“We’re in West Hollywood [where] brunch is definitely a Sunday thing,” observed Parson James, referring to the first “Out to Brunch” luncheon, which celebrated some of the most successful gay songwriters, artists and other creatives yesterday at Cecconi’s restaurant. “Sundays are for booze-y brunches, you know? Everyone is super-depressed on Saturday nights, so Sundays you need to keep drinking,” joked Lucas Keller, president and founder of the management company Milk & Honey, who cohosted the event with singer-songwriters James “JHart” Abrahart and Brett “Leland” McLaughlin. Then he gulped down a Bloody Mary.
“I’m so excited to be here,” said the music industry’s queer poster boy, Troye Sivan, in between exchanging air-kisses with admirers. “I am constantly so floored by the talent and influence that the LGBTQ community, specifically in music, has. You know, queer people have been writing your favorite songs forever; the talent has always been there. To be able to recognize it publicly and find community in it is so amazing. And to see it celebrated in this room and for everyone to come together and get to mingle and hang out and strategize and organize writing sessions? It’s so fun. Nothing brings me greater joy than seeing my queer friends succeed.”
“I resent the fact that as a 34-year-old, I didn’t live in the David Geffen-Barry Diller era,” Keller said of his inspiration for the gathering. “It was the early days of Hollywood before any of these guys they were out, and nobody told their wife they were gay. They were the gay mafia — the ‘velvet mafia,’ so to speak — the people that ran the town. And so the idea was: Can we get this community together that’s LGBTQ people in entertainment — music, TV and film — and have people get to know each other. This is a group of folks that makes up the top 40 charts.” (The fact that it also happened to be the birthday of Geffen’s ex-girlfriend, Cher, as well as the day of the Billboard Music Awards, was not lost on McLaughlin: “This is also Cher’s unofficial birthday party,” he proclaimed.)
“We get the short end of the stick from executives, so as creative people it’s important for us to stay unified and feel like a family,” said Abrahart, explaining his interest in serving as a cohost. “And resist the temptation to be competitive and to undercut each other because we already get that, anyway.”
“LGBTQ people are marginalized in the world and in the music business, so I think there’s even more love and support here,” agreed prolific songwriter Justin Tranter, former front man of the band Semi Precious Weapons, while gazing around the room. “People will say to me sometimes: ‘Are you nervous because people are saying that Brett McLaughlin — Leland — is the new Justin Tranter?’ I’ll be like: ‘Um, first of all, there’s room for all LGBTQ people to succeed, not just one. And second: That would be amazing if there were 20 massive LGBTQ songwriters at the top of the charts.’ Women experience that in our business, too. They’ll say, ‘This young woman is the new so-and-so.’ Because in people’s minds, there can only be one person of color killing it, only one woman killing it, only one LGBTQ person killing it. Which is obviously not the case.” (Acknowledging the lack of both racial and gender diversity at the brunch, Tranter, the self-proclaimed “social justice queen of the music industry,” pointed out that he had invited Shea Diamond, a trans artist of color, but she had to fly to New York for a last-minute event.)
“Right now what’s so amazing about the L.A. pop scene is that for the most part everyone collaborates,” added Tranter. “So if Ilsey [Juber, who happened to be the token female songwriter in attendance] has a big hit, the thought doesn’t cross my mind: ‘Oh, fuck, I should’ve been in that session.’ The thought crosses my mind of: ‘Oh, Ilsey had a huge hit. I’m probably going to write with her in a couple months.’ And then it only helps everybody. Back in the day, people had their camps, and they would work with only their camps. But we’re in a really collaborative time that dims the dark side of the competitive spirit.” In other words, even though Tom Campbell, longtime executive producer of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” came to raise awareness about “Lip Sync for Your Life” songs being “on the endangered species list,” this particular gathering was remarkably free of shade, trash-talking and catfights.
But as the wine flowed freely, talk inevitably turned to homophobia in the industry. “Do I think it’s prevalent? Yeah,” said Abrahart. “Doing things like this helps it to be eradicated, but there’s definitely an underbelly. I had a number one in country music a year and half ago with Keith Urban. I’m not gonna lie — I was a little scared about the Nashville community because of what you hear. But they could not have been more welcoming.”
And Abrahart isn’t alone. “I even sometimes feel weird when I go into a session and I know it’s going to be straight producers and straight artists,” admitted Ferras Alqaisi, who wrote “Bon Appétit” for Katy Perry. “Fortunately, I’ve never experienced anything that made me feel uncomfortable, but it is out there. I hear stories.”
Justin Tranter, for one, is no stranger to homophobic experiences in the industry, which he claims to experience “every single day. Whether it’s passive or aggressive, there’s always something,” he told Variety. “I won’t get put in certain sessions because they’ll think: ‘Oh, he would never understand that.’ That sort of stuff happens all the time. When I was an artist, it was way worse. I’d be asked to wear less makeup, I’d be asked to not use same-sex pronouns, which is part of the reason I stopped doing [the band]. Because it was exhausting.”
“As far as blatant homophobia? No, I haven’t felt that,” added Sivan, who at the same time acknowledged that young artists feel pressure to stay in the closet. “I still think so, yeah,” he said. “We’re all pushing for change but we’ve got a really long way to go. So I don’t blame anyone for that [choice]. I would like to think that events like this are creating a safer space for everyone to be open about who they are, but I don’t know if we’re there yet.”
“Forcing people into the closet — or making them feel that they can’t be themselves without facing some sort of criticism — can be deadly, especially if you’re in the public eye,” added Parson James, who noted that he wears a cross earring in memory of George Michael. Earlier in his career, James had his own struggle with forcing open the closet door. “I was signed to a major label that was run by homosexual people and they discouraged me from saying too much about my sexuality,” recalled James. “That was soul-crushing just because you’re in a position of power to empower people like me — and people like those who are coming up and wanting to express themselves. It was a dark realization about the monetization and the product that you become when you’e in the industry.”
James paused and gazed around the restaurant. “There are pioneers here like Adam Lambert, who was just wholeheartedly himself and put his f—ing foot forward and didn’t hold back,” he said. “A lot of people bashed him for what he did, but to be honest, I think if people like him didn’t come around when the conversations were so mum, then we couldn’t have people like Troye or myself.”
The “American Idol” breakout star-turned-solo artist happened to be sitting alone with a forlorn look on his face while the brunch was winding down. Lambert likened his experience coming out to “being thrown into a pot of boiling water. It was a different time,” he told Variety. “When I was getting into music, it felt like an uphill battle. I mean, I don’t think I felt like anybody was blocking me or rejecting me because they actually had an issue with gay people,” Lambert said of his team at the record label. “But there has always been a concern — especially when I started — of: How do we connect this with a mainstream audience? A lot of these guys hadn’t done that before, the label people I was working with at the time. This was a new situation and there was no formula. There was a little fear surrounding that, surrounding the desire for success.”
Admittedly, Lambert battled with internalized homophobia as well. “There were moments after my first year or two on the scene where I started getting insecure,” he said. “I started thinking: ‘Do I need to change who I am to fit in, or to achieve success?’ The thing I’ve learned the hard way is that you can’t please everybody. And ultimately, the people who do well in this business tend to be the people that just are who they are. They’re not trying to be part of a trend or dress like somebody else or become palatable. So now I’m at a point in my career where I’m being true to who I am; I’m being authentic; I’m being myself and not making any apologies for it.”
So far, at least, an unapologetic attitude has proven to be a winning formula (not to mention a successful marketing move) for Sivan. “I would say that I am really lucky that I came into the industry at the time that I did — people were ready for it,” he told Variety. “Identity politics are a really hot topic. You know, it’s not cool to be homophobic or racist or sexist or whatever. It’s so frowned upon now that people had no choice. People were like: ‘This is where things are heading and we have to embrace that.’ And so I just caught that moment at the right time and rode that wave.”
“I wonder sometimes about who is it that I am appealing to,” Sivan added, reflecting on his ever-growing fanbase. “Is it girls? Is it guys? Is it gay guys? I don’t know. And I think my response to that is to not think about it and just do what feels right.”