Like many people, my teenage years put me at the mercy of raging hormones, big feelings, and deep uncertainty about who I was. Completely new thoughts of sexual desire both overwhelmed and confused me. I didn’t come out until I was 22, so for a closeted lesbian teenager, female pop stars became a crucial site for understanding my desire.
I’ve been keeping diaries since the tender age of eight; my high school journals detail the trials and tribulations of boys, booze, and bombs in post-9/11 NYC, but they’re also filled with longing entries about the likes of Shakira, Nelly Furtado, and Britney Spears. These women allowed me to blur the line between wanting to be someone and wanting to be with them. In doing so, my fandom became an acceptable vehicle for both desire and fantasy. Perhaps that’s why these gay icons — who mainstream audiences primarily associate with cis gay men — are just as important to queer female audiences and other members of the LGBTQ community, too.
Scene one. I’m 15-years-old, it’s 2002, and I’m at Last Call With Carson Daly. I’m sitting five feet away from Shakira, trying not to scream. I scheme how to get Shakira to notice me and settle on screaming “Depeche Mode!” (her favorite band). She looks at me and smiles. That night, my journal entry is five pages of huge letters, many underlines, and uncontained excitement:
“Shakira acknowledged me. I f*cking waved to her and she looked at me and blew me a kiss, which is sort of weird but she was also staring at me, I think she was looking at my Depeche Mode shirt and I felt awkward and looked away BUT SHAKIRA acknowledged me.”
As a teenager, I felt like a shadow, hidden behind my friends who were more feminine, prettier, skinnier, and ultimately, more seen than I was. I internalized that feeling of invisibility as a corresponding sense of worthlessness. So, that moment of being acknowledged by one of my idols was a confirmation that not only was I noticeable, but that I was actually worth seeing, a feeling that I struggled to hold onto as I continued to feel unseen both as a closeted lesbian, and, eventually, while living openly as a lesbian.
Scene two. It’s 2004, just before my seventeenth birthday, and I’m watching a lingerie-clad Britney Spears make out with one of her dancers on stage during the Onyx Hotel Tour. “Breathe On Me” plays as she kisses him but I can barely get my own lungs to work. I glance over at my girlfriends, who seem equally mesmerized, and wonder if they’re looking at her flat stomach because they want it… or because they want to lick it. The next day, I get drunk and let my feelings out, writing in my journal:
“Holy f*cking sh*t, I “just” went to Britney – WOW. I mean, we all know I’ve seen sexual sh*t in my life (on TV or whatever, I know) but I swear I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Britney was so f*cking hot, I can’t even tell you. And we were really quite close. Her face, her body, her everything – the dancing!”
“Her face, her body, her everything” became a mantra of what I desired as a still-closeted gay woman who’d spent most of her life as a tomboy. I lacked these markers of female desirability in a culture dictated by a predominately straight male gaze, but my obsession with Britney let me feel — even if just for a moment — like I possessed them the way Britney did.
For me, female pop stars were the epitome of feminine desirability: They possessed hyper-femininity and visibility, as their celebrity status meant that they were worth looking at as beautiful women and worth looking to as role models for how to be a beautiful and “acceptable” woman.
The visibility of these female pop stars can be a canvas of desire for queer female audiences because female desire is so often rendered invisible. Our society encourages and normalizes female homosociality everywhere, whether the spaces are queer or not — “gal pal” relationships are accepted and expected, even as the truly sexual or romantic implications of these expressions are still not taken seriously. Female homoeroticism and homosexuality are frequently erased regardless of implicit or explicit public expressions; I’ve fully made out with my girlfriend in a straight space and still been asked if she’s my sister or best friend. My experience as a lesbian is typified by invisibility, and for many queer women, this feeling of being unseen or even erased by others is par for the course.
Conversely, the relationship between cis gay men and gay icons like Madonna, Whitney, and Britney is also one of being seen. Typically, the stars adopted by the cis gay male community are those who embody resilience, reinvention, and a connection to the experience of being marginalized i.e. as women in a male-dominated industry. For many gay men, there is recognition with these pop stars through shared experiences, like being broken down and then building yourself back up, something that most members of the LGBTQ community know all too well.
But, unlike my experience as a lesbian pop fan, the relationship between cis gay men and female pop stars is so widely recognized that gay men are frequently credited as the reason behind a female pop star’s rise to fame or even their return to the limelight. Would Gaga have become a superstar if the gays hadn’t adopted her early in her career and in turn, been adopted by her during the Born This Way era? Would Kylie Minogue have had a late career comeback without the enthusiasm of gay male audiences? Could Madonna have the staying power she’s had without the gay male community, who have both supported and been appropriated by her for her entire career? The power of the cis gay male audience cannot be discounted, but it’s hard not to wonder why they are so often identified as the driving force behind the success of pop queens when the fact is, queer women and others in the LGBTQ community show just as much love and support for these stars, too.
While my sexuality has been negated in many straight spaces, it has gone unrecognized in queer spaces as well. I’ve gone out with gay male friends to a gay bar and been seen as a “fag hag,” a hanger-on in a space and community that I actually occupy. The reality is, even within the LGBTQ community, there’s still a hierarchy of power that replicates what we’ve all been forced to learn by our heteronormative, patriarchal society. The cis (white) male gaze reigns supreme even in our “alternative” LGBTQ spaces, which can render perspectives of other members of the community invisible. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that if a cis gay male audience embraces a pop diva, that’s the audience that is ultimately legitimized by mainstream society, leaving the rest of us in the shadows of this exhausting male gaze.
But what about the female gaze? For queer female audiences, these pop stars can be sites of our actual sexual desire, and an acceptable one for it, because women across the board are demanded and encouraged to look at other women as examples of “good” femininity. As a teenager, I would look at Shakira and make mental notes of both the qualities we shared, and, more importantly, the traits I lacked, so I could identify what I needed to become a more acceptable and desirable woman. She, like other female pop stars, became a site of fantasy, I told myself I wanted to be her — until I realized I wanted to be with her.
The importance of fantasy for a queer person is what makes the music of these singers so appealing as well. For my teenage self, a virgin who couldn’t drive and had never been in love, the songs of Britney, Shakira and Nelly Furtado were accessible and digestible, regardless of my own lack of lived sexual experience. Compare that to Fleetwood Mac — I never “got” Fleetwood Mac until I’d been in love and heartbroken — but those types of emotionally complex experiences, which are often delayed for the LGBTQ community, aren’t necessary to connect to the visceral desire of “Slave 4 U” or “Whenever, Wherever.” In fact, the impersonal nature of these pop songs allows for fantasy and projection that other more personal songs don’t. So this music became the perfect space to fantasize being a better version of myself, one who danced to “Slave 4 U” as sexily as Britney once did.
Ten years after coming out and fifteen-plus years since writing those journal entries shared up top, I continue to hold what others consider an excessive amount of space for these pop queens. Many of my friends wonder how I, an intelligent and successful 32-year-old, can still listen to Shakira or Britney with the same enthusiasm that I did at 17. But, how can I not? These women were the first real embodiments of my sexual desire, even if I didn’t have a name for it at the time.
While not all queer women have the same intense feelings for these stars, many share a similar experience of using these famous women to figure out their desire. These pop stars offered us relief, and helped make our desires — and really, our lives — a little more bearable. There are so many worse things in the world than projecting your super gay feelings onto Britney or Shakira, and although I sometimes wish I’d understood those feelings sooner, I’m eternally grateful that I had the company of such queens to help me on that journey.