Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is a Sirius XM radio host and the author of “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race.” Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion on CNN.
The 65th annual Grammy Awards brought some needed joy to our current cultural climate. Happiness was at full tilt — from the celebration of 50 years of hip-hop to emotional speeches from Lizzo and others to Beyoncé making history as the most-decorated Grammy-winning musician.
In addition, as LGBTQ communities are used as ammunition for those who want to restrict drag shows rather than access to weapons, there was a beautiful and needed display of queerness.
This year has already been a whirlwind for LGBTQ folks in the US. If you are gay, transgender or somewhere in between, you are the talking point for conservative politicians and pundits who rant about “wokeness.”
Regardless of threats to our democracy, seemingly endless mass shootings and reports of hate crimes on the rise, a minority of people who want to live their best life are at risk of some right-wing lawmakers insisting that the government should be in the bedrooms of taxpaying American citizens.
LGBTQ communities are being used to push people’s bigotry buttons.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claims he rejected an Advanced Placement course on African American studies in part because it included “queer theory.”
During an important congressional hearing last week on pandemic spending, US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia illogically pivoted to “drag queen story hour.” It’s a repeat performance from some on the political right to scare people into thinking drag queens are the boogeymen in high heels.
This rhetoric can transform into policy, with Missouri one of several states weighing anti-LGBTQ legislation, including restrictions on transgender athletes.
Against this political backdrop, the Grammys were a wonderful, celebratory showcase of LGBTQ talent — not for “wokeness,” but because it is about damn time. For too long, queer creatives have been limited to behind-the-scenes roles.
When Beyoncé earned her Grammy for best dance/electronic recording for “Break My Soul,” she said, “I’d like to thank the queer community for your love, for inventing the genre. God bless you.”
Once upon a time, you would rarely hear a superstar such as Beyoncé openly thank her LGBTQ fan base on a world stage, but her thanks go beyond a speech. Her “Renaissance” project showcases queer — specifically, Black queer — artists, and they were rewarded with album credits.
Electro-soul singer Cor.Ece, a Grammy nominee with a songwriting credit on Beyoncé’s “Cozy,” told me this about Queen Bey, “Think of how people’s lives, especially Black queer artists, have been changed by Beyoncé giving credit to people who are otherwise ignored.”
Pop stars have built long-lasting careers with LGBTQ folks on the sidelines. Madonna, Janet Jackson, Cher, Diana Ross, Lady Gaga and countless others have maintained their superstar status, partly due to their LGBTQ fan base. These are obviously brilliant artists, but according to their own words, the LGBTQ community’s unyielding support was a career game-changer.
At Sunday’s awards show, queer folks weren’t just in the background but at the forefront. Performances from Brandi Carlile, Sam Smith and the eclectic Steve Lacy showcased a wide range of expression that goes beyond sexual origination or gender.
Kim Petras paid tribute to the trans performers who came before her. She also thanked Madonna for “fighting for LGBTQ rights,” adding “I don’t think I could be here without Madonna.” And while the internet obsesses over Madonna’s appearance and scoffs that she doesn’t fit the constructs of how a 64-year-old woman is supposed to behave, the nod to Ms Ciccone is fitting. Madonna was and is a hero to queer people, paving the way — along with Sylvester, George Michael, Big Freedia, Sophie and many others — to unapologetically exist in the music industry.
Following in the tradition of Madonna, Petras is facing heat over the “evil” imagery in her performance of “Unholy” with Smith. The faux outrage is nearly identical to the frenzy over Lil Nas X, who gave a CGI devil a lap dance in his 2021 music video “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).”
But the performance by Smith and Petras isn’t much different from how countless other artists have played with religious imagery. In truth, the backlash to Smith, Petras or Lil Nas X isn’t over religious imagery; it’s that they aren’t supposed to be the stars.
For me, I never thought I’d see a time when queer artists would be some of the most famous musicians in the world without the paranoia of losing their careers. Dance artist Sylvester could belt out notes as good as any soul singer, but being a gender nonconformist in the 1970s prevented him from achieving the success he deserved. He died in 1988 at only 42.
Jermaine Stewart, who pushed gender norms as well, had a huge hit with 1986’s “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” but disappeared from radio shortly afterward and would die at 39 in 1997. I imagine these artists and some others would be immensely proud.
One evening at the Grammys does not mean LGBTQ Americans have nothing more to fear. But I do hope Sunday night’s show indicates more queer artists are getting notoriety and power, even in this political climate.
Queer artists are demanding to be seen beyond Pride Month and rainbow gear from a local retail store. These artists’ visibility is threatening to some people, who foolishly believe their “traditions” will be erased. But whether you’re traditional or “nontraditional,” both can exist. More artists — such as DJ and producer Honey Dijon, rapper Cakes Da Killa, performance artist Mykki Blanco and others — also deserve access. Owning a seat at the table is equally important as allyship.
“It felt like one of the most inclusive Grammy ceremonies I’ve ever seen,” R&B singer-songwriter and Chicago native Cameron Forbes told me. “I’m not saying we don’t have a long way to go, but we are in a renaissance.”