What the brave new wave of gay male pop stars means for music

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It was a moment that will go down in gay history. 

There was Lil Nas X living his midriff-baring truth during his performance of his No. 1 hit “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” last month.

Surrounded by six male dancers wearing nothing but do-rags and a smile from the waist up, the Georgia-born rapper slithered around a stripper pole in leather chaps.

It was a sharp turn from “Old Town Road” directly onto Christopher Street and smack dab in the middle of Go-Go Boysville. Breaking a longstanding if unwritten taboo, it brought gay sexuality from the underground to the mainstream right there on broadcast TV.

Now, as we celebrate Pride Month, Lil Nas X and the brave new wave of young gay male pop stars are more visible and visionary than ever, making proud and provocative statements about their sexuality. Proving that this is their time to be their authentic selves — uncompromisingly, unapologetically and unambiguously — they are boldly waving the rainbow flag for generations to come in music’s LGBTQ movement.

Lil Nas X had been building to this kind of cultural moment ever since he very bravely came out in June of 2019, during the height of his “Old Town Road” success (the Billy Ray Cyrus collab that topped the Billboard Hot 100). He was just 20 at the time and was an up-and-comer in the notoriously homophobic hip-hop world.

But while it’s long been acceptable for female pop stars to sex it up to the limits of censorship and even flirt with girl-on-girl action — remember the gay-for-play moment with Madonna kissing both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 MTV VMAs — this kind of unbridled homoeroticism by a gay man probably would have been hard to imagine even just a few years ago.

It’s a big part of the reason why LGBTQ icons from Freddie Mercury and Elton John to George Michael and Ricky Martin struggled with their sexuality earlier in their careers. And while Mercury died of AIDS-related complications in 1991, John, Michael and Martin didn’t live out loud as gay men until they were already veterans whose stardom was bigger than their sexuality. 

Thankfully for Lil Nas X, he doesn’t have to be “the only one” on this game-changing journey.

After starring in the HBO show “It’s a Sin” — which chronicled the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in the UK — Years & Years singer Olly Alexander performed the Pet Shop Boys song that inspired the title of the series with John at last month’s BRIT Awards. It was a duet that bridged generations of gay history, the kind of torch-passing moment that perhaps 74-year-old John never thought he would live to see.

Then there is 26-year-old Troye Sivan, who, after coming out publicly in his YouTube vlog in 2013, delved into gay sex and love on his last album, 2018’s “Bloom,” in a way that didn’t leave any doubt about the gender of his affections. On “Seventeen,” he even sang about having his sexual awakening with an older man. Then in 2019, Sivan launched Go West Fest with Charli XCX to celebrate LGBTQ artists during Los Angeles Pride. 

Likewise, Frank Ocean has refused to play it straight since breaking out of the box with his Grammy-winning debut “Channel Orange” in 2012. (But hey Frank, we’re still waiting on some new music…) 

Sam Smith‘s 2019 “How do You Sleep?” video showed the singer alongside a troupe of shirtless men, a far cry from the more conservative style displayed on the star’s 2014 Grammy-winning album, “In the Lonely Hour.” A few months after the video dropped, the UK-based crooner adopted the pronouns they/them “after a lifetime of being at war with my gender.”

And you can be sure that, after seeing his Queen replacement Adam Lambert headline the OutLoud: Raising Voices festival during Los Angeles Pride last weekend, Freddie Mercury is smiling somewhere. 

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