Column: Queers Are Going To Hell (and having fun doing it)

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We’ve all heard the religious rhetoric: Gay people are an “abomination to God” and are therefore going to Hell. One needn’t grow up in a religious household to hear (and subsequently internalize) this hateful message.

American society is rife with this blatant bigotry, wrapped up in a legally protective barrier called “religious freedom”. While things have been steadily getting better, for the most part, there are still many areas in which queer people are still at risk: access to housing, medical care, and more. In fact, in 27 states there are no laws that protect queer people from discrimination at all. So, contrary to those who will continue to insist that what with marriage equality becoming law, we obviously still have a lot of work to do.

Besides overt political actions, one area that is particularly effective at affecting cultural change is entertainment. Artists have a particular power (and I would suggest a responsibility) to advance the ideas of equality by shining a light on societal oppression. Queer artists like Dan Levy who created, directed, and starred in the offbeat TV comedy Schitt’s Creek which portrayed homosexuality (and pansexuality) in a positive, nonchalant light (which just may have been the most radical pro-Queer move ever) are proving that one can be out and still be successful.

This “no big deal” approach has certainly landed with fans and created more opportunities for visibility and dialogue. But in a world as complex and deeply flawed as the one in which we find ourselves, sometimes you still need that tried-and-true tactic of getting up in people’s faces. And… maybe shaking some bootie while you’re at it.

Enter Lil Nas X, an American rapper, who rose to fame with his 2018/2019 breakout country rap hit, “Old Town Road” which topped the charts at number 1, but it was his 2020 release of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” that really set the world on fire.

Perhaps, more accurately, the 2021 music video set the world on fire.

For those who have been under an internet or social media rock, the video begins with the artist offering a narrative:

“In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see. We lock them away. We tell them ‘no’. We banish them. But here? We don’t. Welcome to Montero.”

 

We next see him in what appears to be the garden of Eden where he is confronted by the Biblical serpent (all characters save one are played by the artist). We next see the artist bound in chains in what appears to be a coliseum-like setting. Angry (and blind) spectators begin throwing things at him, one object hits him in the head presumably killing him. Then we see him glowing, ascending into the heavens to meet with an angelic figure above. This is short-lived, however as the appearance of a stripper pole prompts him to reach out and take it, and now we see him sensually sliding and dancing down this pole into a fiery underworld scene. Lil Nas X has gone to Hell.

But instead of the torment hyped by the Christian right, we see Lil Nas X doing just fine, most notably giving a lap-dance to Satan (the only character not played by the rapper) before eventually breaking the Devil’s neck and stealing his “crown”, placing it upon his own head ostensibly taking power from it as his eyes glow bright and black angel wings unfurl from his back.

Fully aware of the potent shock-imagery, it is a beautiful story of reclaiming one’s power in the face of adversity, of facing one’s fears, and growing stronger as a result.

Lil Nas X claiming his power. via YouTube

 

Author Mat Auryn wrote a Twitter thread in which he broke down the imagery of the video and described it as an exploration of queer shadow work. I won’t repeat his excellent analysis here, so go read it and then come back. I’ll wait.

In addition to being a catchy song, a beautifully shot video, and a well-thought-out psychoanalytic process of confronting the pain thrust upon queer people by Christian society, it was also a killer marketing campaign.

Shortly after the release of the number one video, Lil Nas X announced the sale of “Satan Shoes” limited to 666 pairs (of course). The red and black custom-altered Nike’s from Mschf which sported a silver pentagram, upside-down cross, and allegedly contained a real drop of human blood. And even at $1018 a pop they sold out in less than one minute, though Nike has since sued, and the art company responsible for the customizations had to announce a voluntary recall and offer to buy the shoes back at full price, ostensibly only driving up the collectors’ price even more.

The response was tremendous. And by that, I mean there’s been quite a lot of it. While he has certainly made new fans as a result (I will admit that I had never heard of him before this, but I am now a definite fan) the reaction from conservatives has been shockingly predictable, even as their takedowns have been delicious. The newest wave of a ‘Satanic Panic’ unfolding online as conservatives clutch their pearls and bemoan the downfall of a society they have done everything in their power to destroy.

Taking time out from drafting executive orders banning trans girls from playing sports, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, took to Twitter to plead for “the soul of our nation”, and included product pictures of the offending shoes while doing so, unexpectedly assisting in the promotion. But was it really all that unexpected?

Lil Nas X has been in charge of the social media response since day one. He has responded to conservative talking points with mastery, taking down ministers, Fox News commentators, conservative authors, and a governor, all with a nonchalant attitude that has effectively taken the conservative playbook and flipped it around. He’s using conservative outrage to fuel his own ascension, and this queen is here for it.

His responses to his critics have been down-to-earth, on point, artful, humorous, and demonstrate an obvious mastery of the medium of social media. To the Governor’s religious plea he replied, “ur a whole governor and u on here tweeting about some damn shoes. do ur job!”

In a viral video posted to Instagram, he began by tearfully addressing his fans, telling them that he was trying to be strong… before launching into a smile-filled promotion for his music video. He even has a browser videogame, “Twerk Hero”, in which you too can be him, twerking to his song.

What makes it even more satisfying, is that he’s not only doing it for him. He’s doing it for us, for all queer people. On the night before the video dropped, he tweeted a message to his 14-year-old self:

“Dear 14 year old Montero, I wrote a song with our name in it. It’s about a guy I met last summer. I know we promised to never come out publicly, I know we promised to never be ‘that’ type of gay person, I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.

“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be. Sending you love from the future.”

To take the symbolism of the culture that oppresses you, to then embrace it, and own it in a way to take your power back from it, is hardcore magic.

On the personal level, it is, as Auryn rightfully pointed out, shadow work. Lil Nas X has taken it a step further. By using the symbolism of the religion that has been used for generations to torture and kill us, and presenting it to the public in this way, he is engaged in a form of chaos magic fighting for the redemption and healing of the queer soul.

Lil Nas X slid down that stripper pole into Hell for all of us, to show us what needed to be done: to own ourselves fully, without apologies, and to take our power back from the very things that have been used against us. We are all invited to take part and have fun doing it.