Lambert: The world is changing, especially in the United States. We’re moving forward, and that is direct evidence. But also it helps that he had a No. 1 song. I feel like it gave him the confidence to be like, “I can do whatever the heck I want!”
Quin: These moments are incredibly important, and they do trickle down. Not to be the “whomp whomp” person in the conversation, but we hear these stories all the time [that show how a victory like this] is not necessarily making it better for the average person who’s living in a rural community. Sometimes that leads the media to believe that everything’s fine, but there just has to be more done on a foundational level to change the system.
Kiyoko: I agree, because I’ll do interviews, and [reporters will] be like, “What’s it like [now that] everyone just loves everyone? We love the gays! Rainbows everywhere!” But we’re interacting with kids and adults all over the world…
Quin: They’re not having that same experience.
Freedia: It’s going to keep taking all of us to educate folks and tell these stories.
Lambert: And the history, too. A lot of people I meet in this generation coming up aren’t necessarily aware of everything that has come before them. Like, let’s talk about the fundamental building blocks of the gay civil rights movement.When you’re a queer artist, there’s an assumption that you will also be a queer activist. How did you decide whether or not to take on that role?
Lambert: I was really overwhelmed in the very beginning. American Idol was so fast. All of a sudden I was on magazine covers. I was dealing with the personal adjustment I had to make, and then on top of it, there was all this energy behind being the gay guy doing it. I knew I was comfortable saying, “Yes, I’m gay.” But educating the masses? I didn’t get into this business to be an educator. I just wanted to wear glitter and sing.
Freedia: Same with me. When I was doing my TV show [Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce aired on Fuse from 2013 to 2017], I was educating the masses as well. All you can do is go out there and be the best you. I get DMs all the time: kids who don’t know how to come out to their parents, parents who don’t know how to deal with their kids who are gay. I try to give the best advice I can. That’s all I can do.
Lambert: Leading by example is a form of activism.
Quin: I felt a lot of pressure to be more political. Back in the late ’90s/early 2000s when Sara and I started, not a lot of women in our age group were out. We used to joke that only one queer female group was allowed to be popular at a time. It was like the Indigo Girls handed [the baton] to Tegan and Sara: “Go forth and be our lesbian ambassadors.” But even when I sometimes felt deeply irritated and resentful, there would be these incredible moments when parents packed all their kids into a car and drove nine hours so they could meet us because their youngest had come out and used us as an example: “Look at Tegan and Sara, they’re well adjusted-ish and normal-ish!” You think to yourself, “That’s why we’re doing this.”
Kiyoko: I was one of those! I would listen to Tegan and Sara in my car on a road trip and be like, “If they can do it, I can do it. They have short hair, I have short hair. I look just like them.”
Kiyoko: Sometimes you get overwhelmed: I’m not doing enough, I’m not saying enough. I just focus on keeping people alive. If you can inspire hope and give light when people are in that darkness, they will help you make this world a better place.
Makonnen: Yeah. I don’t really feel a pressure — more like a responsibility. [My fans] look up to me and support me, so when they ask for advice or anything, the least I can do is respond in a Snapchat message or Instagram. We owe those people. They’ll come out [to shows], they’ll buy your merch, they’ll sing all your songs. They really listen to you.The language around queerness has changed so much over the years. Many younger artists coming up today embrace fluidity — they don’t feel the need to label their sexuality or gender. Does that speak to any of you?
Lambert: It’s a full-circle thing, because in the ’70s, that was all over the place. In the ’80s, there was a moment where androgyny [was trendy] and it was cool to be in the middle. Look at Boy George in the early ’80s. In the ’70s, look at David Bowie, look at Freddie Mercury.
Freedia: Everything circles back around.
Lambert: [Then] in the late ’80s into the ’90s, people were scared. We had the AIDS crisis, we had a lot of conservative forces in our country that freaked everybody out. And then in the ’90s, it started to explode again. It just does this. So I’m excited about where we’re at. It’s creating a lot of freedom for people.
Quin: It has made it feel more like a community, too. For a lot of my career I felt very separate. When Sara and I started identifying as queer, we took a lot of heat from the lesbian community because they felt like we were rejecting that word, but for me, it embodied not just my sexuality, but my gender. I don’t feel super feminine. It doesn’t mean that I don’t identify with my female side, but to me, “queer” was a less female-sounding word. And now it’s so cool to see all these people talking about “smashing the binary” and “the future is fluid.” I’m all for it — we’re stronger when we’re not so siloed.
Lambert: When I first started, I was wearing a lot of makeup, and a lot of Middle American fans associated my visual appearance with my sexuality. I know a lot of gay guys here in L.A. that would be terrified of wearing a stitch of makeup. I was dressing more like my heroes, people like Mick Jagger and Bowie. Explaining that to Susie Homemaker in Ohio was interesting, because they didn’t quite understand that the makeup didn’t mean gay. And now we’re in a place where people don’t jump to those conclusions as quickly. Expression is expression, and fashion is fashion.