If the U.S. rap industry were an accurate representation of the country's population, then its musicians would be just as diverse in gender and sexuality. Though hip-hop was born out of black and Latino urban youth culture, it has gradually spread into the American mainstream in nearly all the country's regions and cultures. Perhaps this is why rap heads often indulge in a pernicious parlor game called "Who is the gay rapper?" After all, there have to be a few, right?
However, the idea of a "gay rapper" seems to cut against so many of the false values that rap fans hold dear, such as machismo, heteronormativity and emphatic displays of verbal and visual power. Though our public conversations about homosexuality and its shifting place in society tend toward inclusiveness, the rap industry exposes and, at worst, embraces our private fears about what a truly gender and sexually-diverse society would look like.
As a result, artists that identify as LGBT are frequently corralled into well-meaning buzz stories that treat "gay rappers" like exotic flowers. Over the years, the media has spotlighted the "homo-hop" wave led by Deep Dickollective in the early 2000s, the "sissy bounce" scene in New Orleans heralded by Big Freedia and others, and, most recently, the N.Y.C.-based "queer rap" of Mykki Blanco and Le1f. On the one hand, these musicians deserve to be heard on their own merits, and not through the prism of awed Otherness. Big Freedia has noted that she's just a "bounce" rapper, period, and no one called her a "gay rapper" until the national press began writing about her. (But as her busy schedule of Pride event appearances makes clear, she's making the most of it.) And in a fine op-ed piece critiquing "gay rapper" trend pieces, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote, "As their stars rise, they're increasingly being boxed in rather than celebrated as out, and not by choice. They're being further marginalized by being tenuously lumped together."
On the other hand, hip-hop is about being proud of your identity, from your city and region to the community and family that raised you. The best rap music is a form of communication between personalities that are often starkly different from the listener's own. When Mykki Blanco rhymes in a drawl similar to that of Lil Wayne, then coyly references Nas on "Join My Militia," she subverts rap tropes into a wholly unique voice. When Zebra Katz verbally vogues and snaps on "Ima Read," he equates the ball culture of Paris Is Burning fame with a brutal freestyle battle.
The balance between celebrating an out-and-proud identity and simply being a quality rapper, no strings attached, may be difficult to strike. But it's less torturous than the days when Queen Pen drew such a gossipy and bigoted response for "Girlfriend" that she has struggled to climb back into the closet ever since, and when Trina strenuously denied that she was bisexual following her raunchy "lick the cl#t" lyrics on Trick Daddy's "Nann N#gg#." As we argue over the seemingly intractable problem of homophobia, and wonder how best to receive the promisingly talented crop of LGBT-identified rappers blowing up blogs and nightclubs, we should also take time to marvel at how far we've come.