Queer bait

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Growing up, I collected queer-feeling art like trading cards.

Musicians like Arca, Lou Reed and Sleater-Kinney are coded as distinctly queer performers. I’ve taken their work in deep, ingesting their explicit, vocal queerness with relish. They performed their queerness as icons and as artists in bold, daring and highly visible ways.

But I’ve built my queerness just as much on the work of straight artists, too. James Blake is straight. Young Thug, in spite of his queer-adjacency, is definitely straight. Yet they’ve both become, for me, deeply formative to my ongoing internal evolution of my own personal queerness.

Out of all that slop, I’ve constructed my queerness. I may not have believed that when I was 15, coming out “Born This Way” to everyone in my life at the time back in Louisiana, but I believe that now.

Being gay is a choice.

In my head, there are as many sexualities and genders as there are people on the planet. If you aren’t in on the hottest secret, let me be the first to tell you: Gender is probably definitely made up. Gayness is as much a culture as it is a sexual preference. Sexual pleasure isn’t derived just from anatomy, but rather from social conditioning, reinforcements of gendered sexuality and internal intellectual machinations.

You aren’t straight. You perform straightness. In the same way, I’m not really queer. I perform queerness.

It’s one thing for me to build and perform my own queer identity. It’s another thing to do so in art. Queerness in identity is a performance, but queerness in entertainment is a brand. If your queerness isn’t visible in your presentation, it doesn’t make you less queer. I don’t believe the same can be said for the art we make.

When is your queerness relevant to your art? Is art queer just because it’s been made by a queer person? Can queer art come from people who don’t identify as queer?

Queer identities are everywhere in the entertainment world. But unless entertainers are coded by popular media as “legitimately” queer in the mainstream or make visibly queer art, they’re rendered virtually invisible.

Explicit, performed queerness in entertainment is a commodity. For obvious reasons, closeted artists choose not to export that commodity. Entertainment media projected Freddie Mercury’s assumed queerness onto his work for his entire career. But Mercury kept his private identity and Queen’s music at arm’s length from one another. He remained in the closet until his disease required him to come out publicly. Do we consider Queen a queer band that made queer music?

Is Styx a queer band just because a band member happens to be queer? How about the Who, or R.E.M., or Passion Pit or the Black Eyed Peas?

Often, an entire creative project can have multiple queer artists attached to it, and the project has nothing to do with queerness.

Queer actors play straight characters all the time. (See: Sir Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi in almost every role they’ve ever played.) Straight actors play queer people all the time as well. (See: every cis person who has ever played a trans person. Eddie Redmayne, you ain’t slick.)

The boundary between what is and what is not queer in media is shakier now than ever before. Is queerness in art solely attached to representations of subversive sexuality and gender expression? When the boundary between what is and is not socially acceptable for straight people to make art about is blurred, all that’s left for queer people is to watch Madonna vogue in our honor and Macklemore singlehandedly save our community. Meanwhile, the entire music industry today has been built in part off of the whole gamut of dance music genres forged originally by queer people.

Any act performed by a queer person is a queer act, but I don’t think that means that all art made by a queer person is necessarily queer art.

For better or worse, work by artists of color is always coded as having been necessarily informed by the artist’s ethnic identity. Because of a distinct lack of visibility for many queer entertainers, that assumption is often dropped.

The goal should be for queer artists to be able to create without explicitly needing to incorporate sexuality or gender. Frank Ocean’s discography is a testament to that value. When queer artists don’t make art that is explicitly about their queerness, they somehow aren’t perceived to be making queer art.

Queerness is in the eye of the beholder. I find straight artists all the time that speak to and inform my queerness immensely. Plenty of the biggest albums this year, from The Life of Pablo to ANTI, have felt incredibly queer to me. I also find myself not relating to the queerness of vocally queer artists. Sam Smith’s denigration of gay culture and gay slut-shaming feels pretty anti-queer to me.

Still, it should go without saying: Queer people should be proud of our collective history in entertainment. Our people have been cornering the entertainment industry for decades — centuries even.

Sometimes it’s just hard to pick us out of the pack.

Justin Knight writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on building identity by consuming culture. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @jknightlion.