When Night Street/Interscope’s K.Flay revealed her one-year relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Miya Folick on June 2, she did it Millennial-style: Instagram, complete with an adorable photo of the two cuddling at home. But unlike most of her generation, the artist born Kristine Flaherty was keenly aware a GQ profile detailing her personal life was coming -- and though she was fully on board with the article, she didn't want the initial announcement to seem impersonal or "splashy," but rather “casual and familiar, which is posting to Instagram.”
The reactions were “Overwhelmingly positive or neutral,” she notes with a laugh, and led to a spike in Instagram followers. That supportive, if muted, response to a public coming out was repeated June 30 when Lil Nas X — then 13 weeks into his now-record-shattering run atop the Billboard Hot 100 with “Old Town Road” — revealed on Twitter that he was gay.
Lil Nas X gained 550,000 Twitter followers in the 72 hours that followed (10 times the growth of the previous three days) and Nielsen reported a 41% uptick in streams for the song that tips to his sexuality, “C7osure (You Like)." Though he faced some Twitter vitriol, “Old Town Road” continued unabated on its high-speed chase to a new finish line. (Lil Nas X declined an interview for this story.)
“It does run contrary to a lot of expectations a lot of us have,” K.Flay says of the Atlanta rapper. “And for good reason, historically.”
That history is one that former artist manager and publicist Michael Pagnotta — who handled U.S. publicity for George Michael in the 1990s — knows well. “He wasn't not open — I was never given any instructions [like], ‘Don’t tell anyone,’” Pagnotta says, though he recalls a “sweaty” moment in 1991 where an on-air caller implied Michael was gay and NYC radio station Z100 was flooded with upset fan objections. “He was an enormous pop star and the fact that he might be alienating a portion of that fan base [by coming out] was a consideration, though more for the label than me.... As far as losing opportunities, no one's ever gonna tell you, but I think we all know [it happened]."
Adds Pagnotta: “It was harder in those days. I don't think people today can understand it, really.”
Examples aren't hard to find. Censors muted a homoerotic lyric from David Bowie on Saturday Night Live in '79. That same decade, the disco backlash found a predominantly straight, white audience targeting a massively popular genre coincidentally created by queer African-Americans. A record exec called George Michael a f---ot in the '90s, according to court testimony. Even as recently as 2009, Good Morning Americacanceled on Adam Lambert after his same-sex kiss at the 2009 American Music Awards.
In 2019, being LGBTQ is hardly without its struggles, of course. But what was once seen as something to hide is now celebrated by many, and it can even open up opportunities, from Pride events to branding and sponsorship offers. But it can also open up a new set of dangers and pitfalls.
“This is a concern of mine: the co-opting of queer experience and capitalizing on that for personal or corporate gain,” K.Flay says. To that end, she and longtime manager Seth Cummings are handling opportunities cautiously. Referring to his roster, which also includes out singer Donna Missal, Cummings says, “We've said no to a lot of opportunities that just felt like people were trying to take advantage. Not to be totally negative, but we need to make sure [branding offers] are for the right reasons.”
This isn’t a new concern for queer artists, but as out-and-proud replaces side-stepping silence, it’s uncharted territory for many. While Pagnotta wasn’t with Michael during the pop star’s 1998 forced-outing, he did work with Erasure as a publicist-turned-manager for two decades. “Andy Bell isn't often credited, but he was one of the first truly out pop stars,” Pagnotta says. And when opportunities arose for the synth-pop duo, it was, “Let's not do something because it's gay-affiliated, but because it's cool. You can run afoul of people when you look like you're taking advantage of a situation — especially when it comes to things like sponsorship,” he adds, citing Erasure’s support for sexual-safety nonprofit LIFEbeat as an “authentic” relationship.
Similarly, K.Flay’s manager points to her participation in Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds’ LGBTQ-centric LoveLoud Festival (booked before she came out) as a perfect pairing, noting Reynolds is “definitely in it for the right reasons.”
Even as acceptance within the industry rises and LGBTQ audiences become an increasingly more visible part of the equation, Pagnotta says there’s one thing that hasn’t changed: “You can have all the gay marketing plans you want, but if the album sucks, nobody cares — straight or gay.”