Lil Nas X’s BET performance was a milestone for the Black queer community. Here’s why.

·8-min read
Lil Nas X kisses a dancer at the end of his performance at the BET Awards in Los Angeles. (Credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)
Lil Nas X kisses a dancer at the end of his performance at the BET Awards in Los Angeles. (Credit: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

When Lil Nas X kissed one of his backup dancers during an Egyptian-inspired performance of his hit single "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" at the BET Awards last Sunday, LGBTQ fans were elated not solely due to the queer love on display, but also because of what it means to Black queer youth struggling to find representation of themselves onscreen. 

"Lil Nas has had a liberating impact on the Black LGBTQ community," Alphonso David, president of LGBTQ-rights Human Rights Campaign, and the first Black person at the helm, tells Yahoo Life. "He is an artist, and at the heart of his work is the message that we can all reach liberation by standing firm in who we are — and carry defiance to get us even greater levels of liberation." 

Of course, this isn't the first time a mainstream awards show displayed two people of the same gender expression kissing. 

In 2003, Madonna made headlines around the world after kissing Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during the MTV Video Music Awards. And a few days after Nas' performance, the queen of pop made a cheeky nod to herself on her Instagram stories, posting an image of the iconic moment with the words "#diditfirst" across the screen. 

Madonna received temporary backlash after critics accused her of minimizing the importance of Nas' kiss, though the rapper himself later defended her by posting that they were friends and it was just a "joke." 

Similarly, Adam Lambert (who this week called the Nas performance "hot") kissed his male keyboard player during a 2009 performance of his song "For Your Entertainment" at the American Music Awards — just six months after finishing second on American Idol Season 8. 

In a recent interview with Billboard, Lambert confirmed the kiss caused him to be banned from ABC. 

"I was pulled off of ABC for a little while," the singer said. "They were freaked out, they had Christian parent groups writing in, the censors were freaked out. The thing I found so funny was like, 'Censors? It's a kiss! When was that indecent?'"

In 2014, Queen Latifah — who made history at this year's BET Awards when she came out publicly for the first time — officiated 33 same-sex weddings on live television at the 56th Grammy Awards on CBS, during a performance of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Same Love." 

While moments like these have all created giant leaps for queer visibility on television, it's important to note the historical context in which Nas' kiss lives. 

Progress has been slow for Black queer representation on television, though it's undoubtedly seen incredible heights in the last year. 

According to GLAAD, 10.2 percent of recurring characters that appeared in the 2019/2020 season were LGBTQ — the highest percentage in 15 years. Of that number, 52 percent are people of color. The success is largely due to shows like Pose, which was not renewed for a fourth season but paved the way for other shows to do the same. 

Of course, Pose may not have been possible if not for shows like Noah's Arc, The Wire, True Blood, Empire and others that unapologetically delivered Black queer love with sincerity — even though some of their storylines catered to a largely white audience. 

A big reason for this progress was the emergence of new channels and the growth of cable networks like HBO, Lifetime, the CW, BET, Bravo and others, which led to streaming service channels we know today, such as Netflix, Hulu and HBO Max.  

For BET to air such a milestone during a live event like the BET Awards — without censors — is a testament to both how far television has come and how far it still has to go. 

"What a lot of people outside of the culture don't understand is that the BET awards is center to the Black experience as it relates to culture and entertainment in this country," Gerard Bush, co-writer and co-director of the 2020's award-winning Antebellum, starring Janelle Monáe, tells Yahoo Life. 

"You can have anyone sitting in front of the television — from 9 or 10 or 11 years old, all the way up to 50-something — watching the BET awards together," he continues. "There could be a kid living in this house that is afraid or doesn't feel seen or feels that they need to be closeted. Lil Nas did this in such an overt way. Madonna's [performance] was pure gimmick. This was pure politics in the most positive way."

Tre'Vell Anderson, editor at large for Xtra magazine and co-host of the hit podcast Fanti, tells Yahoo Life, "We have never seen a moment like this happen on BET, which, let's say, has a unique history when it comes to portrayals of LGBTQ people, both negative and positive." 

In 2013, television personality B. Scott, who identifies as transgender nonbinary, sued BET and its parent company Viacom for discriminating against them after producers allegedly forced them to change into men’s clothes, despite their previous outfit — which was gender fluid — having been pre-approved. BET won the suit and Scott appealed, ultimately reaching a settlement in 2015. 

BET has since made incredible strides, having green-lit Lena Waithe's Twenties for a second season and bringing Scott back to host Twenties the After Show, making them the first trans nonbinary person to host a show on the network. 

Still, network support doesn't translate to social support. 

Following his performance, Nas received a slew of homophobic criticisms, which he's responded to with clever jabs that have only fueled his fan base's affection. It's also brought to life larger discussions about nuances of Black queer pride — and the pursuit of getting there. 

"It's more than a message of hope," David explains of the performance. "It's really a roadmap. Lil Nas is showing young, Black, LGBTQ people that it is OK to be who they are. Other performers have kissed onstage before and we haven't seen the same reaction that we're seeing now, which sort of highlights, I think, the double standard that is applied in some parts of our culture."

"Folks love saying that the Black community is more homophobic than other communities, and I don't believe that to be true," Anderson adds. "I think our society as a whole — and we've seen this with the treatment Lil Nas X got from the 'Call Me By Your Name' music video — people of all stripes, all races, all genders are still dealing with their homophobia. Members of our community are dealing with very internalized homophobia. It's been great and kind of entertaining to see Nas respond in the way that he's responded on social media. But also, he shouldn't have to." 

Bush adds that Nas' kiss "confronts the truth" of all of the beauty within the Black LGBTQ community. 

"When you think of artists like Frank Ocean, who is extraordinary, it's more of having the audacity to live in truth. With Lil Nas, it goes beyond that," Bush explains. "This is an artist who is using every aspect and weaponry at his artistic disposal in order to make a bigger point. And it just so happens to be marketing genius." 

Nas is also openly and unapologetically sex-positive in a way "we haven't seen before from a gay pop star with a large audience," David explains. "Lil Nas has made comments about spending his entire teenage years dating himself because of what people have preached would happen to him because he's gay. [Now], he is embracing his full identity as a performance artist that is not apologizing for who he is. That visibility is incredibly important to young Black people who are gay, who are bisexual, who are transgender, who are queer. It's fantastic that this level of visibility is what we're seeing at this point in time in our movement." 

Adds Bush, "Me and a ton of other Black queer artists that are out here trying to say something about who we are, and being really direct about it and being really unvarnished, is our way of presenting ourselves to the world." 

"Harry Belafonte said, 'Artists are the gatekeepers of truth,'" he continues. "It's the responsibility of the artists today to be able to go and express themselves in any way they see fit, that their creator has endowed them the gift of the art that's within them to say, 'This is the truth. This is the beauty of my life and who I am and all of its contours.' Someone, someday, will say the same thing about Nas." 

"I hope that we, as a society, and specifically in a media context, are no longer at a place where we think two men kissing or two women kissing is somehow taboo or not appropriate," says Anderson. "Because we live our everyday lives like everybody else, right? I think [the response] does say that perhaps there is a shift, there's an improvement. But, you know, we can't be loaded into thinking that we're at some promised land right now. There's still so much more work to be done." 

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