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An hour into waiting for Deb Never’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone? release show to begin, my partner and I were swaying uneasily. Never’s opener, a delicate boy in an oversized dress shirt, strummed as earnest black curls fell into his eyes. Three girls cavorted flirtatiously beside us, exchanging knowing glances at lyrics about his favorite girl. One, bouncing devotedly under her raised phone, knocked into us repeatedly despite the spacious patio.
Deb Never is openly, unavoidably gay. She sings dejectedly about the women who break her heart, kisses them in cars in her music videos, and carries herself with a slightly insecure, crush-worthy swagger. But this scene felt distinctly heterosexual, as did the growing crowd; the line to get in had been so thick with Bushwick skate bros that I’d wondered if I had the date wrong. The show was promoted exclusively to Never’s still-modest Instagram following only a week in advance, so I’d expected this to feel like a family affair. When one of the girls’ hair whipped my cheek, my confusion deepened to resentment: Where were all the queers?
Under yellow-green laser beams, Never jumped on stage, stubborn in a sweatshirt and pants despite the 80° weather. “Poison in your kiss, you love me to death, you’d do anything to get further in my head,” she sang, pounding out recollections of a girl she’d unwillingly left behind. I was flooded with recognition for her little-brother electricity, the shy confidence of her body language, all the queer-coded magic the crowd seemed to lack.
Looking around, I was disappointed—both that I didn’t see enough of us and in myself for feeling territorial. I turned wordlessly to my partner, but they looked just as surprised, even a little suffocated. While a person’s sexuality isn’t always visible, I got the sense that we were in some kind of minority. The feeling was punctuated when Never worked us into a moshpit; heavy, bumbling men slammed through me and into each other at full speed. I lost my ground, a feather in a pinball machine.
After the show, I met two other queer women and asked if they’d noticed what I had. They nodded, their brows and noses crinkling with mirrored confusion.
The number of queer bars across the US has been dwindling for years and the pandemic has only exacerbated the decline. Before Oddly Enough opened in Bed-Stuy this April, New York City had merely three remaining lesbian bars, all of which took to GoFundMe to make rent during the pandemic. Park Slope’s historic Ginger’s only recently reopened after being sold to new management. I had assumed that Deb Never’s show would be a queer space in a time when they feel all the more precious. I wanted to know if my expectations, and subsequent disappointment, had any merit.
Music is essential to the histories of queer space. Most of our havens have been bars where music and alcohol align to lubricate anxieties, dancing, and cruising. Queer nightlife is rooted in movement, sexual liberation, peacocking—expressions that are often still too risky for heteronormative spaces—and music is its scaffolding. In her book, Playing It Queer, musician and author Jodie Taylor considers queer bars, explaining: “[They] were meaningful, not least because they allowed me to meet and socialize with like-minded people, but that socializing was almost always accompanied by music and dancing.” Music is still central to New York City’s ballroom scene, respites where primarily Black and Latinx trans and genderqueer people live out fantasies of camp and glamour through disco hits and diva anthems. Used as a tool, an ornament, an excuse, or a shade of sonic wallpaper, music turns balls and bars into mediums for queer manifestation, shelters from an otherwise punishing world.
Music and musicians also help us inhabit space that isn’t de facto queer. In 2018, Australian singer-songwriter Troye Sivan’s breakout single Bloom, lauded by many as a bottoming anthem, had infiltrated gay bars, grocery stores, and Hair Cuttery’s alike. My friends and I saw him perform it at Radio City Music Hall in October of that year. Trans popstar Kim Petras opened for him, stomping brattily across the stage in white platform boots. When Sivan, slinky on slender hips, appeared in an emerald green suit and matching mesh shirt, our girlish shrieks rattled the Rockette’s headquarters. We swayed with him as he reminisced about his tongue on the teeth of his boy “treasure.”
The mostly white gay men in skintight tees around me occupied a privileged tier of the LGBTQ+ community that I, a cis woman of color, and many of my trans and non-binary friends, do not. But dancing alongside them, I felt the room shake with the sheer weight of our bodies; we’d overrun one of Manhattan’s most mainstream venues. Giddy, I pulled out my phone to record the bathroom line, easily 50 twinks long.
As bars dissapear, queer musicians can still make momentary space for us. Part of what makes these spaces precious is that we presume a homogeneity of the communities that form around queer musicians. That presumption makes our codes, tools for safety, possible. Nearly every person I interviewed noted that they use music with queer themes as shorthand to identify other LGBTQ+ people. For example, the phrase “do you listen to girl in red?”, referencing the indie pop project of lesbian musician Marie Ulven Ringheim, has been meme-ified into slang for asking a girl if she’s gay.
What does it mean if that presumed homogeneity turns out to be false? I recently saw queer Canadian singer Charlotte Day Wilson play Music Hall of Williamsburg. Walking in, my friend Ramsey asked expectantly: “So this crowd is gonna be, like, really gay, right?” I shared the hope in their voice, but couldn’t answer.
Artists are central to whether live shows function as queer spaces. Music journalist and fellow queer Michelle Hyun Kim told me, “I don’t think queer artist concerts have to always exclusively have queer fans in the crowd, but I do think that the musician has a lot of power to dictate who shows up and whose safety is prioritized.” Mikaela Straus, better known as King Princess, is humbled by the gravity her concerts have for young queer people. “I get a lot of kids that come up to me after these shows that are like, ‘I had $40 left, I got kicked out of the house, and I spent it on this show,” she tells me. “A lot of people are there by necessity.”
Debates around who can and should access certain live events bring up hard truths about resources. A 2019 Williams Institute study on LGBT poverty in the US found that 22% of LGBT people live in poverty, compared to 16% of cisgender straight people. Poverty rates for trans people are especially high, at 29%, and rates for cis gay men and cis straight men are the lowest, nearly tied at 12% and 13% respectively. According to the Census, queer people were hit harder economically by the pandemic. These realities dictate who can buy access to space.
“Realistically, I don’t think queer spaces can be protected, unless they are free-of-charge or have a funding model that ensures that all queer people can afford to get in,” says Kim. “Even with things like BIPOC-only queer parties, there are always going to be white people showing up because they’re the ones who can afford the tickets.”
Straight people (read: bachelorette parties) visiting gay bars is not new. “I’ve been going to gay bars for as long as I can remember,” actor Daniel Craig told podcast host Bruce Bozzi, “because I don’t get into fights in gay bars that often.” He observed that in them, “you didn’t really have to sort of state your sexuality […] it was a very safe place to be.” Craig then added that he was going to gay bars to meet single women.
I can’t say I have sympathy for Craig, or the state of the bars he otherwise frequents, but he’s right. In the era of #MeToo and public struggles with heterosexual power dynamics, queer spaces are used as retreats for disillusioned straight people, primarily the women Craig hoped to meet. They can intuit that their physical boundaries will be respected by men who aren’t sexually interested in them. More deeply, they can be affirmed by a diverse group of people whose culture, broadly speaking, values therapy, open communication, and ethical non-monogamy. As evidenced by Craig, straight people crave the freeing embrace of a queer bar. But rather than adapt their own spaces in search of this, they continually enter ours.
Still, we struggle to define our expectations. What responsibilities do cis, straight people have when entering queer spaces? Kripa, 23, hazards a guess: “If you’re a cishet person going to a gay bar, being mindful of, ‘Oh, how much space am I taking up?’” They land in a familiarly instinctual, albeit vague, place. “You feel it in your body if you’re acting correctly in the space, perhaps, and other people feel it in their body,” they explain. Kripa’s ambivalence is inspired by a desire to maintain a welcoming outlook while nursing an old, earned suspicion. Unfortunately, that tension doesn’t produce a clear solution.
Many of the people I interviewed shared a conflicted desire for ownership of queer musicians and their work. I empathize with them. In a homophobic world where you’re told that what moves you is niche, wrong, or perverted, those feelings are born of an impulse to protect and cherish the scraps of representation that make it up the chain.
Others I spoke to were assuaged by the idea of queer allyship. Straight woman and King Princess superfan Yasi, 25, tries to expose herself to a variety of musicians and genres. Her queer friends describe her as an LGBTQ+ ally, telling me they feel comfortable standing next to her at predominantly queer King Princess concerts. “[King Princess’s music] taught me a lot about queer love and relationships—it’s been a learning experience for me,” she says.
But for Kim, the music journalist, Yasi’s thoughtful intentions are hard to expect from most listeners: “The way that music is marketed and packaged as a product doesn’t always prompt listeners to learn more about the experiences of an artist through a sociopolitical lens.” She notes music’s ephemeral nature as a virtue, saying “Sometimes you hear a song in passing and have no idea who the artist is or what they’re talking about—that can also lead to a beautiful and moving experience.” But she says she hopes consistent fans of an artist try to engage with their background on a deeper level. Her point recalls similar challenges in non-Black consumption of Black music and spaces: no system of accountability exists to trace the political beliefs or actions of white people buying up space at Afropunk.
When bisexual R&B/hip hop artist Frank Ocean released Blonde, his widely beloved second studio album, its queer themes spoke to Aliya, 23. For others, those themes caused anxieties that needed to be explained away. “It was interesting seeing straight people be like, ‘Frank Ocean’s the best, even if he’s queer,’ or ‘No homo, but I like Frank’,” Aliya recalls. The selective hearing involved in shaming Frank’s queerness while elevating his music is absurd, yet common. The music industry relies on straight white people simultaneously profiting from and denying the humanity of the marginalized artists they manage, market, and consume. On a smaller scale, having to share space with those very people at a queer artist’s show feels unfair and defeating, but mostly just out of our control.
Unlike physical space, digital space is endless. Exploding the discovery of queer musicians, sites like Tumblr allowed queer people to form distinct, if technically boundaryless, virtual fandoms. Beyond music, a broader, thirst-trap-laden lesbian community is now thriving on TikTok. Leaving shadowy usernames and avatars behind, dykes representing themselves is becoming the norm.
But that expansiveness can make the ethics of consuming queer musicians’ work even muddier. Enter TikTok millionaire Charli D’Amelio, twisting stiffly in a vertical frame. Her purple-streaked hair bounces as she mouths queer rapper ppcocaine’s 3 Musketeers, her facial expressions straining for enthusiasm in place of seduction:
Ayy, ayy, tell lil’ shorty come here
I’m tryna blow her back out, walking funny for the year
Tell me that you want me, that’s the shit I always hear
I got three bitches on me like the three musketeers
Bitch, shake that ass or kick rocks
Fuck a situationship, I’m tryna see that box
The video boasts 13.3 million likes, 10.4 million shares, and 162,100 comments. ppcocaine shared 3 Musketeers on TikTok in the summer of 2020. Blaring against a bare trap beat, the song was virally embraced by LGBTQ+ and straight users alike. But watching D’Amelio dance, her body unsure of the lyrics, I was reminded of Tony Soprano elegantly pondering The L Word’s Jennifer Beals: “She a dyke in real life?” The excitable LGBTQ+ internet speculated in the video’s comments about whether D’Amelio was coming out.
D’Amelio is a bastion of straight TikTok, the term for the app’s more normative, white, and heterosexual content. Her public dating drama with teen Hype House boys and an absence of any known queer behavior make her appear straight as well. It’s not that her potential queerness, or lack thereof, is my business—part of what liberated queer futures envision is a freedom to explore and evolve in one’s sexuality without explanation. Besides, shared to her hundreds of million followers, D’Amelio’s video likely helped propel 3 Musketeers to its nearly 83 million streams on Spotify, and ppcocaine themself into a promising career in dirty rap. But almost two years on, D’Amelio’s is still the most popular video for 3 Musketeers on TikTok. As the internet spills over with queer women, non-binary and trans self-representation, it hits a nerve that a white, cis, presumably straight girl is the app’s primary visual for a biracial, non-binary rapper’s anthem about queer sex. D’Amelio’s video is the digital marker of the complex economy queer music and culture operate within. Three Musketeers is a crossover success story as much as it is a tense reminder that even as our community takes off, we still grapple with a heterosexual system.
For LGBTQ+ musicians, transitions from niche to mainstream are usually also from gayer to straighter, and darker to whiter, marking the reality that queer people can’t yet acheive stardom on the backs of their kin alone. “If you’re only accessible to a community that feels inaccessible to a mass audience, then you’re going to be a niche artist,” Straus says. “That’s a hard thing in my brain to reckon with, because at a certain point it’s like, the gays need me, I need them, it’s osmosis. But I’m also like, you know what? I’m really tired of gay people not being at the level of massive diva pop—I think that’s frustrating too, because we could be there.” In short, the heights of fame we know queer musicians can reach might depend on the ever-fraught stretching, even relinquishing, of our physical and digital spaces.
I tell the music journalist Kim about my Deb Never experience. “I don’t think that straight dudes shouldn’t be able to listen to Deb Never,” she replies. “Maybe they’re seeing something that I don’t see, or they’re connecting with something queer about it that they don’t realize they needed.” She pauses, inevitable ambiguity returning. “I’m not immediately, like, ‘Oh, we should share space,’ but if this music connects to a broad amount of people, I don’t think I should immediately expect them to not be there when I’m going to a concert.”
It’s beautiful that Never’s grungy confessionals about manipulative women and persistent depression find homes in many ears. At her show, I watched burly white dudes in trucker hats shout every lyric, eyes locked on her, and I couldn’t say they didn’t belong there. That Never is Asian American made the image all the more powerful. “I do think music is a great unifier,” Straus says optimistically, “It’s just that the powers that be are making it more and more challenging for us to get along.”
Our instincts to preserve are born of shrinking square feet, violent pasts, presents, and likely futures. That makes them worthy of consideration. But each person at an artist’s show represents another stream, another purchased ticket, another step toward well-deserved success. With that comes visibility, economic mobility, and real (if incremental) industry change. It means more role models for lost LGBTQ+ kids. If an openly queer artist takes off, maybe it doesn’t serve us to be precious about whose shoulders they’re standing on.
When Never’s last song ended, we joined the line forming around her. The man ahead of me, beaming, leaned in for a photo and told her he drove five hours to be there that night. “Oh my god,” Never, my partner, and I said in unison.
“We just wanted to say thank you, from all the dykes in Brooklyn.” I smiled as I hugged her.
“Hey, thanks for being dykes.” Never laughed and hugged me closer. My arms sank through her sweatshirt—she was smaller than I imagined. Her faded blue-grey hair hung weightless and tousled from puppy-bounding around the stage, her body still vibrating with disbelief at the turnout. She seemed shocked by her own velocity.
Radhika Rajkumar is a writer, researcher, and graduate student living in New York. She studies technology’s influence on media and culture and is currently the Newsroom Editor & Data Specialist at Perigon.
This essay first appeared in BackMatter and is reprinted here with permission.