Lil Nas X & What it Takes to Become a Gay Black Icon

Home Identities Lil Nas X & What it Takes to Become a Gay Black Icon

What does it mean to witness Lil Nas X not only unfold in all his complexity but also be platformed by larger media? To be the expansive, daring, playful artist that he is?

By J.R. Yussuf

It rattles so many of us to witness Lil Nas X, a dark skinned gay Black man, purposefully walk away from hegemonic traits assigned based on the gender binary. To do so, come hell or high water; to explore fashion and gender presentation in a way that feels authentic yet arresting. So many gay, bi/pan and queer men have been conditioned to be more comfortable living vicariously through the “diva” of our choosing than to actually live the way we want. And while this particular Stan culture has very dark edges, has been a reductive celebration of women, and requires a certain complacency, it perhaps started from an uncomplicated place. Our safety, livelihood, and desirability are threatened when we do not live our lives by the beat of the hegemonic “masculinity” drum and that wager is simply not realistic for many of us. Still, some of us have always danced to the rhythm of our own music, come what may.

Prominent cisgender heterosexual people, as well as some cisgender gay men, who’ve claimed to be accepting or tolerant of LGBTQ+ people have displayed how they are neither through the ways they still cling to and preserve heterosexism. Lil Nas X exploring and nurturing his femininity while being a star is giving many queer Black men an example of what we seldom get to be: the main character in the media. It’s presenting us with an opportunity to be praised and to heal; to examine the conditional acceptance many of us have been offered, at best, as well as to introspect on whether our own capacity, creativity, and the parts of ourselves we’re tender about are things worthy of display.

What does it mean to witness Lil Nas X not only unfold in all his complexity but also be platformed by larger media? To be the expansive, daring, playful artist that he is? What does it mean to have Lil Nas X repurpose antagonizing questions many of us were asked like, Do yo momma know you gay? into content that’s all part of a rollout for his debut album? What does it mean when we can no longer hide behind divas as though they’re avatars in a video game, showering them with a skin-deep adoration rife with a particular brand of misogyny, and we have to actually glimpse at the parts of ourselves we’re taught to disavow? What changes when we are presented with another avatar who looks more like us than ever before? What does it mean when Black queer men take centerstage? And what are we asked to leave behind?

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To become a gay Black icon one must be catepolted into the lime light. One must navigate the unaddressed queer antagonism in Black communities due to white supremacy, one must appeal to homogenous and palatable “masculinity,” one must be gay but not too gay, one must be gay but not let that define them or be the thing that made them famous, one must be in proximity to the straight Black male icons yet stand out, one must not kiss other men on television or exercise sexual agency, one must not play around with clothes—which are actually genderless—or items ascribed as for women only, one must feel shame, and one must not be audacious.

Again, the thing that disturbs people like no other is a gay Black icon daring to step outside of the hegemonic traits assigned based on the gender binary. Being gay frustrates this but playing with gender presentation—something seen as sacred and organized at opposite poles—as Lil Nas X has, enrages people. The gender binary as a product of white supremacy got my people in a chokehold and they kick, scream, and lash out at those who upset that rigid, coercive divide. They will continue to target anyone who dares to defy these binaries that make some of us feel smothered and others feel a perturbed sense of peace. A related brand of vitriol is aimed at gender non-conforming people, transgender people, and bisexual+ people. It is the disruption of a social order, hierarchy, and fixed category designed by white supremacy. 

It’s been said that a gay Black icon would not have the social capital and je ne sais quoi necessary to be bought into, have mass appeal, and be relatable. Then Lil Nas X becomes momentous and the world can no longer hide their venom behind this lie. Many of us converted fantasies of being seen and admired into a love for women who occupy those arenas and never looked back.  Queer Black men with sartorial imaging that doesn’t follow the heterosexist script are met with disdain, erasure, or are plagirized by cisgender heterosexual men years later. Will we do what’s necessary to give them their flowers in real time? Will we see ourselves as worthy of being gay Black icons too? Will we take it a step further and betray hegemonic “masculinity” beyond painting our nails, putting on makeup, and the fabrics we wear?

J.R. Yussuf is the award winning author of the The Other F Word: Forgiveness. He has written for Men’s Health Magazine, Black Youth Project, Thrive Global, Queerty, and Queer Majority. Yussuf created the tag #BisexualMenSpeak for bisexual+ men & masculine identified folks to have the space to speak for themselves & talk about how being bisexual+ impacts the way they move through the world, and he maintains a YouTube channel devoted to emotional intelligence, mental health & bisexuality. Learn more here.

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