What Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero’ Means To The Young, Black & Queer: A Coming Out Story

Photo: Courtesy of Charlotte Rutherford.
In May 2019, I went home to Columbus, Ohio to visit my mother. It was her 60th birthday, but I didn’t just come home to celebrate her. I was also there to finally begin the process of relieving myself of the shackles of assumed heterosexuality by letting my mom in on the fact that I am queer. Maintaining the illusion of being straight was making me extremely unhappy and my art bland as hell. My queerness, like my Blackness, is one of the best parts about me. It’s the lens through which I move my politics, my creativity and my pleasure and I refused to keep that a secret any longer.
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For LGBTQ+ people, non-queer culture seems to only focus on and celebrate our “coming out” as the grandiose act of courage, while rarely following up to hear the unsavoury details of what it’s like for us to grow into and live in our queerness. On Lil Nas X’s debut album Montero, we get both the elation of living out loud and the space to hold the very real pain of being Black and gay in a society that is still deeply queerphobic. 
Born Montero Lamar Hill, Lil Nas X quite literally rebirthed himself on Montero as the queer, free Black person he was always intended to be. With every track on the album, he invites us on the journey as he takes control of his story and stakes out space where being Black and queer isn’t a reason to disappear or hide parts of himself in order to be successful, or more importantly, be loved — by lovers, by family, by his peers, by Black people, by other queer people, and ultimately, by himself.
As an out Black queer woman who didn’t make the leap into the abundance of my sexuality until I was in my late twenties, Lil Nas X’s willingness at age 22 to name the joys, defeats, desires, and fears of this sacred life through his music makes Montero one of the greatest albums of my lifetime. 
Montero now boasts 11 of its 15 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 in its first week and is the most streamed album on global Spotify for the second week in a row. This comes on the heels of his wildly successful first single, 2019's “Old Town Road,” going 15-times platinum, making it the highest certified song in RIAA History.
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While I don’t believe that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people owe anyone disclosure or “outness,” I cried tears of joy when Lil Nas X came out as gay at the height of the success of “Old Town Road,” and continued to chart, obliterating the longstanding fear that queer Black people can’t be out and successful artists. In fact, Lil Nas X’s talent for storytelling and writing songs based on the fullness of his sexuality and lived experiences (along with his marketing genius) might be the main ingredient to his success in connecting with global audiences. As pop music historian Louie of LouiesMixtapes states, “He is the mainstream -- and he is gay and Black.” 

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I came out to my mother at a restaurant in the Short North neighbourhood of Columbus. I chose a public setting because while I’m always hoping for the best, I’m not naïve to the dangers of coming out as queer in a Midwestern Baptist Black Family. I know my mom loves me and I love her, but Black parents tend to make heterosexuality a requirement for their love, care, and support. 
When I finally blurted out, “Sooo….I’m not no boring heterosexual,” while sitting next to my six-year-old niece as my twin sister nervously laughed because she already knew the details of my tea, my mom responded pretty well. “I already knew that. And that’s fine, as long as you don’t become a man.” Though she was “fine” with me being queer, she used that moment to state her new boundary around my identity. I had to stay recognizable to her as her daughter, which continues to be her conditional acceptance of me, my queerness, and the people I will love in my lifetime. 
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If we’re all being honest, most parental love comes with conditions. Even if you haven’t seen your parents attend a religious service or read a religious text, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “Honour your father and mother, so that your days may be long.” When you’re young, Black, and living in your parents house, dishonour can literally mean anything to them and can have dire consequences. On “Tales of Dominica,” Lil Nas X refers to his fraught relationship with his mother and the pain of his “broken home” that was so severe that he wanted to stay far away: “Can’t go runnin’ back to home / can’t face her face.” As a grown woman who has her own home and has experienced some significant success in my life, dishonour can still be as simple as me correcting my mother on someone’s pronouns. For Lil Nas X, it’s his audacity to be openly gay. 
Montero begins with the title track and first single, subtitled “Call Me By Your Name,” where Lil Nas X’s audaciousness is on full display. Swatting away the Biblical curses thrown at queer people like flies, Lil Nas X courts his queer lover. “I’m not fazed / I’m only here to sin/ if Eve aint in your garden / you know that you can / call me when you want / call me when you need.” 
After coming out, my greatest challenge was figuring out how to love in this new world of femmes, dykes, studs, and bois. While figuring out how I wanted to present in my queerness, I was finally able to admit that I wanted to seriously date and be in intimate romantic relationships — something I had just given up in my phase of being straight. Being the hopeless romantic dyke that I am, I love that with every hook and verse, Montero normalizes the desire for love while also setting the standard for how he wants to be loved. 
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In the music video for my favourite song “Thats What I Want,” Lil Nas X declares his desire for romance, sex and partnership with a man (played by his former real life boo and back-up dancer Yai Ariza). In a pivotal scene, he pays tribute to his saving grace and everlasting love of music while wearing a wedding dress as he accepts a guitar from Pose star Billy Porter at the altar in a church. His love and his desires are holy, sanctified by all of the queer elders rooting for him. 
This moment between Lil Nas X and Porter is especially powerful considering Porter personally knows the battle of being Black, gay and forcibly closeted by the music industry as the price for success that may never come. At 28 years old, Porter released a single and music video “Show Me,” romancing a woman. 
At 22, on the shoulders of artists like Porter, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, Carolyn Franklin, Sylvester, Jermaine Stewart and countless others who were never able to confirm their queerness in public while they were alive, Lil Nas X is loud, explicit, and intentional with his queerness, his love and his lust on songs like “Scoop,” featuring Doja Cat and “Industry Baby,” featuring Jack Harlow. With the celebratory sounds of trumpets sprinkled throughout the album, Lil Nas X affirms his own existence as regal, joyful, heaven-sent. 
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Despite Lil Nas X’s massive commercial success and likeablity, Montero also illustrates the challenges of being Black, queer, and visible. In the stand-out song on the album,“Dead Right Now,” Lil Nas X takes on the pitfalls and aftermath of being out and famous through his relationship with his mother. In the bridge, he takes on her voice in a “drunk” phone call he describes her making to him, filled with insults, financial requests and eternal damnation. “You ain’t even all that pretty /You ain’t even all that nigga / You ain’t helpin’ out with me /God won’t forgive ya.” He’s shared in past interviews that his mother deals with addiction to drugs, something he also refers to on this track: “Told me she’d be clean but I’m knowin’ that her a** is a deceiver / My momma told me that she love me, don’t believe her.” 
On “Sun Goes Down,” Lil Nas X has clearly internalized his mother’s insults about his looks, wondering if his skin is too dark and his lips are too big. The song flows like the blues of a diary entry about his suicide ideation and loneliness growing up in an anti-Black, colourist, queerphobic world. It's reminiscent of Lil Nas X’s appearance on LeBron James’ HBO series The Shop: Uninterrupted. In a barbershop full of apparently cisgender, heterosexual men, the one time Lil Nas X is asked to join in on the conversation, he reminds everyone in the room what Black children have known to be true for most of our lives. 
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“I’m growing up to really hate this [being gay] shit.” Kevin Hart, who had previously “joked” in his 2010 stand-up special that he would do everything he could to prevent his son from being gay, gaslit Lil Nas X, asking “Hate what?! Why?” Lil Nas X responds, “Homosexuality. Gay people. If you really from the hood, you know.” Lil Nas X carries this fear and loathing into "Sun Goes Down," when he sings, “These gay thoughts would always haunt me / I prayed God would take it from me / It's hard for you when you're fightin’/ And nobody knows it when you're silent.”
On the tracks, “Dolla Sign Slime,” and “One of Me,” Lil Nas X tackles the entertainment industry’s demand for heteronormative assimilation and cosplay of hypermasculinity in hip hop. “Dolla Sign Slime'' bangs like a diss track to all the rap boys, which makes it the perfect song to feature our fearless Hot Girl Coach Megan Thee Stallion. Name a better duo to put the industry on notice that the femmes and gay boys can rap and clear out a Nieman Marcus with the best of them! 
On the final track, “Am I Dreaming,” featuring Miley Cyrus, he sings, “Never forget me and everything I’ve done.” Erasure is a risk every Black LGBTQ+ person faces when we declare exactly who we are in the face of an anti-Black, queerphobic world that loves to bury our elders in unmarked graves. As cheesy as it may seem, Black queer people still deserve symbols of hope that go beyond same-sex kisses on the VMA stage from people who don’t outwardly navigate the world as queer people (a trended started at the award show by Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera). 
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While I absolutely experience this album as sonically perfect-- it was such a treat to hear him sing his ass off on “Lost in The Citadel” and "Void," and give me a solid club bop with “Scoop” — I don’t need Lil Nas X to be exceptional. I just want him to keep going. Like his musical predecessor Janelle Monáe when she released her visual album Dirty Computer at the same time she named herself as pansexual, Lil Nas X will also make ripples through culture and music with Montero in ways that only time will tell. 
When I listen to Montero — an album with no skips — and take in the intentional imagery from the music videos and the year-long rollout, I’m reminded that naming myself as queer was only the beginning. While I’m known for celebrating the joys of queers escaping the ghetto of heterosexuality, this album has given me permission to mourn what I lost in my pursuit to be myself. When I came out, I wasn’t prepared for how it would feel to go from people being deeply interested in my love life to never asking me if I’m being loved up at all because of their discomfort around my queerness and the gender of the person doing the romancing. Lil Nas X’s music and any Black artist who gets into the weeds of queer love give all of us permission to dig deeper into our desires as queer folks.
I no longer have to allow the same society that has hidden and erased my Black queer ancestors from my history and culture to also tell me how loud and flamboyant I get to be with my queerness. I don’t owe anyone the performance of thin love for myself, my community, and the type of sex I enjoy just because it’s queer (and so delicious that I actually believe most straights are jealous). I will never forget what this Black gay boy from Lithia Springs, Georgia, has given me and the world through his music. And neither should you. 

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