How rebellious queer joy took on corporate camp

·6 min read

“I spent a lot of time wishing I wasn’t gay,” the Years & Years frontman, Olly Alexander, told fans at 2019’s Glastonbury festival. “So now, it’s like I’m making up for lost time, you know?” Standing in front of a crowd full of colourful flags, wearing a sparkly string vest, with the stage behind him emblazoned with the words “queer is beautiful”, Alexander gave a rousing speech and thanked the generations who fought for his rights. It was a queer and joyous image. It’s not difficult to see why members of a community that has been erased and shamed would embrace an aesthetic of defiant happiness. To some, it’s a form of resistance.

The existence of a so-called “queer aesthetic” has been debated for decades. While there is little consensus about what exactly this aesthetic is, there is more agreement that queerness is constantly evolving. Right now, we’re seeing the dominance of a joyful form of peacocking. Pop music’s gay sexual revolution was spearheaded by Lil Nas X lapdancing the devil in an assortment of wigs, but the stylistic choices of LGBTQ+ musicians such as Janelle Monáe, Troye Sivan and Rina Sawayama are similarly attention-grabbing.

Elsewhere, RuPaul’s Drag Race has transformed the art of drag into a mainstream cultural phenomenon. The show has created a wave of drag superstars, each with an inspiring narrative and signature aesthetic. Netflix’s makeover show Queer Eye trades on an attempt at queer joy too, with its cast of “experts” combining design and emotional coaching to revamp people’s lives.

What is driving this increased visibility? Perhaps it’s related to what Alexander said at Glastonbury about “making up for lost time”. After so many years of LGBTQ+ people being minimised, or their self-expression being confined to queer bars, clubs and Pride parades, there is a joy in taking up as much space as possible.

This mainstream amplification is also driven by capitalism assigning a higher value to visual displays of queerness. In 2021, the artist Brenna Drury and photographer Julia Comita created an exhibition of vintage-style faux beauty adverts starring LGBTQ+ models, to highlight how brands had marginalised them in decades gone by. But now, the trans author Paris Lees is starring in Pantene adverts, and campaigns for Rihanna’s inclusive Savage X Fenty line are unmistakably queer. YouTube has spawned a generation of LGBTQ+ makeup moguls, such as NikkieTutorials. Drag Race isn’t just a reality show – it’s a global brand with conventions, tours and merchandise. And Queer Eye’s “fab five” are a squad of mega-sponsored influencers with their own products and platforms.

Gay culture’s visual codes are being consumed much more widely too. Jockstraps – a sportswear garment that was emblematic of American masculinity – were first popularised among gay men on the pages of Physique Pictorial, a “bodybuilding” magazine that emerged in the conservative 1950s and functioned as gay pornography when distributing such materials was illegal. Now, the garment’s gayness is a fairly mainstream norm that brands are happy to profit from. Underwear giant Calvin Klein now sells multicoloured Pride-themed jockstraps and, in 2020, Lady Gaga delighted her gay fans when she released a limited edition Chromatica jockstrap to promote her album.

Olly Alexander at Glastonbury in 2019.
Olly Alexander at Glastonbury in 2019. Photograph: Richard Isaac/Rex/Shutterstock

Queer culture is repositioning itself to question this new normal. I saw this for myself during the peak of the pandemic, when larger Pride celebrations were cancelled in London. Instead, I attended a Black Trans Lives Matter march in summer 2020, followed by a Trans Pride protest in 2021. Here, there were no indefensible sponsors or branded floats. The marches were angrier and definitely more like a protest than party, but somehow still more joyful than the pedestrian #LoveIsLove campaigns. It felt closer to what Pride must have felt like in the past.

The anarchistic energy of these protests reminded me of the Rebel Dykes, a group of queer women and trans people who founded Chain Reaction, the world’s first known lesbian S&M club, in 1980s London. The group’s punk aesthetic was intertwined with their politics: they regularly organised demos against the Thatcher government’s Aids response, cuts to public services and the homophobic section 28 legislation – including an invasion of BBC News and abseiling into the House of Lords. The Rebel Dykes were angry, but there was also something gleeful about their rejection of gendered stereotypes and their pursuit of a life that centred around pleasure and freedom.

Around this time, New Romanticism – a gender-bending aesthetic embodied by musicians such as Boy George – was mainstream in the UK. In the conservative 1980s, there was an escapism and a perceived subversiveness to it. But the movement has later been interpreted by some, such as the style commentator Peter York, to be a tacit acceptance of Thatcherite values such as individualism and materialism. The reappraisals of New Romanticism make me wonder how we’ll come to view the politics of queer joy via Paid Partnership, which is being put on a similar pedestal at a time when there is still so much to feel angry about politically – such as the UK government’s cynical attempts to weaponise trans issues and divide LGBTQ+ people.

Related: ‘I saw myself in RuPaul’: how Drag Race inspired LGBTQ+ Kenyans to find freedom

Last weekend, Boris Johnson’s shameful failure to include trans people in a ban on conversion practices brought LGBTQ+ people to the streets in protest. Just like the grassroots Pride marches of the pandemic, it felt like fresh air in oxygen-deprived lungs. The scenes underlined to me that expressions of queerness feel most joyful when partnered with that sense of disruption, or even anger, towards the wider world and LGBTQ+ culture itself. And I’m not alone: after a consultation with the local community, Manchester Pride has confirmed that this year’s event will no longer feature an expensive pop concert. Instead, it will refocus on Pride’s activist roots as a protest. Even Drag Race, now the pinnacle of mainstream queer representation, has been forced to change: cisgender women, trans people and even straight men now compete. The judges once criticised contestants who weren’t pristine and feminine, but now a messier, androgynous drag reigns supreme.

As queer culture evolves, it will continue to challenge political and visual conventions – including its own relationship to the mainstream. What comes next is uncertain. But whatever it looks like, no matter who tries to stifle it, queer joy will find a way of shining through.

  • Louis Staples writes about the internet, culture and society

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