Arts·Queeries

21 LGBTQ artists bringing IDGAF queer energy into mainstream culture in 2021

From Lil Nas X to Elliot Page to Bowen Yang, there's been an unapologetic and inspiring attitude from queer celebrities this year.

From Lil Nas X to Elliot Page to Bowen Yang, there's been an unapologetic and inspiring attitude this year

Lil Nas X in the “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” video. (Columbia Records)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

As our second pandemic Pride comes to a close, I wanted to use this month's final column to offer something optimistic — as difficult as it might sometimes feel given the dark clouds that continue to loom. Over the past 16 months of writing a column that has largely been about LGBTQ representations in various media during this pandemic, I've noticed a substantial and hopeful trend: there's been a surge of unapologetic queer voices, and it's not all happening in the margins.

Mainstream culture has never, ever been this queer, and it seems to be happening more on the terms of the queer artists themselves than we've ever seen before. And what this potentially means is that a whole generation of LGBTQ youth will get to idolize people — whether pop stars, comedians, authors or actors — that authentically represent them, which is a pretty big deal. So I would like to end Pride 2021 with a lil celebration of a few of them in particular. Here are 21 folks who are aggressively pushing boundaries and maybe — just maybe — leading us into a post-pandemic era of LGBTQ representation where everyone really does have a seat at the table. 

Lil Nas X

"In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don't want the world to see," Lil Nas X says in the intro to the video for his worldwide #1 single "MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)." "We lock them away. We tell them, 'No.' We banish them. But here, we don't."

The "here" he refers to is the wild, unabashedly queer world of the video he has ushered some 275 million viewers into since its release in April. Released two years after Lil Nas X defied all expectations with "Old Town Road", the song, its video and Lil Nas X's handling of the controversy surrounding them on social media have collectively made for one of most boundary-shattering moments LGBTQ artists have ever had at this level of fame. And the "here" Lil Nas is referencing could also just as well serve as a metaphor for what our culture has just collectively been through. We've been literally hiding ourselves from the world for over a year ... Now it's time to come out and be as unapologetically ourselves as possible, with Lil Nas X showing us the way.

Bowen Yang, Celeste Yim, Kate McKinnon and Punkie Johnson

Though this past season of Saturday Night Live will surely be most widely remembered for the fact that it was pulled off in-person during a pandemic, let us also not forget how historically queer it was. With a record three openly LGBTQ cast members in Bowen Yang, Kate McKinnon and Punkie Johnson and a new LGBTQ writer in Toronto comedian Celeste Yim, SNL has never felt quite so on our side — and often even felt catered to us. Take the "Pride" sketch embedded above or this one spoofing the phenomenon of Olivia Rodrigo's "Driver's License" or so many others featuring undisputed season MVP Yang. His impression of Fran Lebowitz and channelling of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic were basically the two best moments of the season, and he seems poised to become only the third male cast member (after Bill Hader and Kenan Thompson) to get an Emmy nomination come next month.

Alex Newell

Someone who will likely be joining Yang among this year's Emmy nominees is Alex Newell for their showstopping work on the wonderful musical comedy series Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist. On the series, Newell plays Mo, the titular Zoey's genderfluid neighbour. Like Mo, Newell — who initially broke out from their work on Glee — goes by they/them pronouns, defining themselves as gender noncomforming. Newell joins a cohort of young performers who are producing brilliant work that breaks free from the gender binary expectations of the entertainment industry. An Emmy nomination for Newell would not only be well deserved but could go a long way toward making awards shows reconsider the increasingly problematic divide between "actresses" and "actors."

Joshua Whitehead

With his transcendent and powerful debut novel Jonny Appleseed, Joshua Whitehead brought the two-spirit Indigiqueer experience to the forefront of Canadian readers like it never has before. After winning the 2021 Canada Reads competition (being championed by Devery Jacobs), Jonny shot to the top of the country's best-seller lists — which is quite something for a novel whose protagonist is a self-proclaimed "NDN glitter princess" who becomes a cybersex worker in order to make a living. And now Indigenous producer Stories First has optioned the novel for a film adaptation, meaning Jonny's journey to mainstream attention is just getting started. 

Ryan O'Connell

One of the most charming series of 2021 so far is Ryan O'Connell's Netflix comedy Special, which aired its second (and sadly final) season in May. Adapted from O'Connell's memoir I'm Special: And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves, the series follows Ryan (played by O'Connell himself), a gay man with cerebral palsy discovering himself and his sexuality. With O'Connell in creative control (in addition to starring, he wrote most of the episodes), Special was able to create something with respect to the intersection sex, disability and queerness that nothing really had before — and it did so in a deeply uplifting, thoughtful manner. While Special may be over, here's to it opening many doors for future storytellers.

Mae Martin

Another show that recently ended too soon was Canadian-born, England-based comedian Mae Martin's darkly comic Feel Good, the second season of which was just released on Netflix. Its raw, textured look at love and addiction expressed so much emotional ground in its 12 episodes, which Martin based on their own life. They also play a version of themselves in the series, which follows the relationship between Martin's gender-questioning recovering addict Mae and Charlotte Ritchie's George, who had considered herself straight before meeting Mae. What was so ultimately so impressive about this show is how deep it delved into the personal work it takes for humans to really coexist with one another — something many of us might need to be reminded of as we crawl our ways out of social isolation.

Bimini Bon Boulash and Gottmik

After over a decade of criticism for its representation (or lack thereof) of trans and non-binary drag performers, the Drag Race franchise took some big steps toward being more inclusive across its many, many iterations that aired during the pandemic. It finally got rid of its problematic catchphrase "gentlemen, start your engines ... and may the best woman win," and also cast multiple trans and non-binary contestants. Among them were Drag Race U.K.'s Bimini Bon Boulash and Drag Race U.S.'s Gottmilk, who in addition to so eloquently speaking to their gender identities on camera were two of the best contestants the series has ever had. 

Brooke Lynn Hytes and Priyanka

Of course, one of those many noted pandemic editions of Drag Race was our very first in Canada. Unlike what he did for the U.S., U.K. and the Australia/New Zealand hybrid, RuPaul sat out for Canada's judging panel — but did we miss her? Unlike some other international editions (yes, I'm looking down under), Canada's Drag Race was able to simultaneously be part of the Drag Race empire and its own thing at the same. This was in no small part due to Ruplacement judge Brooke Lynn Hytes and the season's winner Priyanka. Between Brooke Lynne's poise and Priyanka's IDGAF attitude — both of which are seemingly boundless — each queen has continued to represent this country's legacy well past the season's finale. And how exciting is it that we're nearing a stage of post-lockdown where we might get to go to a bar and see them give us that energy in person?

girl in red

One of 2021's biggest breakouts in music this side of Olivia Rodrigo, Norwegian singer-songwriter girl in red (aka Marie Ulven) released her debut album If I Could Make It Go Quiet in April. Full of songs that speak to mental health, sex and love from the perspective of a young queer woman, girl in red was already well on her way to queer icon status long before its release. In 2019, The New York Times called her "one of the most astute and exciting singer-songwriters working in the world of guitar music." Just 20 years old at the time of the profile, she's quoted saying, "We need queer art to make it normal. We need protagonists who are just, like, living their best life and gay — that's just part of their character." Imagine how that insight will grow as girl in red herself does. 

Patti Harrison

Comedian Patti Harrison has been getting a major spotlight recently with her work on three different TV shows (Shrill, Ziwe and Made For Love) and a lead role in feature film (Together Together) all basically released within a month of one another earlier this year. In the latter, Harrison — a trans woman — was cast as a pregnant cis woman, representing a badly needed corrective to the entertainment industry's current casting norms. She's also utterly fantastic in the film, and its success only means more people will become aware of Harrison's brilliantly outrageous and transgressive comedic sensibility.

Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore and Mj Rodriguez

On June 6, the historic run of the series Pose came to an end with one final hour of education, perspective, heart and a whole lot of sobbing. Over three seasons, the series gave us a powerful and urgent window into Black queer and trans experiences of 1980s and 1990s New York City. It also introduced us to a cast of staggeringly talented trans actors, led by Mj Rodriguez (Blanca), Indya Moore (Angel) and Dominique Jackson (Elektra). Their collective performances as three women finding resilience, strength and love in the face of transphobia, poverty, racism, ageism and HIV/AIDS were elevated on so many levels and leave a legacy that will hopefully change the way trans folks are depicted in film and television — and hired for roles — forever.

Jeremy O. Harris

A few months into the pandemic, playwright, actor and philanthropist Jeremy O. Harris's Slave Play broke the record set by Angels in America for the most Tony nominations ever earned by a non-musical play. And while Harris still doesn't know how many of those he won (the ceremony will finally take place this September), he already has plenty to be proud of given what he's achieved during the long delay. He created two $50,000 commissions for new works by Black women playwrights, urged Joe Biden to revive the Federal Theatre Project (see the Seth Meyers clip above), helped produce the Pulitzer Prize-shortlisted virtual play Circle Jerk and its follow up This American Wife and has an undisclosed role in the new Gossip Girl reboot. Whatever ends up happening at the Tonys, it seems clear that Harris will be a queer voice to reckoned with for a long time to come. 

Dan Levy

For so many of us, the final season of Schitt's Creek was an especially welcome source of comfort in the early days of COVID, offering the kind of humour and heart that it turns out one seeks when facing down the apocalypse. And much of that had to do with its co-creator and co-star Dan Levy, who in September won more Emmys in a single night than Meryl Streep has Oscars (for those keeping track of the score, it's Dan 4, Meryl 3). Levy's commitment to having Schitt's Creek exist in a world entirely devoid of homophobia surely made a difference for the many young folks who watched it with their families during the pandemic, and will continue to have an impact as audiences around the world continue to watch it over and over for years to come.

Elliot Page

This past December, Elliot Page made an announcement that he had arrived at a place in his life to publicly share who he truly is, coming out as transgender. It was a massive step for the representation of transmasculine folks in mainstream pop culture, with Page's news surely providing a beacon of light for young gender noncomforting folks who needed it. And it also hopefully provided an education to those in the media who are still ignorant of how to properly address pronoun use and the fact that you should not ever mention someone's deadname. Vowing in his coming-out post to do everything he can to change this world for the better, Page offered words for all of us queers to take past this Pride and into the "after times": let's have each other's backs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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