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Ariana Grande, Lizzo, Meghan Trainor: Why Pride Concerts Book Straight Headliners

A funny thing happened back in February when Ariana Grande was announced as the headliner for Manchester Pride: backlash from the LGBTQ community.

The reaction came as a surprise to the event’s organizers, as well as to Grande herself, who has vocally supported her loud-and-proud brother Frankie Grande and has recorded with out singer Troye Sivan. And the shade directed Grande’s way was intense. For instance, Twitter user @hardtoblameyou posted: “Ariana headlining Pride when she’s straight … kinda smells like exploitation of the LGBT community to me. I just find it a bit weird/uncomfortable when it’s a festival celebrating being proud of your LGBT identity and then a straight artist is chosen to be the headliner and ‘face’ of the whole event.” Added @hannahtheflood: “Honestly, Ariana Grande headlining Pride just solidifies the fact that Pride has been commodified and turned into festival based around consumption rather than celebrating LGBT people themselves.”

All the blowback prompted a response from the superstar herself, who tweeted: “If you truly feel that I didn’t deserve to be offered this spot, I respect that.” But she also defended her appearance: “I want to celebrate and support this community regardless of my identity … over the years, Pride events have been headlined by artists and performers of all sexual orientations and genders, including straight allies like Cher and Kylie Minogue.”

And she’s not wrong. More often than not, Pride headliners don’t identify as LGBTQ themselves. In fact, around the time Grande was set to appear in Manchester, organizers of Los Angeles’ Pride event had just booked Meghan Trainor to headline. While no one could accuse Trainor of jumping on the queer bandwagon — after all, she appeared at Atlanta Pride in 2014 and DC’s Capital Pride in 2016 — the question of how the performance would be perceived lingered.

Following the Grande flare-up, Jeff Consoletti, the producer behind L.A. Pride, admits there was a concern: “‘Oh God, are we going to get similar [criticism]?” The founder and CEO of JJLA, Consoletti has run L.A. Pride for the past 10 years and is also producing Pride Island for NYC Pride this weekend, which will feature concerts by Madonna and Grace Jones.

So was the worry founded? Consider this tweet about Trainor’s 2014 single, “Dear Future Husband”: “She has a song about grooming herself for a future husband — like get this hetero shit away from the gays,” wrote @queenmagss. Another social media user went so far as to label the booking “homophobic.”

L.A. Pride’s Consoletti shoots down any negative sentiment and instead emphasizes the importance having allies of all stripes: “It’s about wanting to be here [at Pride] — you want to be doing something for the community. And regardless if you spent your entire life raising a rainbow flag, you’re doing that now.” (Consoletti also notes that out of the more than 50 artists that performed in L.A., 36 acts identified on “the rainbow spectrum,” including the other headliner, Years & Years, the British synth-pop band fronted by openly gay singer Olly Alexander.)

In the end, reaction elicited its share of raves, too. People Magazine described Trainor’s performance as a “knockout set,” while Twitter user @rexhamess wrote: “Meghan absolutely KILLED LA PRIDE. Her body confidence is OUT OF THIS WORLD.”

Of course, Trainor and Grande are emblematic of a larger trend that includes the modern-day queen of pop herself, Taylor Swift. Her latest video, for the song “You Need to Calm Down,” features a slew of LGBTQ personalities and supporters, and the night after the song’s release, Swift performed at New York’s famed Stonewall, the site of a game-changing 1969 confrontation between the LGBT community and local police. Says Consoletti of Swift: “Sure, there may be some PR moment built in there, but that doesn’t really matter as long as she’s still using her platform to be supportive of the community, especially during Pride month.”

Where does GLAAD stand on the issue? The LGBTQ media watchdog organization embraces heterosexual supporters wholeheartedly. “Pride festivals should reflect their audiences by being comprised of a strong and diverse mix of LGBTQ performers as well as those whom are outspoken allies to the community,” says Anthony Ramos, the organization’s director of talent engagement, who convinced Beyoncé and Jay-Z to attend the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards in March. “Pride is a time when out LGBTQ artists should be celebrated and amplified so that visibility of our community is fully maximized. However, you cannot discount the inspiration and impact that a non-LGBTQ artist with a connection to the community has. Artists like Madonna, Lizzo or Meghan Trainor participating in Pride this year alongside LGBTQ artists attracts mainstream media attention and as a result brought messages of acceptance from Pride stages to audiences everywhere. In a divisive political and cultural climate, these messages from allies are crucial to the fight for LGBTQ acceptance.”

Troye Sivan, who has embraced his role as a moral compass for the community, concurs. “I have never had an issue with allies being at this kind of event,” he tells Variety. “Obviously it’s up to each individual [LGBTQ] person to use their gut feel and their character judgment to ask themselves the questions: Where’s this person coming from? Are they somebody who genuinely cares for our community?”

Adds GLAAD’s Ramos: “At the end of the day, it’s all about accelerating acceptance during Pride month and having [straight] artists bring attention to what it stands for has the possibility to change hearts and minds of people who might not fully understand the LGBTQ community.”

Not surprisingly, David Correa, the event manager for NYC Pride, who booked the musical acts for more than 25 events during the month of June, shares that mindset. “Madonna and Grace Jones are folks who have been a part of this community in so many ways,” he says. “When they were announced, the excitement resonated. They’re icons and we’re trying to make iconic moments happen.” Correa also adds that such out artists as Jake Shears and Melissa Etheridge are playing Pride’s closing ceremony, while the opening ceremony featured Billy Porter and Todrick Hall, among others. Cyndi Lauper and Bette Midler are also participating in Pride events.

Still, skeptics abound. As one gay music industry executive says dismissively: “They just want to sell tickets to Pride, and gay men don’t care about gay artists.” But Correa draws another parallel. Noting his Puerto Rican heritage, he says: “When Puerto Rico was devastated by a hurricane, people in my community felt alone. Then when we started to hear about folks like Governor Cuomo going down to the island and making the effort to help our people. What mattered was that people stood with us. I feel the same way I get up on our [LGBTQ] community. We have had a lot of ups and downs and a lot of tragedies. Our trans brothers and sisters, for instance, have major struggles that they deal with on a daily basis. There are [allies] who have stood with us. And when you’re brave enough to stand up with a marginalized community, it says a lot.”

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