Lil Nas X, a Twitter-savvy #BARB became an overnight sensation when his TikTok track “Old Town Road” skyrocketed to its glorious and record breaking 17 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Released in 2018, his debut foray into music made him immediately iconic and loved by many. This would all devolve when Lil Nas X came out of the proverbial closet on June 30, 2019 on Twitter. The mad love he received turned quickly to entrenched hate, and the homophobia reared its ugly head.
Lil Nas X went from cisgender straight affability to Butch-Queen-in-charge, bar none, real quick. While I enjoyed his music before then, I became a stan after he showed his shadow self to us all.
That level of vulnerability isn’t easy to come by these days and I admire how steady he is on his path to fame. This disclosure, his coming out process, was met with the typical religious and hypermasculine condemnation LGBTQ people are practiced at receiving.
This backlash has only motivated Lil Nas X to sharpen his tools of shade—as evidenced by the haters he is known to gather across the Twittersphere. And as has become requisite, shade would be his response after releasing the video for his latest hit “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The red-hot video shocked, amazed, and brought out a brigade of Biblical pitchforks.
From the moment it dropped on March 26, 2021—quickly charting on Billboard and retaining a number one slot during its third week out—the video sparked controversy. For me and others like me, sliding down a stripper pole to hell and then giving the devil a lap dance, right before killing him was an iconic moment, forever emblazoned in our heads. But for pastors, conservative parents, and a slew of people organized against the “gay agenda” to even some LGBTQ people, the video became a clear target for rebuke.
The Problem With Moralism and Safe-Sex Rhetoric
There is something about overt homosexuality that troubles the waters. This isn’t new, when Oscar-winning film “Moonlight” won Best Kiss at the 2017 MTV Movie Awards, I wrote, “One day, I declare it! A kiss between two men, hetero, cisgender or queer will not be shocking. O well in this case, a kiss placed on the lips between two presumably masculine black men will be the new affixed norm.” In my mind, that day can’t come sooner, because the self-righteousness that abounds when two Black men kiss is astounding and creates a barrier for people—queer like me—from showing ourselves fully.
There are other consequences, too: For one, our health literacy goes out of the window, like it did when Lil Nas X performed an Egyptian-themed rendition of Montero at the BET Awards this past weekend. Adorned in Pharaonic attire, golden set design and choreography, X hit the spot when he shared a same-sex kiss withone of his backup dancers at the end of the performance. Immediately after, Twitter was abuzz with moral judgements about the “gay agenda” being on display. Others lamented that Lil Nas X doesn’t talk about “safe sex” enough.
The sexual safety rhetoric summarily snow-balled into a more nefarious stream of consciousness when people began to link HIV to his kiss. Frustrated by what I saw populating on my timeline, I tweeted, “In terms of safer sex practices, kissing is one of them.”
The problem that arises when we conflate HIV with a kiss is that it is essentially codified homophobia. It suggests that LGBTQ communities are unable to find joyous and liberated moments of public intimacy without being told that we are awalking HIV prevention campaign. Not only is this criticism unbalanced—because cisgender and heterosexual people are rarely expected to be teachable in their public displays of affection—it also has roots in HIV-phobia. In this case projecting this moralism around “safe sex” onto a momentary kiss is outsized, especially because kissing is a safer sex practice, which discredits the expressed concern people have with it in the first place.
Again, Kissing Cannot Transmit HIV
To be clear, saliva cannot transmit HIV—and therefore any fearmongering connected to a kiss is not grounded in facts. This past June marked 40 years since the first report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of five men who were “all active homosexuals” and had been treated for “biopsy-confirmed pneumocystis pneumonia,” later identified as a marker for advanced HIV disease or AIDS. This initial report would provide fodder for the media to frame HIV as a “gay disease,” forever marking an identity with a virus and creating the juggernaut we HIV positive people know as HIV stigma.
Stigmatizing language is par for the course when it comes to public health, but has unintended consequences, such as the outrage that overtook Lil Nas X’s mentions on social media. In a world where sanctimonious onlookers create barriers to normal public intimacy for LGBTQ people—while others kiss without fear of retribution or death— my community may lose our lives or be beaten bloody because of consensual loving touches in public spaces. This leads to far too many keeping who they love and how they love in the shadows. This leads to mental health challenges which in turn can lead to depression and suicidal ideation.
The best thing you can do to support “safer sex” is to affirm the love of people like Lil Nas X and not ravage them because of insecurity, religion, or overblownhealth concerns, because affirmation is one of the most effective public health tools we have—use it!