​they’re here, they’re queer – crashing through pop's gay frontier

It’s 2015 and for some pop stars being out loud ‘n’ proud doesn’t present a problem. Yet while there are some prepared to talk openly about their sexuality, others appear reluctant to be seen as spokespeople for their sexuality. i-D talks to Olly...

by Hattie Collins
11 December 2015, 2:55pm

A few years ago, I put on my most serious face and told my mates I had a girlfriend. They laughed (howled is actually a more appropriate description) before pointing out, 'It's 2012. Not 1902. What's the big deal'? Not to detract from their well-intentioned middle-class liberal London living subtext, which was 'It's fine, we love you, we've known since forever, and we really, really don't care', it was a big deal to me because I'm gay and they, well, they're straight. They couldn't see that it is a bit of a big deal, to have to expose a significant part of your identity - your sexual identify at that - to friends, family, work colleagues, passing acquaintances, even strangers. Not only that, but they were far from the first - or last -people I'd have to tell. And while I'm so glad I did come out - I heartily encourage anyone to do it as soon as they feel able - you don't just come out once. It is something you have to do on a weekly, sometimes daily basis. Over and over and over.

Unless you're famous.

"I remember what that was like. Every time you meet someone you have to figure out when to drop it," says Olly Alexander of Years and Years, who spoke about his sexuality early in the band's beginnings. "It's great to not have to continually tell everyone - and being a pop star is really useful for that. For me, it was never a secret, but when you're a new band that no one really cares about, no one thinks to ask about your sexuality." Olly took the opportunity to say he was gay when the band released Real, featuring very definite male pronouns, on Kitsunè. "I did an interview where the journalist asked if it was about a boy and I was like 'Yes' and it went onto this blog. It was the most low-key, minimal coming out in the world because we'd set the precedent really early on." So it was pretty straightforward for him then, the coming out process? "[Well] it wasn't a total bump-free ride," he counters. "I think some people were nervous that being out and gay early on could harm our chances, potentially, because there was no blueprint for singers that had done it until Sam Smith. I think Sam is an anomaly though. It wasn't totally smooth but it wasn't difficult decision or transition either."

Sam Smith came out just before the release of his debut album In The Lonely Hour, a record about unrequited love also scattered with the male pronoun. If there were any fears that being a homo might affect Sam's sales - particularly in the U.S. where outside of California and New York they don't tend to love anyone non-white, not-straight or non-Christian - those qualms were calmed when Sam sold 10 million copies of In The Lonely Hour, received four Grammies, sold out a U.S. arena tour, won the adoration of every single famous American, and was chosen to sing the theme to this year's Bond film Spectre, which earned him a Guinness World Record. Writing's On The Wall was the first Bond song to go to number one - Sam's third UK top hitter, fourth if you include the number one album. Sam proved that being gay doesn't mean you're confined to the ghettos of gayland forever. You can like people of the same sex and still sell records and play arenas and stadiums. It will be interesting though to see if Sam bags the big bucks brand deals of his straight counterparts.

15 years ago, when Westlife were at the peak of their popularity, things were - or certainly felt - very different to be here and queer. "You really can't change the past, but I really wish I had come out sooner," says Markus Feehily who found fame with the boy band as a teenager. "For 10 years, I just wasn't my full self. On one hand, I was on top of the world having this fantastic experience; we'd go out to a club in Berlin or Sydney or wherever and I just had to sit in the corner, I couldn't go and chat someone up. There were things I missed out on, but I don't feel that looking back and feeling sorry for myself is going to change my future. I just feel lucky that I did come out and that I can walk down the street and be me and not be afraid anymore." Feehily came out in 2005, as the band slowed to a halt; and it wasn't entirely through choice. "I was absolutely at the point where I was ready to come out but I was pushed across the edge - thankfully - by [a tabloid] because they found out I was going out with a guy," he says. "They said 'come out your own way or we'll follow you and get pictures' and that would have turned into an exposé, which I really didn't want. I wanted the message to be positive."

The fact that your sexuality can be the subject of blackmail is no new thing but it doesn't make Markus's experience any less troubling; albeit for him it was the best thing that could have happened. "I needed someone to push over the edge really, so thankfully this one time I'm happy that the [paper] came along and did that," says Feehily. "I was already at that point when all my family and friends knew so I was ready for it." Had it been a few years earlier when he was a very young, very vulnerable, very famous closeted pop star, the outcome may have been very different. "If it was at a time when I wasn't ready and hadn't been through therapy, it would have been a very different thing and that wouldn't have been fair."

Regardless of the circumstances of coming out, both Mark and Olly make the point about needing to accept yourself before expecting anyone else to. "Your own problems with your own sexuality holds you back more than anything," Feehily says. "The most powerful thing I learnt in therapy was the idea of having to deal with my own internal homophobia. One of the bravest and hardest things for me to accept was when the therapist turned to me and told me I was homophobic. I was like 'What! But I'm gay'. I realised I was afraid to be gay, that I had an issue with it. It wasn't until that pin was put in the balloon that everything became clear to me and I realised how silly I was being. It got me to the point where I wanted and needed to come out."

"For a long time, I carried with me an internalised shame. It's difficult," agrees Olly. "I wished for ages that I could be straight. I was out to everyone around me, but I wanted to feel ok being gay for myself too and so I had to come out to myself first really, through a creative project."

"We were super lucky when it came to actually "coming out" or exploring our sexuality in our teens," says NIMMO's Sarah Nimmo, 25. "We went to a really liberal and diverse school. Coming out was strangely easy and uneventful… it was the least dramatic of my adolescent theatrics. My family were also extremely supportive and relaxed about who my sisters and me dated. As for the music, it's never been an issue or even something we have had to address. I think from the way we dress it's clear that we don't completely conform to a hetronormative image, so I guess most people assume I am gay. It's been pretty idyllic looking back. Hopefully the worst isn't to come!"

The last year or two has been a pretty good year for the gay world of music; Frank Ocean, say nada. Jess Glynne recently revealed her hugely successful debut album I Cry When I Laugh was about an ex-girlfriend. Sting's daughter, Eliot Sumner, just came out as gay and gender-free the other day too. These new kids on the block join the 'legions' of other LGBTQ trailblazers, including (bot not limited to) KD Lang, Mykki Blanco, Romy from The xx, Beth Ditto, Angel Haze, Elton John, George Michael, Syd Tha Kyd, Brooke Candy, Zabra Katz, Will Young, Le1f, Jake Shears, Michael Stipe, Lance Bass, Mika, Barry Manilow, Rufus Wainwright, Boy George, Holly Johnson, Skin, Tegan and Sara, Lady Sovereign, Tracey Chapman, JD Sampson, Neil Tennant, Carrie Brownstein, Adam Lambert and Ricky Martin.

"I definitely think about sexuality more now than I ever have before," says NIMMO's Reva Gauntlet, who like her school friend and band mate Sarah found coming out the least of her teenage troubles. It is now that she's being forced to confront the connotations of her sexuality in the creative field. "Being in the band and actively trying to push the band into the mainstream, it's impossible not to be aware of what that may mean in terms of the perception of NIMMO and what, if anything, it will mean to our career," she points out.

So far, so great. Everyone's out and loud and happy - the times they are a changing, the battle in Britain for equality is all but over, thanks in part to our pop stars. Lets break out the rainbow flags and skip hand in hand down the street. "My personal experience has been pretty trouble free - my managers, to the extent that they've even felt the need to mention my being gay at all, have been brilliant," says Neil Amin-Smith of Clean Bandit. "But I think it's worth saying that I know this hasn't been the case for at least two out gay popstars who have experienced pressure from their management to hide or 'moderate' their sexuality. I think Olly [Years and Years] has made it seem much more possible for everyone else to be open about being gay in pop because he hasn't tried to present his sexual orientation to the public in an unthreatening, desexualised way - he's been honest and vocal and unapologetic about it in a way that will hopefully give confidence to other musicians than they can be themselves without fear."

It's ok to be gay - but not 'too gay'. It's revealing that in writing this piece, I found it difficult to find many prominent out pop stars that wanted to add their voice. Maybe they are busy on tour or writing albums, but it seems more likely that even out pop stars are reluctant to be seen talking 'too much' about their gayness lest they are alienate straight fans that may feel threatened by a gay person talking about, you know, gay shit. To an extent, I understand this - will we forever be defined by our sexuality, prefixed with 'LGBTQ/ delete as appropriate' - but on the other I really, really don't. Does that mean I shouldn't write at all about gay issues 'in case' I'm 'perceived' as 'a gay writer'? I don't buy that.

"I love talking about what it means to be gay in 2015 and what needs to be done to help people. It's really helpful," insists Olly. "We get interviewers that aren't gay asking us questions about being gay, and we get gay interviewers asking us questions about being gay. I just like talking about it - is that weird?"

"I don't think it can be emphasised enough how important it is for young people of any minority to be able to see people like them across all fields of public life," adds Neil. "Having an audience that I can reach at any time and on my own terms means it would be inexcusable if I were to stay silent about LGBT issues."

Artists like NIMMO and Neil and Markus and Olly are important not just because of the music they make. They're important because they're willing, unlike many of their contemporaries, to talk and sing about their sexuality. They have a platform in which to address LGBTQ concerns and they use it brilliantly to help steer conversation away from the hetronormative confines of culture to a more accepting conversation that welcomes those of all binaries, intersectionalities and sexualities. "The most prominent voices are still white gay men," Neil points out. "The increased visibility of LGBT (although mostly just G) musicians is at a level that definitely makes it more ok than before to be gay. But there's a danger that the LGBT minority will be partitioned, leaving those who don't assimilate to hegemonic norms on their own on the outside, with even less of a voice and even less power. So the more visible LGBT people the better - as broad a range as possible of LGBT voices needs to be heard.

"I think it matters because it's important for gay people to stop seeming token," says Reva of pop stars using their stage to address sexuality. "Musicians and people in the public eye have such a platform to break down those ideas and questions and I think that that's a really positive thing. I see it working, too." Olly agrees, though acknowledges there's still a long way to go; not just for gay people in the public eye, but LGBTQ life in general. "I think it's an exciting time because things are changing so much and the whole notion of sexual identify and gender identity is really being questioned which is positive. I hope decades down the line we'll have new attitudes and the words we use to name things could be obsolete, which is a great thing. We've got more and more visible gay celebrities and members of the community across entertainment. So it's good but I still feel like I can't really walk down the street and kiss my boyfriend or hold my boyfriend in a lot of the UK. And that's a sad thing."

So, my dear friends, I forever appreciate your warm and loving response - your reactions to the least surprising news in the world ever wasn't wrong in any way. But while great strides have been made in the UK, there are still places in the world where you can be killed for being gay. And even in the land of acceptance, your sexuality still defines who you are, how you're perceived. "The more normal it becomes; that's what we want to head for," concludes Markus. "The day no one bats an eyelid at two guys walking hand in hand down the street; that's where we want to be." 


Text Hattie Collins
Photography © pitpony.photography

Neil Amin-Smith
markus feehily
year and years