Beyoncé’s new self-titled album is not only a pop masterpiece; it’s also a carefully orchestrated polemic. Every dance move, every outfit, every lyric is carefully curated to articulate a clear message—the Beyoncé feminist manifesto. It says, among other things, that it is okay to be imperfect, that it is okay to be ridiculously sexy and have ridiculously sexy sex, and that it is okay to command power as a woman and as a person of color.
It dawned on me, though, after I drooled over the album’s 17 videos for about the fourth time, that it featured not a single unambiguous nod to LGBTQ rights. The “Haunted” video seems to present “queers”—that is, people different from a “normal” nuclear family of mannequins by virtue of their race, class, gender, age, etc. But even as Beyoncé glances at this queer world, it’s unclear whether it’s being substantively engaged and celebrated or just voyeuristically depicted as a freakshow. Considering the gravity of the issues this album does unambiguously address, I cannot help but feel slapped in the face by the paucity—no, the patent absence—of explicitly homosexual characters. With every cut-to in which attractive heterosexual couples make out, I increasingly wonder why Beyoncé’s most die-hard constituency has been left out. Not one gay kiss. Not one. That appears to me to be no accident, but rather an act of willed exclusion.
It’s a strange choice. After all, Beyoncé certainly commands legions of gay fans, and we live in a time when it is easier than ever to fight for gay fanbases without facing career backlash. Her reticence might fairly lead one to wonder if she really cares about LGBTQ rights. So we google it. Oh! See! Beyoncé came out in favor of gay marriage on Instagram. Oh! Look! Beyoncé said she’s “flattered” to be considered a gay icon, once. There.
Frankly, if there were ever a diplomatic way of keeping advancing suitors at arm's length, it’s saying that you are “flattered.” I say I am flattered to precisely those people on Grindr in whom I am not interested. So you say, “No, but she is in favor of gay marriage!” Now ask yourself, as you cling desperately to the scraps your queen has so generously condescended to hurl at you, whether it is enough for her to scrawl “if you like it then you should be able to put a ring on it” on a napkin for her to be considered a true gay icon. Again, arm's distance. Queen Bey is holding her gay fans perpetually in thrall, but never acceding to the charges of gay icon status. She’s flattered, she tells us. But beyond business considerations, is she really comfortable with our support?
There are clues in the logic of the album: the sexier the sex, the stronger the family bond, the more kids you have—it’s “evolution,” after all. It was no mistake—for, no mistakes were made here—that the mind bogglingly sexy video for “Partition” featured Jay Z, Bey’s real husband, as the male counterpart. It was also not a mistake that the very next song, the video of which starts with the same opening scene as that of “Partition,” is all about monogamy and keeping promises. The album concludes with a breathtaking dedication to the couple’s daughter Blue Ivy and scenes in the “Grown Woman” video in which Beyoncé is dressed as a fertility goddess flanked by three cherubic babies.
Yes, this is Beyoncé’s self-titled creation. Family and monogamy are important values for her, and focusing on them is her prerogative. But consider, really, how privileged and limited a value reproductive family is. The video for “Blue” portrays mothers and children, men and women, old and young, celebrating everyday life. Oh and more straight couples kissing. As Beyoncé sings to her daughter, “Some days we say words that don’t mean a thing, when you’re holding me tight, I feel alive.” What does that even mean? What do meaningless words have to do with holding a child and feeling alive? Well, these messages taken altogether seem to suggest that children and the vision of the future they embody are what gives life meaning. Sure, I could reinterpret the lyrics into being about myself and anyone who’s holding me tight, but it would seem that’s not the takeaway: The song ends with samples of Blue’s voice.
With that extremely heteronormative value system in place, it’s clear why Beyoncé would come out in favor of marriage equality and not for a wider conception of LGBTQ acceptance. What is the album’s worldview? A vision of the family and childhood purity that is not only unthreatened, but even strengthened by great sex. If there were any political issue that incorporates gays into the folds of the family-values platform (however hypersexual), it’s that which struggles for the right to invest in the political vision of a better future made possible through the nuclear family and reproduction.
In this light, the album starts to seem more conservative than revolutionary.
As equally disconcerting as the mystery of Beyoncé’s real feelings toward LGBTQ people is the fact that, as Beyoncé’s undying fans, we’ll try to come up with any excuse to rationalize our adoration. Why is it that we’ll butter Beyoncé’s bread regardless of whether or not she includes us in her vision?
One of the reasons gay men idolize female popstars regardless of their political views or the explicitness of their homophilia is that the stereotypical gay fantasy world merges so seamlessly with the narcissistic queen imagery in which one is the wildly glamorous center of the universe. Also, as a friend of mine very astutely observed, the sexualization of Beyoncé’s body hinges on a celebration of her butt, rather than say, her breasts. As she says in “Yoncé” “ya man aint’ never seen a booty like this.” Beyoncé and gay men’s sexual imaginations are so close they’re practically grinding—what’s not to like?
Then, of course, her music is great. And yes, she is absolutely beautiful, and so is her family. Yes, we can go on analogizing our bootylicious fantasy world with hers regardless of whether she explicitly includes us. But maybe there’s something darker going on, too. As members of society so used to being excluded by heteronormativity—so used to recasting heterosexual narratives and culture as our own (hence why I stomped my way to the grocery store listening to “Partition” yesterday afternoon)—queer people are used to rejection. Maybe, we even like rejection. Like the assertion that society should parsimoniously “tolerate” us, we’ll take whatever bits of seductively hard-to-get approval Beyoncé’s dishing out—and in the heady rush forget about advocates like Lady Gaga, who will literally scream in front of the White House for LGBTQ rights.
It can be difficult to question the political commitments of artists we admire; I’m on the record as having had Bey’s feminist back way before this album dropped. I ask myself today though, does she have my back? Is she down with the unreproductive sexy sex that I want to have and with the queerer future that likely awaits me? After 17 videos and 14 songs, I’m less sure than before.