On Saturday afternoon in West Hollywood, LGBTQ artists, songwriters and assorted industry execs gathered for the second annual Out to Brunch networking event at Cecconi’s, and this crowd was more representative of the rainbow flag than 2018’s inaugural get-together. “Someone wrote: ‘This looks like an underground Trump dinner, except everyone’s gay,’ ” recalled Lucas Keller, the founder and president of Milk & Honey Management, referring to a snarky online comment that accompanied Variety’s photo of the guests.
“Circumstantially it didn’t come off the right way but obviously that was no one’s intention,” said cohost Carter Gregory, director of A&R for Capitol Records. “I’m glad to see a very diverse group when I look around the room today,” he added. “It’s easy for people to get competitive, but I feel like everyone here wants to support each other. And it takes people like us banding together to push open doors for minority groups and marginalized artists.”
For Trey Campbell, who has collaborated with the likes of Hailee Steinfeld and Banks, it was a welcome opportunity to hang out with other LGBTQ songwriters. “A lot of us don’t get to collaborate,” he said, referring to a commonplace session stigma. “If there’s one queer person in the room, there is a tendency to not have another. It’s like: ‘We have Trey, he’s gay — that quota is already filled for the session.’ ” Added Jesse Saint John, who has written songs for Britney Spears, Camila Cabello and Lizzo: “In other people’s minds, it would seem like we offer the same thing, when in reality, we have as wide a variety of perspectives as anyone outside of our community.”
Campbell also noted that he isn’t judged by his impressive credits alone. “When you walk into a session as a gay man of color, you’re like: ‘How am I going to be received in this situation? Am I going to be accepted?’ ” Fortunately, that was a non-issue during his recent session with John Legend, which was a rare experience not working with a female artist. “Depending on comfort level, with straight-identified males sometimes that could be an issue [for them],” he explained.
Gregory, who worked for Keller when he first moved to L.A. four years ago, emphasized that he’s had primarily positive experiences in the biz. “I grew up in the South, so for me, moving here opened up a whole new world of inclusion where I completely felt supported by my peers,” he said. “I haven’t encountered much racism and homophobia in the music industry, but I definitely know it’s out there.” For one thing, there was a lack of visible role models. “I could never look up and see another queer black man in the industry,” he said. “It’s really important to see other people who look like me in my position because kids can see that representation and be like, ‘Okay, I can do the same thing.’ That’s something I didn’t have.”
“When you step into business offices and boardrooms in the industry, it’s very white,” added an independent artist who goes by Vincint. “It’s always disconcerting to see that I’m the only man of color in the room. I feel like someone else who looks like me should be present, just to bounce off, you know?” Vincint then shared some of the feedback he has received in meetings: “I should lower my voice, I shouldn’t bleach my hair — it should be black so it doesn’t look ‘concerning’ — and maybe I shouldn’t paint my nails and I should make blacker-sounding music because black boys don’t make it in pop.”
Needless to say, both Vincint and Gregory are thrilled for the unprecedented mainstream success of Lil Nas X. “He is doing something that no other artist has done,” said Gregory. “A lot of people are like, ‘Wow, this young black kid is making country-rap music and is also gay is so amazing’ — it completely normalizes him.”
Not that queer hip-hop artists of color are the new normal in Nashville. “In terms of homophobia and racism, we have a lot of work to do in country music,” Gregory said. “I’ve been back and forth to Nashville a lot with some of the artists I work with. It’s like: ‘You can be gay but don’t talk about it, don’t put it in your music and don’t express yourself’ — and that is something that needs to change. But Lil Nas X is someone who’s like: ‘Well, I’m here to blur the line between country and hip-hop and I can be a proud homosexual black man who is going to do it all.”
While Lil Nas X’s subtle coming out tweet didn’t have the noise of Ellen DeGeneres proclaiming “Yep, I’m gay!” on the cover of Time magazine back in 1997, he still made a powerful statement. “[His] coming out is important for people, especially black boys, to see that someone [like him] can be number one and break world records,” said Vincint. “I love how nonchalant he was about it,” added Gregory. “In our queer world today, I feel that [young] people don’t want to be boxed in to one type of label — they don’t want to be put into a category. I think that’s a beautiful thing because you should be able to be whatever you want to be. That is something my generation is pushing the boundaries of that I love so much.”
Case in point: 19-year-old artist Carlie Hanson (who counts Taylor Swift as a fan) refuses to label her sexual identity, which is an interesting choice in the era of identity politics. “I remember being 16, and I wish I had somebody to look up to who was questioning their sexuality because I wasn’t just looking at boys — I was looking at girls and wondering if I had feelings for them,” said Hanson. “Now I am that artist who can be the advocate for younger people to know that you can kiss whoever you want. Whoever you like, you can like them. It’s not that big of a deal — and you don’t need a label.” Artist Gia Woods took a similar stance on sexuality: “I just say that I’m fluid — I generally go toward more girls but I’m open to the person.”
Pop sensation Dorian Electra, meanwhile, eschews binary gender roles and they are not a fan of labels (or female pronouns), either. “Even the narrative of like, ‘Oh, Carly is so young — she hasn’t figured it out yet’ is problematic,” Electra said. “Hasn’t figured out what? What you want to call yourself? The idea is that you’ve figured out that gender and sexuality are just inherently fluid. I love that word because for me, it implies a loosey-goosiness and it’s kind of funny how serious people are about that stuff. I like that it’s a very chilled-out version: ‘I’m fluid, baby!’ ”
“I’ll say: ‘I’m flowing like a river,’ ” proclaimed Hanson as she finished off a cocktail. Said Electra: “exactly.”