album Clarity dropped at the end of this Pride Month, is a visible, rising talent for the transgender community. Holland, who has been called "the first openly gay K-Pop idol,"  stood in marked defiance to South Korea's marked intolerance toward the LGBTQ+ community with his music video for "I'm Not Afraid," in which he makes out with another man. Brazilian drag queen Pablo Vittar even kissed Diplo in the video for last year's "Então Vai," ("Then Go"). And British singer-songwriter MNEK captured a complicated, confessional feeling in his nuanced love song, “Girlfriend,” singing, “Neither you nor your story is straight.”

This list is by no means comprehensive, and by now, it couldn’t be: The examples of LGBTQ+ success in pop music are countless, as they should be. After all, it would be impossible to tally up the instances of same-sex love in songs. We deserve just as many anthems. Our odes are just as relatable.

In an interview with Wired last year, Elena Maris, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communication who has studied queer fandoms online, noted the importance of artists seizing their queer identities and stories in front of fans. "You can pick any type of artist and see that their fandom finds meaning in who they are authentically and how that resonates with the fan's identity," she said. "I think that's where these queer fans are finding themselves now."

Allyship in this space has been crucial, too. In the late '80s and early '90s, Madonna included a leaflet in her 1989 album Like a Prayer titled "The Facts About AIDS" that called it "an equal opportunity disease" during a time when the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. was being erroneously and dangerously linked to queer relationships. In her banned music videos for "Justify My Love" and "Erotica,” she highlighted  queer flings on screen. Over a decade later, Christina Aguilera included a gay couple kissing in her empowering video for "Beautiful." When suicide rates in the LGBTQ+ community were rising at the start of this decade, more pop stars became allies with the "It Gets Better" movement, which led to moments like another gay couple kissing in Katy Perry's "Firework" video and Nicki Minaj in "Starships" rapping, "Fuck who you want and fuck who you like." After declaring “you can want who you want” on 2014’s “Welcome to New York” from 1989, Taylor Swift recently doubled-down as an ally with the music video “You Need to Calm Down,” which takes aim at homophobia while celebrating the queerness of her celebrity friends.

But even with the passage of same-sex marriage in the U.S. — and with queer love visibility on the rise in pop — hate crimes against the queer community have increased by 17 percent in 2017. In the face of that hate, we need to continue to be our authentic selves above all and love who we want without fear. As we're pushing for more representation across the board in all spaces, queer bodies are under attack. For the LGBTQ+ community, our existence is our resistance and it's what we need to continue to uplift and advance our folx and stories.

Last October, I saw Sivan on his headlining Bloom Tour. He performed “Lucky Strike” and took a moment to stand in awe of the seats full from an all-queer bill that included openers Petras and Carlie Hanson. After the concert, I overheard an older gay couple rave about the singer’s visible pride and sexuality on-stage; it was an incredible moment for them, a marker of where we are, and where we’ve come from: “We didn't have anything like that growing up,” one said to the other.

This is why we look to pop icons to help lead the way. And If we want more of our stories to be told and represented, we need to support artists in the LGBTQ+ community not just during Pride Month, but all year round.