‘Old Town’ Rapper Rides to New LGBTQ Heights

The fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots offered many promising LGBTQ milestones and ended with a test of how far we’ve truly come. There was so much goodwill on display throughout this year’s Pride season that it was tempting to believe the fight for LGBTQ liberation was over, as if we could forget how personal the struggle is for every individual who has to accept that he or she is different, and who pushes back against the notion that those difference makes him or her evil or flawed, or less than.
The danger and discrimination which remain a daily part of life for many transgender Americans are enough to know it’s too soon for us to take a victory lap. Yet, from the cast of “Pose” leading more than 600 contingents in New York City’s Pride parade (which I’m assuming has finally ended by press time) to transgender reproductive rights receiving (misguided, but well-meaning) attention in a presidential debate, a long overlooked pillar of our community is being heard and heralded at new, encouraging levels.
This year’s Pride was so amplified that we had a legitimate, viable openly gay candidate for president who was out-queered by one of his competitors wearing a rainbow-sequined jacket to her city’s parade. But it was an eleventh-hour announcement from one of our own that reminded us what it means to discover and celebrate one’s fullness, and how exciting and intimidating that process continues to be.
My favorite rite of aging has been detaching from popular music, and not trying to keep up what the kids are listening to these days. Unlike most of my peers, I believe the contemporary catalog is filled with as much artistic merit and cultural worth as those from any era, but I’ll leave it to my niece and nephews to sift through and compile evidence for that argument.
As someone who doesn’t listen to radio or streaming apps, I had managed to avoid hearing “Old Town Road” for an impressively middle-aged length of time. I eventually clicked on a video of a group of elementary school students erupting into adolescent euphoria during a surprise visit from Lil Nas X, and have been dealing with a “Riiiiddde ‘til I can’t no more” earworm for the past week.
The unlikely summer anthem about life as a hip-hop cowboy has made Lil Nas X the breakout artist of 2019, and his decision to risk his newfound success and adoration by coming out on the last day of Pride month makes an openly gay rapper as powerful a symbol as an openly gay presidential candidate. How many roomfuls of kids lose their shit when Pete Buttigieg pops from behind a curtain at a school assembly?
Old people – most significantly, the 60-and-up voting bloc – will decide Buttigieg’s fate, and whether our country is ready to be led by a man who shares his bed and his life’s dreams with another man. Politics is the realm of aged know-it-alls, but music belongs to the youth, and so Lil Nas X’s destiny rests in the hands and playlists of teenagers and twenty-somethings.
It’s well established that tolerance of LGBTQ individuals and equality increases with each successive generation, and Lil Nas X’s bravery allows us to check on whether that acceptance is durable, or can be dismantled as easily as a store’s Pride decorations on July 1. The glow of Pride can obscure how perilous his decision to come out remains, and how there are hardly any reassuring precedents among black masculine men that his career and commercial appeal won’t suffer due to his honesty.
There have been queer artists who have enjoyed adoration on the scale that Lil Nas X has with “Old Town Road,” but too few who made it clear that all of the love in the world counted for little if you consider parts of yourself unmentionable.