When Lil Nas X, the genre-bending creator of country-rap viral sensation “Old Town Road,” came out in early July as gay, most fans and artists responded positively, some offering well-meaning jokes about him seemingly extending the queer joy of the preceding month.
But on social media, especially Twitter, where the 20-year-old made his bones, his emergence from the closet initiated an onslaught of negative comments and jokes about his sexuality; there were even calls to boycott his work. Some of the Twitter wisecracks were graphically sexual, making fun of the artist for specific gay sex acts.
But Lil Nas X seemed publicly content to get in on the joke, even responding with self-deprecation. He approvingly retweeted a video implying — and reacting negatively to the implication — that his lyric “ride til I can’t no more” referenced bottoming during gay sex. He approvingly retweeted another video in which a comedian changes the lyrics from “Old Town Road” to graphically depict, and once again, mock gay sex. And in perhaps the most obvious demonstration of rolling with the joke, he tweeted: “next nigga to say something offensive to me getting kissed.”
Although Lil Nas X initially responded to these jabs less-than-playfully, he has since almost entirely rejoined them in the same way many masculine-presenting gay men like myself have our entire lives: by laughing along and playing up the humor, rather than decrying their authors as bigots or homophobes, namely in the interest of maintaining necessary relationships with these seemingly otherwise-agreeable people.
In my close masculine friendships, both growing up and now, most topics — including race and sexuality — were and are legitimate targets for humor. The negotiation of these specific boundaries should and, in my case, has been determined on a friend-by-friend basis. But queer people of all varieties of presentation — whether masculine, feminine, or something else — are prone to a lifetime of jabs from people with whom they have not entered into such negotiations but with whom they are still expected to engage. We, queer people, are culturally mandated, in spaces both professional or personal, to accept, play along with, and ultimately feign approval of these jokes.
These gags are culturally considered an irrevocable part of male same-sex friendships: when all six feet two inches and 250 pounds of Michael Sam entered the NFL in 2014 as the league’s first openly gay player, USA Today reported it seemingly as a fact that he would face gay jokes in the locker room. His queerness, the logic went, was simply another attribute worthy of masculine mocking.
“Every NFL rookie gets teased by teammates, who usually aim for the easiest target — his hometown, his alma mater, his weight, his clothes, his haircut,” wrote Tom Pelissero. “It’s a rite of passage, a bonding experience, and most veterans know how not to cross the line.”
This logic — that male-on-male teasing is normal and to be expected — is the same that governed the teenage locker rooms in which I grew up, and that still governs some of my current friendships. Male same-sex friendships, or even tangential relationships, are rife with wisecracks that to an outside observer might seem to cross a line. These jokes generally emerge when boys become teenagers, serving as a way for young men to repudiate all things feminine and become “real men” — a task critical to American boys as they cross the precipice of pubescence from boyhood to adolescence.
“Calling male athletes ‘girls,’ ‘women’ and ‘ladies’ is a central part of motivation in sports. Consider also slurs like ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy,’ which obviously reference women, but also ‘fag’ (which on the face of it is about sexual orientation, but can also be a derogatory term for men who act feminine) and ‘cocksucker’ (literally a term for people who sexually service men),” writes Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College. “This, by the way, is where the ubiquitous slur ‘you suck’ comes from; it’s an insult that means you give men blow jobs.”
I’d wager that every gay man who grew up playing sports in America remembers being called a “faggot” or a “cocksucker,” or at least recalls being pejoratively told “suck a dick.” I certainly do. And even the ubiquitous “no homo,” a slur seemingly less serious than those others, has the ability to strike fear in queer hearts, as gay writer Ocean Vuong recently told an interviewer: “no homo,” as casual a chirp as it may seem, was among the most terrifying things people used to say in his high school.
These jabs are the obvious byproduct of a society in which homosexuality is seen as feminine, and, as Wade writes, one in which “men are pressed — from the time they’re very young — to disassociate from everything feminine,” because femininity is understood to be lesser than masculinity. All of this leads certain straight-presenting gay men, already fearing the fallout of potential forced feminization, to not push back against these jokes, instead often jumping to join them.
“One hundred percent, and Michael welcomes that,” former NFL defensive back Wade Davis, who came out as gay after his playing career ended, told USA Today about Sam facing potential gay jokes in the locker room. “I think what people don’t realize is that with being out (of the closet) for an entire year, he’s already gone through that with the exact same guys who are going to be in the NFL. It’s not like he hasn’t experienced it.”
Sam’s experience — having to “welcome” slurs about his sexuality to pursue his football career ambitions — is analogous to that of Democratic presidential hopeful and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has in interviews recalled his fellow former military compatriots using gay as an epithet and cracking jokes to that effect, and to that of Lil Nas X, who is now cooperating with rather than chastising Twitter comedians’ gay jokes, seemingly to maintain his overwhelmingly straight and male rap-country fanbase.
By accepting and inserting himself into the gay joke-sphere, Lil Nax X is doing something that many straight-passing gay men like myself, Sam, and Buttigieg have done for years: purportedly self-inoculating ourselves from bullying by leaning on our supposed masculine toughness to join the joke — one rooted in young mens’ internalization of the cultural preference for masculinity over femininity. So when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweeted that Lil Nas X had been bullied, it should come as no surprise that he responded defiantly, clarifying, in an unmistakably masculine way, that he had not been a victim: “nobody bullied me. i’m a big boy.”
This dynamic is certainly not gay-specific, as countless other minority groups continue to pay what is essentially a tax to maintain certain vital relationships. This tax rears its head when immigrants, in pursuit of their American dream, are forced to tolerate the majority’s inability to (and unwillingness to learn how) to pronounce their names; or when ethnic minorities, seeking to maintain friends, accept the humbling of their treasured cuisine, seemingly for no reason other than its foreignness, at the hand of the majority.
This is a tax of otherness: a payment anyone who exists outside the norms of race, gender, sexuality, and religion is forced to pay day-in, day-out, with no respite in sight. And while many of us do so quietly, Lil Nas X is paying this tax on a viral national level, supposedly shielding himself through humor in a cloak of deterrent masculinity designed to ward off the apparent ills of homosexuality’s implied femininity.
Charles Dunst is an incoming M.Sc. candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics, and a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Foreign Policy. He was formerly based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.