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Why the Standards for Being a Gay Icon are way too Low

On April 1, pop idol Ariana Grande released a new song titled “Monopoly” with fellow musician Victoria Monét, where the latter brazenly claims she “like[s] women and men.” Contrary to popular belief, however, this does not make Grande “queen of the gays” any more than she was before, which is to say not at all. In fact, her statement might be doing more harm than good to the LGBTQ community.

As expected, the internet exploded with gossip after the song dropped. When rumors began to fly about the star’s sexuality, Grande tweeted agreement to a fan who said: “ariana ain’t gotta label herself, but she said what she said.” Monét had a similar reaction when asked. There’s nothing inherently wrong here. No one should be expected to come out in a certain way or label themselves in a certain way. Everyone is entitled to express their sexuality in a manner that feels comfortable for them, and we shouldn’t expect any different from the so-called queen of pop. With that said, Grande’s coy little game of guess-the-sexuality dances a little too close to queerbaiting for comfort.

Musicians queerbaiting or implying queerness only to shy away from directly confirming anything has been a practice for decades. Girl-on-girl skinship that caters to the male gaze is about as common as anything else, see: Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears kissing Madonna at the 2003 VMAs, “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry, “Cool for the Summer” by Demi Lovato, etc. While I’m not saying Grande’s new song is explicitly using female sexuality as a cash grab, it certainly fits nicely in the category. As a celebrity with as large of a fanbase as hers, I hoped she would consider the implications of dropping a line like that and then refusing to at least clarify. Not to mention that “Monopoly” comes hot off the heels of another queerbaiting scandal Grande faced with the music video for “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” where the singer ended the video by going in for a kiss with a suspiciously Grande-looking woman, cutting out before their lips touch.

If Ariana Grande is bisexual that’s all well and good, and I’m happy for her. But as a member of the LGBTQ community, it would be nice to at least get a confirmation that queerbaiting wasn’t her intent. Otherwise, her anti-label stance just comes off as another straight celebrity exploiting the experiences of an oppressed community to stir up a little trouble with the press. Someone with Grande’s level of fame has a responsibility to be mindful about the content she puts out and the impact it has.

Another problem with how famous musicians interact with the LGBTQ community is the issue of performative activism. One example of this is celebrity power-couple Beyonce and Jay-Z winning the GLAAD Vanguard award for allyship. Both of the Carters have gay family members and have spoken out in support of the community, as well as incorporating pride-themed imagery into some of their music videos or concerts. But this does not a good ally make. Activism is about action, and with the amount of power and money the Carters have, they could be doing a lot more, perhaps donating or lobbying instead of just talking. This is not to say that they are bad allies, but that the standards for an allyship award should be higher. The Carters are not the only ones guilty of performative allyship, either. Ariana Grande, Harry Styles and other artists are known for shaking a pride flag around onstage, leading to rabid fans calling them king or queen of the gays. But the community could benefit a lot more from direct action than from platitudes and Kodak moments.

Ultimately, all support is good support. But these issues of performative allyship and queerbaiting are still important and deserve to be criticized, especially when openly gay musicians and activists, like Hayley Kiyoko and Janelle Monae, are being overlooked in favor of more popular but less impactful artists. In the future, we can only hope celebrities are more mindful of what they put out in the world and how it affects other people.

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