Taking to Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage last Sunday, Years & Years’ frontman Olly Alexander chose to use the opening moments of a triumphant set – and a huge personal milestone for his band – to showcase just a few of the homophobic messages that he receives on a daily basis.
Strutting and writhing to ‘Sanctify’, a Britney-channeling pop banger about sexual experimentation and gay shame, a series of them glitched up on the screens around him. It served as a timely reminder that Pride month is not just a joyful celebration of rainbow confetti cannons and fluttering flags, it’s also a protest.
“Not appropriate for kids” read one intermission, as Alexander grinned and grinded with a dancer in a leather harness. “He’s a bit too gay. Just creeps me out” read another, as the tartan-clad pop star continued to do his thing. And prompting a bittersweet laugh across the field: “I don’t like gays, they’re disgusting. But this is a banger”.
Performing on the final day of Pride month on a super queer line-up that also included Christine and The Queens, Janelle Monae, gay icon Kylie Minogue, and an entire Stonewall party down at the festival’s resident gay bar NYC Downlow, Years & Years’ show made multiple references to the troubling and rapid rise in homophobia across the world; a reminder that all is not well in 2019.
During the rousing ballad ‘Palo Santo’, Alexander traded in his usual glittering gown for a huge unfurling banner featuring the flags of every single country (over 70 of them, in total) where homosexuality remains illegal. ‘Desire’ dissolved into a percussive breakdown, backed by bleak statistics showing the sharp rise in hate crimes against LGBT+ people since 2014 – the live sequence ended with Alexander kissing a backing dancer in the middle of the stage.
Clearly, he knew exactly what he was doing. During his last performance at the festival three years ago, Alexander promised to “shove a rainbow in fear’s face”. Today, he was shoving a rainbow in bigots’ faces instead. “The future is not fixed,” he said addressing the crowd. “The fight is not over”.
On the very same afternoon, American rapper Lil Nas X joined Miley Cyrus and dad Billy Ray Cyrus at the Pyramid for a frankly bonkers rendition of ‘Old Town Road’. The appearance came on the same day that Lil Nas told fans – in perfectly casual fashion, on Twitter – that he was a member of the LGBT+ community. He pointedly wore a jacket for his performance emblazoned with a single word: “statement”
“Deadass thought I made it obvious,” he joked the same day on Twitter, sharing a picture of his single artwork, complete with a rainbow skyscraper. “Just got news that I’m gay and i will no longer be streaming my music,” he tweeted a couple of days later, gleefully taking the piss out of the all-too-predictable homophobes threatening to boycott his music. “I’m sorry that shit is just not ok.” And in an ultimate power-move, Lil Nas X drew attention to the abuse he was receiving by sharing a crudely photoshopped cowboy emoji on Instagram: wryly captioned “say one more home of phobic thing to me”.
This morning, Lil Nas X appeared on BBC Breakfast. As well as strolling right in front of the camera once his segment was over, he was equally casual in addressing presenters’ weighty questions about his “private life… who you are”.
Throughout, the rapper was brilliantly nonchalant. Asked about the meaning of his tweets he simply shrugged: “I’m gay”. He also, once again, acknowledged the presence of a backlash, while refusing to take it seriously, or give it any meaningful weight. “Oh, I’m already getting it,” he said. “I’m not angry or anything, I understand that they want that reaction,” he said. “So I’m just gonna joke back”.
There’s something incredibly satisfying – like sipping an icy pint of cider in a sweltering hot field, you might say – about someone like Lil Nas X being a wholesome icon beloved by children, and the newly elected global representative of gay cowboy rights, at the same time. Surely we’ve all seen the footage of the time that he surprised pupils at a US elementary school, with a rendition of ‘Old Town Road’ that shook the canteen floor, by now. That, alone, serves as a gigantic middle finger to the parents who insist that their kids shouldn’t be acknowledging LGBT+ people at school. Wave as many placards as you like outside the school gates, but it cannot stem a cultural phenomenon like ‘Old Town Road’ nor silence a proud, out and visible pop star like Olly Alexander.
Homophobia doesn’t always take the form of a villainous pitchfork-wielding farmer, a la Taylor Swift’s latest video. Instead, it’s hidden everywhere. The “I’m not against it or anything, but I would rather they kept it behind closed doors” clan. The parents who quietly pull their children out of inclusive sex education class. The Years & Years fan who wishes their frontman would “tone it down”. The concerned local resident who worries that queer people parading the streets for Pride is “unsuitable” for upstanding society. Honestly, if a few glittery jockstraps end up being responsible for the downfall of society as we know it – especially with everything else going on in the world – then god help us all.
A common response to homophobia – from people outside of the LGBT+ community, at least – can be disbelief. When two women named Melania and Chris were beaten up on a bus in Camden at the beginning of this Pride month because they refused to kiss one another, many people expressed shock that such a thing could happen” in this day and age”. When Lil Nas X told fans that he was receiving hateful messages, many expressed their surprise. Queer people, meanwhile, were saddened, but not especially shocked.
That’s why it’s so important to see stars like Lil Nas X and Olly Alexander highlighting the grim reality to their fans, and ridiculing homophobes by continuing to be artists in exactly the way that they please. It’s also why it’s so vital to listen to Janelle Monae – over on West Holts – telling her audience that the fight continues, or to hear Christine and The Queens explicitly demanding that her Other Stage show be a “safe space” to express yourself however you wish.
At the end of a Pride month which has often felt so optimistic, it’s an important reminder that we’re not yet living in a world where homophobia is the preserve of the dark ages. As Lil Nas X put it, there are still doors that need opening.