Drunk on $2 strawberry margaritas during my very first visit to Cubbyhole, my 19-year-old self and a friend struck up a conversation with two women who led with, “Aww, how cute, two straight girls at the gay bar!” We looked at each other, confused. She was quick to correct them about her sexuality, while I, on the other hand, kept quiet, thinking they were right. Who was I trying to fool by being here? I’ve been “mistaken” for straight just about every time I’ve been there, for that matter. And what right did I have to be upset? To those who saw me everyday, I was straight, and was too scared to convince them otherwise.
Fast forward to sometime in early September of this year. After getting “mistaken” for straight in a casual conversation by a gay friend, I couldn’t let it go. At 2am, in an act of subconscious (and delusionally tired) defiance, I chopped my hair below my shoulders – as if a drastic change in my appearance would make people finally believe me when I say I’m queer. I thought back to an interview I’d read in which Héloïse Letissier, who fronts Christine and the Queens, described the epiphany she had upon cutting her hair: “I felt like, ‘This is how I want to exist.’” My drunk ass almost cried when someone in the bathroom at a Rina Sawayama show complimented my new ‘do for the first time; knowing that a large part of Sawayama’s fan base is queer, I found comfort in being seen.
Rarely did I consciously think about openly queer women in entertainment in the past. When I recall queer artists that I listened to growing up, I admit that David Bowie or Freddie Mercury – not women – come to mind first. Whether it’s the media at fault or my own ignorance, I was somehow never consciously aware of women’s queerness. From Fergie and Lady Gaga in my youth, and then, as I got older, The xx, Tegan and Sara, and Sleater-Kinney, I often didn’t know some of my most beloved female artists were queer until after the fact. I later clocked many hours over the years Googling “[insert artist] queer,” intrigued by female androgyny by way of Annie Lennox, and for selfish reasons, hoping to find that Debbie Harry might be into women. This was all prior to the realization that my “girl crushes” were born of genuine attraction. Maybe it took so long because I had few truly visible artists to help me understand that loving another woman was real and valid.
I remember when I first started telling my best friends that there was a slight chance that I could maybe be bisexual, and being met with the classic “it’s probably just a phase.” It made me curl in on myself, backtrack, and call myself “fluid” instead. “Fluid” was my safety net to go back to living as a straight cis female, since I wasn’t committed to a label.
But “fluid” was never the whole truth.
I’ve known for a long time that I’m bisexual, but 2018 marks my first year of unapologetic out-ness. Sexuality is a journey, and labeling oneself isn’t pertinent to having a queer identity. Fluidity perfectly encapsulates how many other people define their own sexuality. For me, though, calling myself “bisexual” out loud lifts a weight off my shoulders. I owe this newfound confidence to queer female artists, from SOPHIE to Janelle Monáe, who are unapologetically themselves.
2017 and 2018 saw a jump for queer females in the mainstream beyond “I Kissed a Girl” or “Cool for the Summer,” where being queer is synonymous with experimental sexual deviance (not to discredit Demi Lovato’s own bisexuality). Kissing girls was once taboo, “just something that we wanna try.” Songs like Sawayama’s “Cherry” operate in the same realm of queerness being new and different. However, rather than eroticizing it, Sawayama crafts a sweet, sparkling anthem that illustrates an awakening; it’s less about the missed connection and more about what it taught her about herself. “Now I wanna love myself/It’s not that us is guaranteed/’Cause inside I’m still the same me with no ID” reminds me of being 19 and becoming infatuated with a stranger at a party as we talked and smoked cigarettes and got dollar slice pizza, though I never got her name. Still, I can’t will myself to forget the moment she told me she likes girls and with ease, I told her I do too. It had nothing to do with my attraction to her. It was the first time I had ever come out, and she has no idea how significant that moment was for me. She was the first person with whom I was living my truth.
Today, there’s Kehlani in the mainstream crooning, “I like my girls just like I like my honey/Sweet/A little selfish.” These lyrics effectively normalize women loving women in a way I’d never understood before. By way of Kehlani, I also discovered Disney-girl-turned-“Lesbian Jesus” Hayley Kiyoko this year when Kehlani appeared on “What I Need.” Kiyoko candidly sings, “I only want a girl who ain’t afraid to love me.” I could never imagine hearing that on the radio growing up. Kiyoko was recently awarded the Rising Star Award at Billboard Women in Music, presented to her by bisexual pop singer Lauren Jauregui. “Nobody wants to be brave,” Kiyoko confesses in her acceptance speech, through tears. “We’re all terrified. I’m very grateful for my fans…I found my purpose in life, and the ability to embrace my truth.”
Women have shown me what it’s like to go from grappling with your truth to embracing it. Asserting herself beyond myriad production credits, SOPHIE’s debut album Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides is a disarming nine tracks of simultaneous chaos and vulnerability. There’s a challenge from SOPHIE to listen to this record without the preconceived notion of what pop music – and furthermore, people – should be. “Without my genes or my blood/With no name and with no type of story/Where do I live?” she asks on “Immaterial,” giving herself the answer: “I could be anything I want.”
The album is powerful enough to have turned the heads of traditionally closed-minded Grammy committee. She and singer-songwriter Teddy Geiger (who co-wrote the Shawn Mendes single “In My Blood”) have become the first Grammy-nominated transgender women for Best Dance/Electronic Album and Song of the Year, respectively.
They, and artists like the genderqueer and pansexual Letissier, haven’t been blurring the lines of gender in music so much as beginning the process of erasing them. The first time I saw Christine and the Queens live in 2016, I had given little to no thought to the nuance and fluidity of gender expression. When she returned this past year, it appeared that she had invented a masculine persona along with her new record, Chris. The more I indulged in the record, it became apparent that rather than stripping herself of femininity, she had adapted traditionally masculine themes – eroticism, power, dominance – to dispel the pre-existing notion of softness that womanhood was supposed to be.
I came across King Princess through Mark Ronson, when she became the first official signed artist on his label, Zelig Records, releasing her first single “1950” earlier this year. In addition to paying tribute to a decade when women could exclusively be queer in private, she plays with religion and divinity in a way that calls out to the once-ardent Catholic still living inside me. “Tell me why my gods look like you,” she whines, “and tell me why it’s wrong.” The idea is not lost on songs like “Holy” and “Pussy Is God,” which not only put women, but queer women, at the center of worship. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, King Princess calls it “extremely fucked up and fun…being the of a belief system.”
“Fun” never would’ve been the word I’d use to describe the intersection of being a self-proclaimed Jesus lover while attempting to repress this sinful secret the way I repress Catholicism now. While I’ve never been homophobic and I’ve tried to be an ally to others, I was adamant that homosexuality wasn’t a possibility for me. But now I find the layers of irony so absurd it’s funny. For me, queerness was directly associated with eroticism, in turn lacing this part of my identity with sin. Coupled with my warped notions of feminism (in my teenage years, I called myself anti-feminist), it’s all rooted in self-hatred.
Then I heard this verse:
“Searching for someone to fix my drive
Text message, God up in the sky
Oh, if you love me, won’t you please reply?
Oh, can’t you see that it’s only me, your dirty computer?”
It made me wonder if Janelle Monáe had somehow gotten inside my head and heard these conversations I was having with God to fix whatever the hell was going on inside me. Her music has been lush with futuristic and science fiction imagery via Cindi Mayweather, her android alter ego. The juxtaposition of real life with a surreal world allows raw emotion to take the forefront. It’s the same question I’ve been asking myself this whole time that I’ve been fighting the truth: what is wrong with my programming as a human that I’m so inherently broken and flawed?
Janelle Monáe intended “to really celebrate those that I felt needed to be celebrated most, those in marginalized communities” with Dirty Computer. Those communities include not only the LGBTQIA community, but women and people of color as well – and these are all intersections I identify with. It’s the things about myself that I’ve been conditioned to believe are defects, dirty. Deconstructing the android on Dirty Computer gives insight to our very coding as people, the root of this “other” that terrifies people in 2018 as much as ever.
What a weird time, in 2018, to have finally found relief through leaning into that exact fear. This whole time, I’ve been internalizing it, using it against myself, so much that even when I first began exploring the possibility of being queer, I accepted without argument that I wasn’t queer enough to be valid. Compared to the first time I called myself “bisexual” out loud circa 2014, when I say it today, it no longer leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There’s still an adrenaline rush, but it comes from excitement. Because for the first 23 years of my life, I was never being my honest self.
But now, I finally believe that I deserve to live my truth. And so do you.
Check out Ysabella’s ever-growing CHEERS QUEERS playlist on Spotify, as well as the rest of our year-end coverage.