In 2021, Lil Nas X shared a deep kiss with his male backup dancer on the BET stage. For many viewers, this kiss was the alien cousin to other recent displays of pop star queerness—not quite the show-stopping sexuality (and vague scissoring) of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s Grammys performance, but also definitely not the loving prudishness of Ellen and Portia’s peck at the People’s Choice Awards. This kiss felt confrontational. Sexy. New.
Up on the gilded platform of highly publicized, nationally televised award ceremonies, same-sex affections aren’t actually rare. Adam Lambert put on a vaguely kinky rock-pop performance at the 2009 AMAs. St. Vincent and Dua Lipa shared vibes during the 2019 Grammys. Back in 1989, Boy George and Andy Bell exchanged a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kiss at the Brit Awards in protest of the country’s anti-gay Section 28, which prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality.” But some kisses bring murkier cultural beliefs into sharp, lip-locked focus.
The Lil Nas X kiss, the mass marriage ceremony at the 2014 Grammys, and the 2003 Madonna-Britney peck at the VMAs (recently turned into an NFT) have that kind of staying power. None of these three kisses happened in a vacuum; each informs, evokes, contradicts, and converses with the others. And through these three kisses alone, we can track and understand the evolution of queerness in the mainstream. Because, for better or for worse, mainstream representation matters. Visibility for queer folks is a force that can push the needle on legal protections, economic opportunities, physical safety, and mental wellbeing. Visibility also means the freedom to get slutty on any stage you want.
Madonna and Britney Spears, queens of pop both, were at the height of their influence in 2003 when they performed a mashup of “Hollywood” and “Like a Virgin” with Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott on the VMAs stage. Spears, adorned in a sexy-skimpy veil and wedding gown, stood on top of a wedding cake, where she was joined by Aguilera, also in a veil and gown, and later Madonna, dressed in a black tux and top hat. Sure, it was gender-playful, having cis straight women play bride(s) and groom, but the performance was still well within the bounds of the normative—just some over-the-top role play. Then, as Madonna finished her last note of “Hollywood,” she leaned in and kissed Britney.
This was, if you haven’t already guessed, not a great era to be gay: The religious right had cemented its power in U.S. politics throughout the ‘90s, purity culture had its claws in the cultural consciousness, the Supreme Court had only just struck down the Texas ban on “homosexual conduct,” and there were very, very few out gay figures. The Britney-Madonna kiss landed right in the middle of it all, feeling a little too calculated.
Madonna loved to understand herself as a “gay icon,” as she was neither afraid to queerbait nor appropriate the art of the gay community—especially those of Black and Brown people. Her brand of fame was, and still is, dependent on relevancy and exhibitionist flair, so it tracks that she took on the role of the groom seducing the good-girl sensibilities of Spears, who herself was (or more likely, her managers were) ready to shed the purity rings and school-girl outfits. Even the song choices reflected this push-and-pull—the sweet, blushing anticipation of “Like a Virgin” giving way to the success-oriented lyrics of Madonna’s “Hollywood.”
But the kiss, because it was on this public stage, wasn’t really about Madonna and Britney interpersonally—they weren’t announcing a relationship, coming out, or having a genuine moment of exploration. The kiss was about career mobility via scandal, spectacle, and fetish. It was devoid of political implication or solidarity, and it catered to the male gaze. Even the camera crew couldn’t resist panning to catch the reaction of Justin Timberlake, Spears’s ex boyfriend, to see how a man might feel in that moment. As psychologist and scholar Lisa Diamond wrote in a 2005 article, centering the male gaze didn’t just make the kiss frivolous, but harmful: “The potential of these kisses to challenge rigid, dichotomous models of sexuality was altogether lost on a viewing public that is all too accustomed to the economically motivated packaging and marketing of sexual controversy.” The kiss wasn’t incidental, it was prop.
But the awards show circuit wasn’t done playing with gay wedding imagery. From 2003 to 2014, there was a massive shift in how the public regarded gay marriage, and in 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage. By 2014, many other states had followed suit, setting the stage perfectly for the 56th Grammy Awards.
It was a star-studded night, as they all are, but the main focus of this show was Macklemore’s performance. His song “Same Love” bookended a marriage ceremony of 33 gay and straight couples, officiated by Queen Latifah (who had been a heavily queer-coded figure since her performance in 1996’s Set It Off, and who perhaps gave the most genuinely thrilled performance of the whole ceremony). But just before Queen Latifah was able to say, “I now pronounce you a married couple,” Madonna stepped on stage with a coy smile. The only moment in the entire performance ostensibly about queer love—the marriages—was stolen away. The camera frantically panned between Madonna and the couples, missing not one but three kisses between queer couples in favor of Madonna and her off-kilter cowgirl aesthetics.
It was the spiritual sequel to the Britney and Madonna kiss. Taken together, these performances (because let’s be real, they were performance, not ceremony) weren’t about the queer couples at all, or about queerness more generally. But the 2014 performance and its non-kisses was still a step forward from fetish, in its own restrained way. Consider Macklemore’s lyrics for a moment: “Strip away the fear / Underneath it’s all the same love.” The lyrics, and the pairing of gay and straight couples side-by-side, spoke directly to the so-called respectability of queerness. If all love is the same, gay love is the same as straight love. If straight love is good, then by default so is gay love—or at least that was the argument often used in support of same-sex marriage. The toleration of queerness became dependent on the prevailing normalcy of straightness. But so much is lost when queerness becomes sameness.
Macklemore’s prominent role in this performance was revealing on a deeper level too. Because Macklemore, a straight white rapper, won Best Rap Album over Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City while simultaneously pointing fingers at the genre for being homophobic (“If I was gay I would think hip-hop hates me...”), the conversation wasn’t just about queerness in American culture generally, but also queerness in hip-hop specifically.
“The conversation forced a diametrical opposition between queerness and hip-hop culture,” says artist and hip-hop educator Irie Givens. “[There was a] sour taste left in the mouths of hip-hop-faithful audiences when Macklemore—to put it bluntly—took a position many felt was given to him by virtue of his white privilege, to finger-wag at hip-hop for not supporting ‘the gay agenda.’” More importantly, says Givens, all the attention on Macklemore “erases what was already a burgeoning movement for queer representation in hip-hop,” from Frank Ocean to Big Freedia, Young M.A, and Angel Haze.
What Macklemore did in 2014 was easy. He reaped not only a newfound clout related to queerness, but also money and fame. Lots of money and fame. Madonna adjusted her proximity to queerness with her appearance to similar effect: more staying power in the culture; more same-sex kissing for relevancy. Still, no one can argue this performance wasn’t leaps and bounds more progressive than the 2003 kiss. It moved the same-sex awards show kiss from hot “bi-curious” optics towards awareness of real, tangible social change and legal rights. Marriage equality has transformed lives of thousands of queer people—and on some level, though we can cringe about it til we’re blue in the face, did have a hugely positive impact on the public’s attitudes toward queer people.
For Black queer folks, Macklemore’s decision to pit hip-hop against queerness marked a setback. Seven years later, Lil Nas X gave something much better. At the 2021 BET awards, he paid homage to Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” and performed “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” backed by a dance crew of all men, and the chemistry was just there. He wore gold shimmer eyeshadow and confidence—a gorgeous blend of masc and femme aesthetics—as he kissed the dancer next to him, deeply. Gone were the nods to marriage, gender roles, and respectability. It was iconic that Lil Nas X “made a point to do what he did specifically with another masc (enough) Black man, as if to combat the narrative that queer masculinity has to separate itself from Black masculinity,” Givens says. This was a performance with queerness in full power, making no apologies for it. Lil Nas X stepped past what Macklemore and Co. had accomplished in 2014, signaling something bolder to the mainstream. According to Givens, “the message went from, Gay couples just want to be like us, to, Yo, gay folks really don’t give a fuck what we think anymore.”
By 2021, gay marriage was legalized nationally. Pose had premiered on Fox, and Laverne Cox had graced the cover of Time. Over 150 LGBTQ+ officials were elected in a “Rainbow Wave’’ of voting. And unlike its predecessors, Lil Nas X’s kiss needed no excuse to be there—not to shock, and certainly not to portray respectability. Queer pleasure was center stage in that moment, lingering as the lights dimmed. For many, queer identity in action looks like kissing, the promise of sex—those full-bodied, lustful feelings that help make us who we are. In a pop culture landscape where Madonna still somehow won’t take a seat, we still find ourselves needing these kinds of queer make-outs.
Sara Youngblood Gregory is a queer sex and culture writer. She covers sex, kink, BDSM, disability, and healthcare for queer and trans folks. Sara also serves on the board of the lesbian literary and arts journal Sinister Wisdom.