Thursday, July 29, 2021

Kuan Yin: “A Mirror of the Queer Experience”

The Wild Reed’s 2021 Queer Appreciation series concludes with an excerpt from Kittredge Cherry’s recent QSpirit piece that explores Kuan Yin, the genderfluid spirit of compassion in Buddhism, as a “queer Buddhist Christ figure.”


Kuan Yin, the genderfluid spirit of compassion in Buddhism, is sometimes thought of as a queer Christ figure or LGBTQ role model. Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of Kuan Yin every year in July or August. This year the date is July 28, 2021.

Transcending gender identity, Kuan Yin appears in whatever form is necessary to help people in need: sometimes female, sometimes male, sometimes androgynous.

Christians honor Christ as savior, and Kuan Yin is a type of Buddhist savior figure called a bodhisattva — an enlightened person who is able to reach nirvana (heaven) but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save others from suffering.

Artists often show Kuan Yin with eyes in the hands and feet. They are like the wounds of Christ, but Kuan Yin can see with them. Kuan Yin is also associated with the mother of Christ. When Christianity was persecuted in Edo-era Japan, the “hidden Christians” created states of Mary disguised as Kuan Yin.

Also known as the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin goes by different names in different places, including Avalokiteshvara in India, Tara (female) or Chenrezig (male) in Tibet, and Kannon in Japan.

Writers and scholars who have explored the queer side of Kuan Yin include Patrick S. Cheng, an Episcopal priest who teaches at Chicago Theological Seminary; Hsiao-Lan Hu, religious studies professor at the University of Detroit Mercy; and Toby Johnson, a former Catholic monk turned author and comparative religion scholar.

Kuan Yin as queer Asian Christ figure

In the introduction to his 2003 essay “Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ,” Cheng explains:

Kuan Yin, the Asian goddess of compassion, can serve as a mirror of the queer experience. Specifically, Kuan Yin affirms three aspects in the life of queer people that are often missing from traditional images of the divine: (1) queer compassion; (2) queer sexuality; and (3) gender fluidity. In other words, Kuan Yin can be an important means by which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people can see ourselves as being made in the image of God.

Cheng writes clearly about the connection between Kuan Yin and Christ in the section where he describes his personal search for queer Asian Christ figures:

I have been intrigued by the possibility of Kuan Yin serving as a christological figure for queer Asian people. For me, it has been difficult to envision the Jesus Christ of the gospels and the Western Christian tradition as being both queer and Asian (although I do recognize that queer theologians and Asian theologians have tried to do so in their respective areas). It is my thesis that Kuan Yin might serve as a symbol of salvation and wholeness for queer Asian people of faith.

Click for the whole essay “Kuan Yin: Mirror of the Queer Asian Christ” in English or in Spanish.

Cheng’s latest book Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit was published in 2013. He is also the author of From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology. His series on “Rethinking Sin and Grace for LGBT People Today” was one of the most popular stories of 2010 at the Jesus in Love Blog.

Kuan Yin moves beyond gender

Hsiao-Lan Hu presented a paper on “Queering Avalokiteśvara” at the 2012 American Academy of Religion annual meeting. She noted that the Lotus Sutra says that Avalokitesvara will appear to teach different beings in different forms, based on what they can accept.

In the summary of her paper, Hu writes, “Of the 33 forms listed in the Lotus Sutra, seven are explicitly female, indicating that the Bodhisattva of Compassion transcends gender identity. . . . What is the theoretical ground in the Buddhadharma (Buddha’s teaching) that justify or even propel such conceptualization? How does that theoretical ground compare to modern-day queer theory?”

She summed up her paper in the 2013 Women’s and Gender Studies Newsletter from the University of Detroit Mercy:

Avalokiteśvara’s multi-morphic manifestation affirms different beings in their specific identities, while his/her transformability points to the possibility of moving beyond the confinement of any particular identity. For people of minority identities, the Bodhisattva thus can be both a source of comfort and a model for coping with reality in which they often need to perform different roles.

Hu is the author of This-Worldly Nibbana: A Buddhist-Feminist Social Ethic for Peacemaking in the Global Community.

“A nice myth for gay people”

Another LGBTQ perspective on Kuan Yin is provided by Toby Johnson in the preface to the revised edition of his book Gay Perspective: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe. Johnson writes about Kuan Yin as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara:

It is said there are Three Wonders of the Bodhisattva. The first is that he is androgynous, simultaneously both male and female, transcending the polarity of gender. That’s why he is such a sweet and lovable fellow: he blends the best of masculinity and the best of femininity.

The second wonder is that he sees there is no difference between nirvana and the life of suffering and rebirth in time, no difference between eternity and temporality, no difference between heaven and earth. This is why he could renounce his own nirvana and embrace all human experience. This life is nirvana; this is heaven on earth.

And the third wonder is that the first two wonders are the same!

That’s why this is such a nice myth for gay people to entertain. It says we’re really all One, all reflections of one another, that the distinction between male and female is illusory and needs to be transcended and that transcending gender is part and parcel with experiencing heaven now.

Avalokiteshvara is portrayed as the androgynous young being, beloved by everybody who knows him. That is very much like the ideal so many gay people find themselves looking for as a lover (and as a sense of themselves). And in the way that we gay people find the world a reflection of ourselves, so this myth says it really is. When we love another man or another woman, seeing their beauty and consciousness as like ours in homosexual attraction, that being we’re loving is the being that is ourself. No duality, no polarization.

A student of Joseph Campbell, Johnson has written 10 books, including the classic Gay Spirituality and Two Spirits. He is former production manager of Lethe Press and former editor of White Crane Journal. Johnson discusses Kuan Yin as an androgynous figure who embodies compassion in his articles “Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara” and “Avalokiteshvara at the 21st Street Baths.”

Queer theologian Robert Shore-Goss applies the bodhisattva concept to queer Christian life in “Bodhisattva Christianity: A Case of Multiple Religious Belonging” in the 2013 book Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians. Goss pastored Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley (North Hollywood, CA) after serving as chair of the religious studies department at Webster University in St. Louis.

– Kittredge Cherry
Excerpted from “Kuan Yin: A Queer Buddhist Christ Figure?
July 28, 2021

For previous installments in The Wild Reed’s 2021 Queer Appreciation series, see:
“A Book About Revolutionary People That Feels Revolutionary Itself”
Remembering Dusty Springfield’s “Daring” 1979 Gay-Affirming Song
Zaylore Stout on the Meaning of Emancipation in 2021
Maebe A. Girl: A “Decidedly Progressive Candidate” for Congress
The Art of Tania Rivilis
Lil Nas X, the Latest Face of Pop’s Gay Sexual Revolution

For more of Kittredge Cherry’s writings at The Wild Reed, see:
Kittredge Cherry on the Queer Goddess Origins of the Feast of the Assumption
Christ and Krishna
Kittredge Cherry on the “Tough Questions” Raised by the Uganda Martyrs
Quote of the Day – July 30, 2010
Kittredge Cherry on Mychal Judge, the “Gay Saint of 9/11”
The Ashes of Our Martyrs

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Learning from the East
New Horizons

Image 1:Quan Yin and the Silent Song of the Lightning White Rose of Wisdom” by Bill Brouard.
Image 2:Tantric Marriage” by George Atherton.
Image 3:Regeneration” by Amanda Sage.
Images 4 and 5: Artists unknown.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Remembering an Actor Who “Changed Everything”

I’ve been honoring actor Chadwick Boseman at The Wild Reed on the 28th day of every month since his death last year on August 28. Chadwick died of colon cancer, and although he had been living with the disease since 2016, he never spoke of it publicly.

Today, eleven months to the day since his passing, the honoring continues with my sharing of an appreciation written by Jake Coyle, film writer with The Associated Press. Coyle’s insightful tribute was first published August 29, 2020. It is reprinted in its entirety below with added images and links.


Chadwick Boseman
An Appreciation for an Actor
Who Changed Everything

By Jake Coyle
The Associated Press
August 29, 2020

The image that keeps replaying in my head since the death of Chadwick Boseman is from early 2018. It was just days before Black Panther would open in theaters and the exhilaration aroused by this long-in-coming cultural event was everywhere around Boseman. Flocked by fans, he repeatedly paused for pictures until he was handed a months-old Black child whom he gently held, beaming.

Boseman’s family said that the actor, who died Friday [August 28, 2020] at the age of 43, was first diagnosed with colon cancer in 2016. Did he know when he held that baby that he might not live long enough to see a child of his own raised? Did he know that in playing Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa – in so gracefully filling the screen with the dignity of Black lives – that he was helping to cradle another generation?

In a tragically brief but historically sweeping life as an actor, Boseman played men of public life and private pain. Before [his death], we didn’t know he, too, was bearing such a burden.

That has only magnified his accomplishment, bringing him closer to the great figures whose shoes he wore on film. He played men who advanced a people’s progress, a trail he helped blaze himself. He played icons, and died one, too.

“There’s a lot to learn from Jackie Robinson. There’s a lot to learn from James Brown. There’s a lot to learn from Thurgood Marshall,” Boseman said that day two and a half years ago. “I would like to say that some of those qualities have infused themselves into me at this point.”

Boseman started out as a playwright. He was raised in the manufacturing town of Anderson, South Carolina, the youngest of three boys. As a junior in high school, he wrote and staged a play inspired by the shooting death of a basketball teammate. Before he was a Hollywood star, he penned numerous hip-hop-infused plays: “Hieroglyphic Graffiti,” “Rhyme Deferred,” “Deep Azure” — and directed others. In New York, he performed with the National Shakespeare Company.

He compared his alma mater, Howard University, to his own personal Wakanda.

“If you have a blanketed idea of what it means to be of African descent and you go to Howard University, you’re meeting people from all over the diaspora – from the Caribbean, any country in Africa, in Europe,” Boseman said. “So you’re seeing people from all walks of life that look like you but they sound different.”

That early development of an expansive, historical understanding of African American identity surely fed the grace and humility of Boseman’s most famous roles. It wasn’t until he was in his mid-30s, after a handful of brief television appearances, that he landed his first leading role as Robinson in 42. He was, from the start, a self-evident movie star with a rare, effortless charisma. Rachel Robinson, the Hall of Famer’s widow, said it was like seeing her husband again.

In the hours of shock since the news of Boseman’s death, the story of how Denzel Washington paid for Boseman and other Howard students to attend a summer theater program at the University of Oxford has been much retold. It’s especially fitting because it, as if by fate, links Boseman with Washington. Like his long-ago benefactor, Boseman exuded strength and self-possession. When he played Robinson and Brown (in Get on Up) and Marshall (in Marshall), Boseman’s power wasn’t asked for or worked up to. It was innate. It was there already. “When I hit the stage, people better be ready,” he says in Get on Up. “Especially the white folk.”

Many would have, after playing Robinson and Brown, turned a blind eye to biopics. But by playing a young version of the Supreme Court justice in Marshall (which he co-produced) Boseman confirmed the ongoing nature of his project, one that would reach a staggering climax in Black Panther. Boseman first made his debut as King T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War in 2016, the same year he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

After playing a string of pioneers, Boseman led the Black Panther revolution.

“We all know what it’s like to be told that there is not a place for you to be featured – yet you are young, gifted and black,” Boseman said, accepting the film’s Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble. “We know what it’s like to be told there’s not a screen for you to be featured on, a stage for you to be featured on.”

It’s mind-boggling what Boseman was able to accomplish, facing down an industry’s historical prejudice while suffering through cancer treatments. But it’s equally hard to measure what lay in front of him. In less than a decade, Boseman changed the movies. His more recent films suggest the next decade was going to be at least as interesting. In [2019]’s 21 Bridges, a film he also produced, Boseman plays an NYPD detective whose cop-killer case uncovers the department’s own persistent corruption. Boseman’s very presence reorients the story.

During the filming of Black Panther, Boseman said he was communicating with two boys who had terminal cancer. They were hoping to make it long enough to see the film. “I realized they anticipated something great,” Boseman said in a SiriusXM interview. The kids, Boseman said through tears, didn’t make it. But in his unjustly short career, Boseman held in his hands a world, illuminated on screen like never before.

Jake Coyle
The Associated Press
August 29, 2020

NEXT: “The Perfect Send-Off”

Related Off-site Links:
Chadwick Boseman Appreciation: A Star Who Made Nobility Human – Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune, August 29, 2020).
Cancer Survivor Kevin Boseman Performs Dance Tribute to His Late Brother Chadwick Boseman – Karu F. Daniels (New York Daily News, June 20, 2021).
Chadwick Boseman's Parents Speak Exclusively to WYFF News 4 in First Interview Since His Passing – Allen Devlin (WYFF 4 News, June 18, 2021).
Howard University Names Newly Re-Established College of Fine Arts for Chadwick Boseman – Angelique Jackson (Variety, May 26, 2021).
Black Panther Fans “Nervous” About Sequel Without Chadwick BosemanShowbiz Cheat Sheet (May 25, 2021).
Marvel Reveals Black Panther Sequel’s Title and Release Date in Nostalgic Mega-Trailer – Jenna Ryu (USA Today, May 3, 2021).
Everything We Know About Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – M. Arbeiter (Nerdist, July 21, 2021).
Chadwick Boseman’s Final Performance As T’Challa Featured In Marvel’s What If? Trailer – Trey Mangun (Shadow and Act, July 8, 2021).

For The Wild Reed’s series that remembers and celebrates Chadwick Boseman, see:
Remembering Chadwick Boseman
Honoring An Icon
Chadwick Boseman’s Timeless Message to Young Voters: “You Can Turn Our Nation Around”
Chadwick Boseman’s Final Film Role: “A Reed Instrument for Every Painful Emotion”
Celebrating a Special Day
Boseman on Wilson
Chadwick Boseman and That “Heavenly Light”
In This Time of Grief
A Bittersweet Accolade
Chadwick Boseman Receives Posthumous NAACP Image Award
“He Was Just Interested In the Work”
Remembering Chadwick Boseman’s Life of Purpose
The Political Legacy of Chadwick Boseman

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Important Cultural Moment That Is Black Panther
Celebrating Black Panther – Then and Now
“Avengers Assemble!”
Jason Johnson on Stan Lee’s Revolutionary Legacy
Another First for Black Panther
“Something Special,” Indeed!
Queer Black Panther

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Photo of the Day

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Photo of the Day – July 11, 2012
Photo of the Day – November 23, 2019
Photo of the Day – June 15, 2017
Photo of the Day – January 26, 2017
Weekend at Pelican Lake
Pelican Lake (2016)
Days of Summer on the Bayfield Peninsula

Image: Coon Lake, Wyoming, MN – July 24, 2021. The lake was named from the fact that its lakefront area was once a popular hunting ground of raccoons.(Photo: Michael J. Bayly)

Monday, July 26, 2021

“Meaning Transfigures All”

Here's something I came across recently that I thought I'd share this evening.

After spending time with the San people (also known as Bushmen) of the Kalahari Desert, the late journalist, humanitarian, philosopher, and conservationist Laurens van der Post wrote the following.

The Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert talk about the two “hungers.” There is the Great Hunger and there is the Little Hunger. The Little Hunger wants food for the belly; but the Great Hunger, the greatest hunger of all, is the hunger for meaning. . . . There is ultimately only one thing that makes human beings deeply and profoundly bitter, and that is to have thrust upon them a life without meaning.

There is nothing wrong in searching for happiness. But of far more comfort to the soul is something greater than happiness or unhappiness, and that is meaning. Because meaning transfigures all. Once what you are doing has for you meaning, it is irrelevant whether you're happy or unhappy. You are content – you are not alone, in your Spirit – you belong.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In the Garden of Spirituality – Caroline Jones
In the Garden of Spirituality – Jeanette Blonigen Clancy
In the Garden of Spirituality – Marianne Williamson
In the Garden of Spirituality – David Richo
In the Garden of Spirituality – Beatrice Bruteau
In the Garden of Spirituality – Hazrat Inayat Khan
In the Garden of Spirituality – Ilia Delio
In the Garden of Spirituality – Parker Palmer
Thomas Moore on the Circling of Nature as the Best Way to Find Our Substance
Words of Wisdom on Indigenous Peoples Day
Prayer of the Week – November 14, 2012
“This Light Breeze That Love Me”
Soul Deep

Related Off-site Links:
Botswana Bushmen: Modern Life Is Destroying Us – Pumza Fihlani (BBC News, January 7, 2014).
Walking With Cheetahs: The Big Cats of the Kalahari Who Are Man's Best Friend – Jonathan Scott (Daily Mail, November 12, 2010).

Sunday, July 25, 2021

We All Need Love

Something special this evening for "music night" at The Wild Reed. It’s “We All Need Love” by Sam Hawksley, featuring Wendy Matthews on lead vocals. The song is the first single from Hawksley’s new album, Birds.

The image that opens this post is a screencap from the following official video for “We All Need Love.” Enjoy!

Says Sam Hawksley about Wendy and “We All Need Love”:

Canadian-born Wendy Matthews is an Australian icon. I’ve always loved Wendy Matthews’ voice. I think I first heard her on Kirk Lorange’s album, then with Absent Friends, then her solo albums. Her voice is genre-defying, slipping easily between soul, pop, folk and jazz. Not long before I left Australia to live in Nashville I got to play some live shows with her which was a thrill. Wendy actually sang a featured backing vocal part on my song “I’m Sorry Now,” and I’d played guitar on a recording Wendy did of Buddy and Julie Millers song “Rivers Gonna Run.” I thought Wendy would sound great on this song and she does! She recorded the vocal at a friend’s studio in Coffs Harbour. Wendy and the engineer FaceTimed me once Wendy had sung it to see if I was happy. I had goose bumps.

For more of Wendy Matthews at The Wild Reed, see:
A Welcome Return
Beautiful View
Nobody But You
Standing Strong
Like the Sun
Wendy Matthews

Related Off-site Link:
Wendy Matthews Shares Live Tapes for Support Act’s Roadies FundThe Music Network (May 7, 2021).

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Summer Blooms

Currently, various levels of drought conditions are being experienced across Minnesota, including here in the Twin Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis.

Not surprisingly, the impact of these conditions are starting to show in the garden of the triplex where I live in south Minneapolis. In response, I’ve been out watering the flowers, lawn, and vegetables in the cool of the evening. This past Saturday, however, I spent time in the garden in the morning. That’s when I took the photos that comprise this evening’s Wild Reed post.

Writes MPR’s Riham Feshir:

Heat and drought conditions are forecast to continue this week in Minnesota, with temperatures climbing into the 90s across much of the state and little rain – putting additional stress on crops and expanding the threat of wildfires.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Friday that with 52 percent of the state in severe or extreme drought, there’s now a drought warning in effect. Water levels are low on the Mississippi River, which supplies drinking water for many communities, and widespread rain isn’t in the forecast anytime soon.

Related Off-site Links:
Hot, Dry Conditions Show No Sign of Letting Up in Minnesota – Riham Feshir (MPR News, July 20, 2021).
In Light of Drought, Minneapolis Sets Watering RestrictionsMPR News (July 20, 2021).
Air Quality Alert Expanded Across Minnesota Over Canadian Wildfire SmokeMPR News (July 20, 2021).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Summer Garden
Summer Blooms (2015)
Summer Blooms (2014)
Summer Blooms (2009)
O Breath of Summer
In Summer Light
Summer Boy

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Weekend at Pelican Lake

I spent this past weekend at Pelican Lake, celebrating my friend Angie’s birthday.

Located just outside of the town of Glenwood in Pope County, Minnesota, Pelican Lake is about a two hour drive northwest from the Twin Cities.

Angie and I first met in 1995, which was my second year in the U.S. after my relocation here from Australia. At the time, both of us were students at the College of St. Catherine (now the St. Catherine University) in the Twin Cities. Angie’s hometown is Montevideo, west of the Twin Cities, and back in the late 1990s and early 2000s I spent many happy summer weekends and Thanksgiving holidays in Montevideo with Angie and her family, who welcomed me as one of their own.

A number of Angie’s family members and close friends were at Pelican Lake to celebrate her birthday, so it was a great reunion for all of us. I hadn’t seen many of them since the summer of 2018, when we gathered in Minneapolis to celebrate Angie’s nephew’s wedding.

This was my second visit to beautiful Pelican Lake, where Angie and her family have a camper at the Pelican Lake RV Resort. I was last there in July of 2016.

Above: With Angie and her husband Bryan
– Pelican Lake, Saturday, July 10, 2021.

Above: Everyone was impressed with my fire-building skills!

Above: With friends Kelly and Randy.

Above: Angie, Cassie and Bryan.

Above: Zayna.

Above: Elena, Jordan and Patty.

Above: With Cassie and Elena.

Above and right: I returned to the Twin Cities via Montevideo, where I visited Angie’s mum. It was lovely to catch up with her, especially as we hadn’t seen each other since January 2017, when I traveled to Montevideo to celebrate her 80th birthday.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Pelican Lake (2016)
Days of Summer on the Bayfield Peninsula
Gull Lake

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

Something to Think About . . .

Related Off-site Links:
The Bezos-Branson-Musk Space Race Is a Huge Waste of Money and Scientifically Useless – Michael Hiltzik (Los Angeles Times, July 6, 2021).
The Billionaire Space Race Is a Tragically Wasteful Ego Contest – Jacob Silverman (The New Republic, July 9, 2021).
Progressive Backlash to “Billionaire Blastoff” Highlights Inequality on Earth – Brett Wilkins (Common Dreams, July 12, 2021).

Image: Steve Sack / Star Tribune.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Lil Nas X, the Latest Face of Pop’s Gay Sexual Revolution

The Wild Reed’s 2021 Queer Appreciation series continues with an excerpt from Jazmine Hughes’ recent New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Subversive Joy of Lil Nas X’s Gay Pop Stardom.”


Somehow, I remember precisely where I was the first time I heard Lil Nas X: in the back seat of a friend’s car, speeding toward upstate New York for a girls’ weekend that we would spend sliding back to a version of adolescence, stoned on the power of our own giddiness. But first, we had to get there, and somewhere along Interstate 87, someone turned on “Old Town Road.”

Could anyone have it made it through 2019 without hearing “Old Town Road,” an international anthem of defiance (“Can’t nobody tell me nothing”), tenacity (“I’m gonna ride till I can’t no more”) and travel plans (“I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road”)? Listening to the song felt like ingesting amphetamines, happiness clomping through my brain in spurs. The song was both absurd and earnest, its opening sounding exactly like the swaggering steps of a cowboy swinging open a saloon door. I had climbed into the back seat that spring afternoon still covered in the frost of a winter funk, but I emerged – after a long car ride, some light emotional processing and no fewer than five listens to “Old Town Road” – goofy and loose, fun drummed back into me.

This is the difference between the Nas of “Old Town Road” and the one heard now, both in musical approach and in self-depiction: The new one is really, really gay. Coming out, for Nas, was a recalibration. He wanted to be not just a pop star but a visibly gay one, a figure built on that Gen Z tendency to heighten a sexual identity into an exaggerated shtick, but one founded on a genuine pride and comfort. . . . After years of hiding himself, there was now no mistaking it: He was trying to be, all at once, a hitmaker, a huge pop star, an out gay man and a sexual being.

You’re nobody until you’re part of a conspiracy theory – and Nas, if you listen to some corners of the internet, is part of an evil, far-ranging effort to emasculate the Black man. In this he joins a lineage of many visibly queer Black men, from James Baldwin to Little Richard, whose sexuality has been seen as a siege on the purity of Black masculinity, already under so much duress.

Nowhere has this allegation weighed more heavily than with “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” a song whose music video is a purposefully provocative sendup of the eternal damnation that Nas, and countless gay people, have been promised. In it, Nas is seduced by a serpent and brought in front of a tribunal for judgment, where he is killed by a flying butt plug. He then descends into hell via a stripper pole and ends up grinding on the devil, his face lavish with pleasure of the highest perversion. Lyrically, he describes, in lurid detail, how he wants to have sex with another man: “I want that jet lag from [expletive] and flyin’/Shoot a child in your mouth while I’m riding.” (As Susan Sontag said, “Camp is a tender feeling.”) He kills the devil, removing his horns and placing them atop his own head, suggesting that just because you are sentenced to hell doesn’t mean you are sentenced to suffering.

. . . Gay pop stardom is nothing new, but a pop stardom in a position to include overt sexuality might be. Nas is a bouillabaisse of his forebears: the wholesome sex appeal of a George Michael, the glitz of an Elton John or a David Bowie, the disruption of a Le1f or a Sylvester, the emotion of a Frank Ocean. He also follows in the path of artists like Salt-N-Pepa and Lil’ Kim and his idol Nicki Minaj, all of whom made rabid sexual attraction to men into something interesting enough to sing about, as well as Janelle Monáe, whose “PYNK” was a lively song about one woman performing oral sex on another.

Nas’s project, though, is to move past the mainstream and publicly acceptable practice of queerness, which is often so divorced from actual sexual pleasure that it can feel neutered. It’s one thing to accept a gay person, as many do, by ignoring what we do behind closed doors. But it’s quite another to embrace gay people as sexual beings, who can also enact an identity – just as straight people so proudly, publicly and lucratively do – in part through sex itself. Unlike many of his predecessors, Nas’s claim to his sexuality is explicit. He does not, say, sing love songs with elided pronouns. This is a man who has sex with other men. Even within the queer community, to have a young, strong, Black man openly identify as a bottom – a feminized position that’s often the target of misogynistic ire – is rare, a subversion of both power structures and social codes.

. . . There is a contemporary understanding of Black male identity that is condescending even as it intends to be caring: It posits that to be Black and a man is to be, exclusively, in constant danger. Attempts to complicate Black masculinity – like the once-constant rendering of Black men wearing flower crowns, as though this were a shocking juxtaposition – often seem built on those same stereotypes. Some people seem to enjoy defining what a Black man should or should not be. On Nas, though, masculinity turns expansive. His identity is capacious enough to accommodate fantasy. Grazing all six of his abs might be a hand adorned with white nail polish. His chest might be bound by a corset. Last Halloween, he dressed up as Minaj, complete with a blond wig, cinched waist and false breasts. He knew it would make people uncomfortable. (An internet native, he measures this in terms of “losing followers.”) Drag on Black men is typically done for laughs or else so clearly fixed in a queer space that it doesn’t much infringe on mainstream gender politics. But something about a cis Black man dressed in women’s clothing purely for fun was too close for comfort, especially when his music sits near hip-hop. Nas ended up having to defend himself to people like the rapper 50 Cent, whose own exaggerated masculinity is rooted in big muscles and having survived being shot. “What makes Lil Nas X so extraordinary is how brave he is at being so outwardly gay within the urban music world,” Elton John said to me in an email. “That’s where he’s truly groundbreaking.”

– Jazmine Hughes
Excerpted from “The Subversive Joy
of Lil Nas X’s Gay Pop Stardom

New York Times Magazine
July 7, 2021

NEXT: Kuan Yin: “A Mirror of the Queer Experience”

Related Off-site Links:
From Internet Sensation to Global Icon: How Lil Nas X Is Navigating Music As a Gay Artist: An Interview With Jazmine HughesPress Play With Madeleine Brand (July 12, 2021).
Lil Nas X and Pop's Gay Sexual Revolution – Louis Staples (BBC Culture, July 11, 2021).
The Lil Nas X Gay Coronation Covers New York Times Magazine; Crowned With “Elaborately Braided Black Boy Joy” – Brian Bell (Towleroad, July 9, 2021). Lil Nas X Gives Epic Performance at BET Awards During Pride MonthThe Black Wall Street Times (June 29, 2021).
Lil Nas X Was Thankfully Not Shy Last Night During the BET Awards – Jason A. Michael (Pride Source, June 28, 2021).
Lil Nas X Hits Back at "Hypocritical," Homophobic Criticism over BET Awards Kiss: “I Love Who I Am” – Cydney Henderson (USA Today, June 28, 2021).
From Adam Lambert’s Blurred Gay TV Kiss to Lil Nas X at the BET Awards: What Changed? – James Duke Mason (LGBTQ Nation, July 6, 2021).
Adam Lambert Addresses Lil Nas X’s Same-Sex Kiss at the 2021 BET Awards – Stephen Daw (Billboard, June 29, 2021).
Lil Nas X Says He Knew His “Montero” Music Video Would Be Controversial – Joe Price (Complex, June 21, 2021).
Meet Yai Ariza, Lil Nas X’s Dancer (and Rumored Boyfriend) – Raffy Ermac (Out, July 13, 2021).

UPDATE: Lil Nas X’s Queer Brilliance Is Redefining Black Masculinity – Phillip Clark (Lessons From a Recovering Prude, September 22, 2021).

For previous installments in The Wild Reed’s 2021 Queer Appreciation series, see:
“A Book About Revolutionary People That Feels Revolutionary Itself”
Remembering Dusty Springfield’s “Daring” 1979 Gay-Affirming Song
Zaylore Stout on the Meaning of Emancipation in 2021
Maebe A. Girl: A “Decidedly Progressive Candidate” for Congress
The Art of Tania Rivilis

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
In a Historic First, Country Music’s Latest Star Is a Queer Black Man
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Nakhane’s Hymn to Freedom
Rahsaan Patterson: Standing Within His True Light
Ocean Trip
Remembering Little Richard, 1932–2020
Remembering Prince, “Fabulous Freak, Defiant Outsider, Dark Dandy” – 1958-2016
David Bowie: Queer Messiah
Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon
No Surprise, But an Important Event Nonetheless
Adam Lamert Comes Out: It Shouldn’t Matter. Except it Does
“Glambert” and the New Gay Stereotype
Sam Sparro
Play It Again, Sam
Actually, I Do Feel Like Dancing
Rules and Regulations – Rufus Style
Darren Hayes, Coming Out . . . Oh, and Time Travel
The Latest from Darren Hayes
Remembering Stephen Gately, Gay Pop Pioneer
No Matter What