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Steve Parke

How Prince helped a generation embrace queerness

Many of the boundary-pushing artists that we love today owe a lot to the foundation that the “Purple One” laid

The first time I saw the film Purple Rain at age 19, I was stunned and almost embarrassed by the sheer, outright sexiness of the whole thing. Despite growing up in a conservative suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA not far from Prince himself, I had never seen the film before. Shouting the overtly sexual lyrics to “Darling Nikki,” while thrashing himself onstage in ecstasy and agony at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, Prince caught me off guard in a way I had never felt before. First Avenue was a place I visited many times during my college years and afterwards for concerts and other events. Internally, I was fascinated and ever so curious about such a powerful display of sexuality. Outwardly, I blushed bright red for all to see.

I now spend my days paid to speak with youth in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA about gender, sexuality, consent, and dating violence to help them understand their identities and partake in healthy relationships. I get a lot of resistance from young men in particular, telling me that although there may be plenty of lesbian or bisexual women at their school, there simply aren’t gay or bisexual men that exist among them.

We then proceed to analyse and break down stereotypes about masculinity. One of the things I enjoy most about these kinds of conversations is sharing information that young people today are hella queer, more so than any previous generation. A survey of youth by the J Walter Thompson Innovation Group in the USA estimates that barely half of those born in 1996 and after identify as completely heterosexual. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation’s (GLAAD) 2017 “Accelerating Acceptance” study, also conducted in the USA, 20 per cent of people born 1980 - 1996 identify as LGBTQ+, as compared to 12 per cent of those ages 35-51. This generation reports only half the time buying clothing associated with the sex they were assigned at birth (as part of a binary gender system).

According to GLAAD’s survey, “young people… increasingly reject traditional labels like ‘gay / straight’ and ‘man / woman,’ and instead talk about themselves in words that are beyond the binary.” More than 30 years ago, Prince was ahead of the curve, singing “I'm not a woman / I'm not a man / I am something that you'll never understand,” in the song “I Would Die 4 U.” In March 2017, Time’s cover story was entitled “Beyond He or She” in reference to modern youth’s rejection of rigid norms regarding gender expression, identity, and sexuality. Prince enabled those of us in younger generations to think and express ourselves boldly outside of these norms.

There are also countless music artists around right now who are making their mark on the world thanks to the foundation of non-conformity Prince laid in regard to gender expression. Janelle Monáe, a close friend and mentee of Prince, as well as a trailblazing artist in her own right, has challenged norms from the very beginning of her fascinating career. Wearing only a tuxedo for the first few years and consistently clothed in black and white – both intentional decisions to honour her elders – Monáe has defied expectations of her performance of womanhood. When asked about her romantic relationships, she has skirted the question and stated that she dates androids.

Angel Haze, the rapper and singer known for such hits as “Werkin Girls” and “New York,” identifies as agender, meaning they do not identify with any gender. Haze has spoken of their rejection of the traditional binary system at great length as oppressive and limiting. Haze has expressed that they do not wish to explain or justify their existence as a non-binary person in the world, and should simply be able to live freely in their identity.

Frank Ocean has also pushed the envelope in terms of his self-expression, crooning of his first love, a man, on Channel Orange’s “Thinking bout You.” Similar to Prince's aversion to questions aimed to pin him down and define him on terms other than his own, Ocean has staunchly avoided attempts to pigeonhole and label his sexuality in interviews. The title of Ocean’s most recent album, “Blond(e)” implies a reference to the dual gender system through his refusal to identify with either and desire to align with both genders simultaneously. Ocean nonchalantly infuses queerness throughout the album by referencing same gender relationships seamlessly within the lyrics.

Danny Brown, St. Vincent, Grimes, and Young Thug are just a few more artists out of dozens whose defiance of expectations around gender expression owe a major debt to Prince's boundary breaking style and career over the last several decades. The Purple One paved the way in his refusal to be contained within the boxes society constructed for him – whether regarding race, gender, sexuality, or artistry. Witnessing someone like Prince express himself so unapologetically has given many the courage and permission to explore and understand their gender and/or sexuality without shame. The outrageous confidence Prince carried in his music and gender expression even set an example for myself to challenge and move beyond the suppressive norms I had internalised growing up.

“The outrageous confidence Prince carried in his music and gender expression even set an example for myself to challenge and move beyond the suppressive norms I had internalised growing up”

The song “Kiss” and its music video showed us a person comfortable enough in his masculinity and attraction to women to simultaneously embrace his femininity – wearing a crop top and singing lines like, “Women not girls rule my world” in an iconic falsetto. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” revealed a side of Prince intent on centring things we may stereotypically associate as feminine. He sings, “Would you let me dress you? I mean, help you pick out your clothes before we go out? Sometimes that’s what being in love’s about.” In “Controversy,” Prince talks back to his critics who couldn’t understand why he feels the urge to live in the heart of contradictions: “I don't understand all the things people say / Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” Lastly, in “Uptown,” Prince sings defiantly, “Now where I come from / We don't let society tell us how it's supposed to be / Our clothes, our hair, we don't care / It's all about being free.”

Prince showed us that we can thrive in contradictions while in the process of exploring ourselves. We don't need boxes to tell us who to be. Let us celebrate the artists who are carrying his torch forward to make the world a more diverse, open place. Here’s to the Purple One for helping us all become more free. Now let’s go forth and be queer AF in his honour.

Purple Reign: An interdisciplinary conference on the life and legacy of Prince is a three-day international academic conference hosted by the School of Arts and Media, University of Salford, UK, taking place between 24th-26th May.