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The Year of the Black Queer Revolution

The insurmountable rise of Lil Nas X, Billy Porter, and other artists represents a paradigm shift in the culture

Lil Nas X performs onstage at the BET Awards 2021 at Microsoft Theater on June 27, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty Images

In October, I married the love of my life at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Among towering Asian statues and a replica of an Egyptian sphinx, more than 100 people made the wedding feel like a mini Met Gala. Our cake was designed by a transgender baker who had the Pride flag (including black and brown stripes) draped around it. We had a mixed-gender set of “groomspeople.” The Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing gay marriage was one of the readings during our ceremony. Our officiant was a Black queer woman who was ordained to do inclusive ministry.

Then came the party. And the dance floor. There was an opening hook that got the crowd going. Its triumphant superhero horns summoned the sound of a change, the dawn of something new. The track was Lil Nas X’s “Industry Baby,” which would become his third Number One hit a few days later.

“And this one is for the champions,” the room roared out loud. “I ain’t lost since I began, yeah.”

Here we were in a diverse crowd of family, friends, journalists, doctors, politicians, and lawyers chanting the lyrics of an unapologetically Black gay artist — at the wedding of two unapologetically Black gay men. What once seemed taboo now felt normal. All my life, I had read stories about Black queer men like civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who had to overcome adversity on the basis of both his sexual orientation and race. Icons like James Baldwin, who had to travel abroad to embrace his sexuality. And legends like Langston Hughes, whose queerness remains a mystery 100 years after the Harlem Renaissance.

“It was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t, I was a part of the prejudice,” Rustin said during an unaired interview with the Washington Blade before his death in 1987. “I was aiding and abetting the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me.”

Decades later, we were gathered doing something that so many of them couldn’t have fathomed during their lives. I cried tears of joy throughout the wedding like I had won an Oscar or something. This must be the long-awaited breakthrough that had come for men like myself, who were often told to “tone it down.” Black queer men were expected to hide their sexuality and assimilate. This must be what it feels like to be at a tipping point: one in which two Black queer millennials can get married at an Ivy League museum while blasting another Number One hit from Lil Nas. All of this would have felt impossible even less than a decade ago. Back then, we didn’t have a Supreme Court ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land, people asking you what your pronouns were, or homophobes being “canceled” on the regular. It was still breaking news to “come out” in pop culture. But now, at age 30, I feel like the world has changed, thanks to the glorious insurgency of Black queer men in pop culture.

Nearly a decade ago, the summer of 2012 felt like progress on audition: The president of the United States was a Black man running for reelection, and hip-hop whiz kid Frank Ocean had told his fans that his debut album, Channel Orange, was, in part, about a boy.

Contrary to popular belief, Frank didn’t come out as queer at the time. In fact, the “Bad Religion” artist has never self-identified outright as being a member of the LGBTQ community at all. But that didn’t stop the media and the rest of the world from giving Ocean the bold title of being a Black Gay Icon that so many of us were longing for in hip-hop. His later work would continue on this trend of baiting without bold declaration (his sophomore masterpiece, Blonde, said the word “gay” only once, in reference to a bar).

By 2016, progress felt contentious: The first woman to ever earn a major American political party’s presidential nomination was facing a billionaire who had a storied history of racism and sexual assault allegations. I had turned 25 that fall and was two years into my relationship with the man I would marry five years later. Moonlight, the groundbreaking film that would later win the Oscar for Best Picture, had just hit screens. It was breathtaking, beautiful, and Black. But Moonlight wasn’t the outright, definitive Black queer film that I had hoped for. Just as with Frank Ocean, much was left to our imagination on expressions of Black queerness — in which visibility was exchanged for nuance.

While the rest of the critics and public celebrated this, I felt a sense of dissatisfaction. Why were the Black queer men in pop culture often vague, discreet, fleeting, and/or invisible? Sure, there was RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the Black queer TV characters played by reality star Karamo Brown and the late Michael K. Williams. The hope we had for actor Jussie Smollett in Empire ended in disappointment, and it seemed like everything else was left in limbo. This wasn’t it — the subtleness of Black queer masculinity being treated as tolerable and respectable rather than disruptive and inspiring. Black queer masculinity either was something to be not seen or heard, or despised as being something flamboyant and overtly feminine. The racist and patriarchal limitations on how Black men are allowed to express their sexuality dates back to slavery and was unfortunately never left behind on the plantation. Little did I know that it would take another half-decade before a necessary paradigm shift would become a reality.

“Who could have fathomed that Black queer men would be at the top of the charts, in Congress, and on TV and movie screens? We’re living in a world where not only is the Black queer community being embraced, but those who show us hate are being disgraced.”

January 2021 was progress reemerging: For the first time ever, Congress had two openly Black gay men in its chambers as the nation recovered from a racist president who wouldn’t leave the White House without an insurrection.

The pandemic had given a mixed bag of cultural highs and lows: Empire had its final season with the first-ever Black gay wedding on a prime-time TV series, and the sleeper hit of P-Valley on Starz centered around a spicy Black queer love affair. The return of Lil Nas X kicked off what felt like a new era of Black queer masculinity revisited with the event that was “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).” The viral music video, which set off hundreds of think pieces, headlines, and debate, finally gave my generation the unapologetic Black queer pop star we had yearned for.

Lil Nas X wasn’t a musician who so happened to be queer, but an artist who was intentional in demanding that his work let you know such without a doubt. This transition from his much safer “Old Town Road” days to the brash, sexual, and confident Montero ones shattered the rainbow-stained-glass ceiling that nobody saw coming. Lil Nas X was the hip-hop queer hero I never thought we would get, someone at the top of the industry doing everything just like the rest of the often cis-het men who told us his actions would be career ending. He went to the BET Awards and made every conservative cringe after kissing a man live, in full Egyptian-pharaoh garb. He would later make history as the first male, solo, gay musician to ever win the VMA for Video of the Year for the record that had confirmed he wasn’t a one-hit wonder.

Introducing him during the VMAs for the performance of what would be his second Number One hit of the year was Emmy-, Tony-, and Grammy-award-winning actor Billy Porter, an older Black queer legend who has resurged following his electrifying role in Pose. Shortly after the final season premiered this spring, Porter, 52, made the decision to disclose being HIV-positive. Normally, such details would stifle the career of a Black queer creator, or often create a cloud of worry, stereotype, and fear. But unlike many before him, Porter leaned into his truth, becoming a new voice for an epidemic that continues to disproportionately impact many Black queer men who aren’t as influential and seen as him.

Who could have ever fathomed that in this moment Black queer men would be out loud at the top of the charts, in Congress, on the front covers of major magazines, and on TV and movie screens — all at the same damn time? We’re living in a world where not only is the Black queer community being embraced, but those who show us hate are being disgraced. The instant takedown of rapper DaBaby following his anti-LGBTQ and HIV-phobic remarks last summer, seeing Black Twitter drag rapper Boosie Badazz every time he attempts to troll Lil Nas X, and the pushback Dave Chappelle continues to get for his transphobic remarks tells me that Black queer power isn’t going away anytime soon.

As my wedding ended on a high note (I had nearly ripped the pants of my custom tuxedo doing a tipsy rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” with my man of honor), I took a moment to reflect on how far my life had come and the world around me.

This was progress reimagined: my generation living the wildest dreams of Baldwin, Hughes, and Rustin right before our very eyes.

From Rolling Stone US