By Jess Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
It’s been 50 years since LGBTQ folks rioted during a police raid at the Stonewall Inn.
The raids were routine, but people had had enough and their rebellion was a bell for the movement that couldn’t be unrung. Fifty years later, June is Pride Month and rainbows are everywhere. Companies have been courting that rainbow dollar for years and last week Taylor Swift performed in front of Stonewall to promote her new single, “You Need to Calm Down,” an LGBTQ anthem, question mark? We’re in not the worst spot when queer culture is profitable and not vilifiied by the most famous pop star on the planet; until very recently, companies didn’t want anything to do with the queers. Now, we’re a marketable demographic. We’ve made it, baby!
Well, not really.
Ironically, I’ve seen variations of the phrase “You Need to Calm Down” a lot this week, not because I’ve been listening to T-Swift, but seeing folks tell LGBTQ people who raised questions about Taylor’s genuineness and approach with her new-found activism. The fact that this is a conversation is OK. We need to be able to think critically about folks who make money by championing the causes of others.
This is especially relevant in 2019 in Pittsburgh. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah chose the Steel City to do a quick piece about corporations capitalizing on Pride. We heard from Pittsburgh’s own Ciora Thomas and Duane Binion. When asked if we should be happy that companies are rainbow flexing because we’re a marketable demographic, Binion said “no… it would be beautiful if those actions were genuine.” But it isn’t and shouldn’t be the bare minimum to sell rainbow and queer merch. For example, a few years ago you could buy “hers and hers” or “his and his” pillow sets, at Urban Outfitters. Cool. Cool. Richard Haynem their CEO, has given more than $14,000 to Rick “Santorum“ Santorum. AT&T claims to be LGBT-friendly and has engaged in coming out campaigns, but they donated nearly $2.8 million to 193 anti-gay politicians from 2017 to 2018.
The Stonewall Riots didn’t happen so that white, straight (or, at least, straight-presenting) millionaires could release queerbait during the month of June. T-Swift and her team chose April 26th, National Lesbian Visibility to make a “major announcement.” In weeks leading up to this many a gay Easter egg was dropped; changing pronouns in songs to “her,” the rainbow color motif, and more. When the day came she didn’t announce that she was coming out, but a new single sure was! I’m one of the queer folks who thought this clearly intentional bait-and-switch move was not cool. Writer Ellen Cushing quipped about this: “…the pureness of heart to think Taylor’s orientation is anything other than ‘capitalism.’ How many focus groups did her team have to go through to feel that it was safe and profitable for her to release this?”
Taylor using gay iconography in 2019 to make money is suspect in part because she built her career with songs that perpetuate sexist gender roles. From a piece I wrote about Tay Tay in 2011: “When I think of Taylor Swift, I think of horses, unicorns, big, poofy prom dresses, and, you know, probably chastity and purity rings.” It’s disjointed that she’s sought the approval of a conservative audience for years. Her last album, Reputation was adored by the alt-right and Breitbart News. Swift threatened to sue a blogger who wrote a piece questioning why Taylor wasn’t vocal about folks making her a poster child of the alt-right. Is the bar so low that we can’t expect people to literally denounce fucking Nazis?
As a rule folks shouldn’t center themselves when being an ally for marginalized communities. But, she’s already centered by virtue of who she is… isn’t this an example of a person with privilege using the tools in her toolbox for good? She tried, but impact over intent. The song conflates people trolling Taylor on Twitter with LGBTQ experiences and homophobia.
Folks commenting snake emojis online is not the same as the vitriol and danger queer folks face just by exisiting. The statistics are daunting. Ten percent of teens are LGBTQ but make up 40% of homeless teens. This isn’t by accident; we have people in power who are actively trying to erase queer people from existence. While the lyrics conflate shade on Twitter to LGBTQ discrimination, the antagonists of the song and video are caricatures of poor, bigoted rednecks. The video should have featured white folks in pressed suits rather than folks missing teeth and wearing flannel with signs like “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” The people actively working to disenfranchise the LGBTQ community are CEOs, judges, politicians. Punching down to folks that resemble Taylor’s initial country fan base is cheap and inaccurate.
The “You Need to Calm Down,’ video is full of kickass queer activists, but as my fellow queer friend, Grace, said when we watched it, “She’s not hyping up queer people, they’re literally her back up dancers.” Ally-ship means lifting up those most affected and elevating their voices, not putting yourself in the middle and using queer folk as adornments and props.