This week, pop star Rita Ora issued an apology for living her truth. That’s right, she’s not apologizing for using slurs, defaming or sexually assaulting someone, she apologized for having the nerve to sing a sweet pop song about one aspect of her life. This wouldn’t be news except for the fact some other people heard the song and were upset that it did not represent their exact life experiences or unique points of view. They expressed their opinions on twitter and these tweets became news.
There are several issues to unpack here. But first, let’s meet the players:
Rita Ora is a British singer of Albanian descent who has enjoyed a stack of hit singles on both sides of the pond. Her latest single, “Girls”, a collaboration with Charli XCX, Cardi B and Bebe Rexha; is a summer banger about consensual affection between two (or more) women. “‘Girls’ was written to represent my truth and is an accurate account of a very real and honest experience in my life,” Ora said in a written apology for writing a POP SONG.
Hayley Kiyoko is an aspiring singer and actress whose career has yet to reach the success of the “Girls” crew. Kiyoko is an out and proud lesbian which is beyond fabulous. Kiyoko had a problem with “Girls” and expressed her opinion on twitter, which she is completely entitled to do. She called the song “downright tone-deaf” for the way it “fuels the male gaze while marginalizing the idea of women loving women.” Several others, including Kehlani, Shura and Katie Gavin quickly joined her chorus of outrage.
The Media is a desperate organism that thrives on driving clicks to advertisers – the way they achieve this is by creating clickbait – headlines so juicy one can’t help but click on the story – and, with any luck, the juicy banner ads that drape the content on all sides. The media invented terms like “the Internet is outraged” and “Twitter responded” to create news out of nothing. There are more than 300 million people in America – and yet, a “storm” of 10 to 30 outraged tweets is treated as hard data or even a credible trend.
The Internet is a series of tubes that allows everyone to have an opinion without a moderator, gatekeeper, or sense of decency.
Russian Trolls – as we’ve learned from the fallout of the election – Russian social media factories are hell-bent on pitting Americans against each other every way possible – politics, social issues, sports fandom, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender – you name it. This is a proven practice – and yet, the media still supports outraged twitter commentary as hard news because outrage = clicks = bucks. The Russians have nothing to do with this particular story…. Yet. Give em time to manufacture social media spins on it.
Before we go on, let’s give the song a spin…
Love it or hate it, you’re entitled to your opinion. That doesn’t mean this song is wrong, bad, or should cease to exist. Kiyoko’s point seems to be, a song sung from the loving perspective of being bisexual or bi-curious does not speak to her experience or worldview as a lesbian – that’s fine, but with that sentiment she’s apparently claiming that lesbians, and card holding queer singers alone, are entitled to the subject matter of affection and intimacy between females. This is essentially the L kicking the B out of the LGBTQ community.
Once again – Kiyoko, Kehlani, Shura and the others are fine to express their opinions – but as artists and advocates, perhaps “Girls” would have inspired any one of them to sing and share their own song – one about their perspective as a way to add to the conversation instead of silencing Ora’s voice. They all have the talent and resources to create the lesbian empowerment anthem they so wished “Girls” could have been. If the media is going to keep going after “Girls” for invalidating the lesbian experience, perhaps they should attack this one too…
Now, haters gonna hate – and many will try to stop me in my tracks and say that as a white male, I have no right to weigh in on this topic. And so, from here onward, I will prove my point by talking about the exact same issue from my perspective. Rita Ora isn’t the only person whose been told they aren’t living their truth correctly.
I am a gender nonconforming person; I identify as feminine but not female, “elsewhere” on the gender spectrum instead of “trans”. While I didn’t make the same life choices as fellow trans women, we share the same goals. We want to walk down the street, expressing ourselves as we see fit, without fear of ridicule, harassment, objectification, or verbal and physical assault. But, much like Kiyoko’s problems with Ora, many trans activists tell me I’m doing it wrong, and that my choices invalidate or threaten theirs.
As noted above, the LGBTQ community isn’t as tight knit as it sounds. And the T in LGBTQ, isn’t a unified group of people either. For starters, there are trans women and trans men. Both groups share the same hopes, fears and dangers, but let’s face it, society is much more accepting of tomboys than it is feminine men. A cis woman or trans male can walk down the street in pants much easier than a cis male or trans woman can in a skirt. I can’t speak to the dangers faced by trans men, so I won’t, you are welcome to Google it or ask an expert. Moving further into the trans female side of the pie – there are trans women who transition their bodies and/or wardrobes to align their appearance to their gender identity. There are also drag queens (men who dress as women for performance). There are men who like to wear women’s clothes, aka cross dressers (a term I loathe; “cross” is loaded word on its own). And even this group is splintered by men who find the practice gender confirming, and/or sexually arousing, and/or provocative (because that’s what some people are going for), and/or in line with practices within the BDSM community. I personally find traditionally women’s clothes to be gender confirming and more interesting creatively than traditionally male clothes. Facebook lists up to 50 other gender identities, so apologies to everyone who I’ve forgotten. And to anyone who believes some of the above listed identities belong in the Q column and not the T, please take a deep breath.
When Caitlin Jenner emerged into the spotlight in her confirmed gender, she took a lot of heat for doing it wrong. She was rich, and therefore couldn’t speak to the experiences of so many that can’t afford hormone treatment, feminization surgeries, personal stylists, or designer wardrobes. She was not a trans woman of color, nor did she have to perform sex work to survive. Jenner never asked to be “the voice of all trans women” and yet she was thrust into that role and knocked down from within the trans community at every turn. I don’t know Jenner personally, and we certainly differ on politics – but am forever grateful for the spotlight she shined onto every member of the community. It’s her job to tell her story. It’s our job to tell ours.
Jazz Jennings has children’s books and a great show on cable that tells her story – and yet, she gets heat from other trans teenagers who don’t come from loving and supporting homes. Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! brought trans into the punk rock scene that is rife with toxic masculinity and homophobia – while she’s been widely embraced, she also doesn’t adorn herself in frilly dresses and soft makeup – is she doing trans wrong? In a similar controversy, RuPaul had to apologize for remarks he made about not opening his hit TV show, “Drag Race”, to trans women. You see, even tough DRAG (performance art) and TRANS (gender identity) are two totally different things, RuPaul, drag’s biggest celebrity, is being accused of doing drag wrong.
Returning to my story, when I was in the closet about my gender identity, my closet contained no feminine clothes. Online shopping wasn’t really a thing and I was terrified to shop in stores – for good reason. Even after coming out, I’ve been kicked out of name brand retail stores for holding up dresses to my body to guess if they’d fit – using a changing room was and still is out of the question at most stores. For years, I drove by a store that was for trans women. Finally, I got the courage to go in. To my surprise, I was asked to leave the moment I admitted I was not transitioning. The owner said, “take your fetish elsewhere.” Just last year, I asked the owner of a local lingerie store (via e-mail) if her associates could help me figure out my bra size. I promised to keep my shirt on. She refused, saying I was welcome to buy anything I wanted, but she would not allow any of her employees to touch me. While the store’s social media feed celebrates the Divine Feminine – I was not divine or feminine enough to buy her merchandise with confidence it would fit.
As you can see, a few vocal people believe I am doing trans wrong – just like Rita Ora is kissing girls wrong. Most media will only report what OTHER people are saying while offering no commentary on the topic, so dissenting voices like Kiyoko dominate the headlines. Cardi B has come to Ora’s defense by saying “I personally myself had experiences with other woman, shiieeeett with a lot of woman! I thought the song was a good song and I remember my experience.” Few others, including Yusuf Tamanna in The Independent, have come to her defense. Tamanna said, “It goes against the very idea of inclusivity for all to suggest you can only be a part of our community if you look and act a certain way. And if you don’t and still claim your queerness, then you have to prove it.” Today, the Chicago Tribune looked at both sides of the issue, noting how even Kiyoko once found inspiration in the another reviled bisexual anthem, “I Kissed a Girl”.
To claim there is something wrong with these songs is to claim there is something wrong with experimentation. The outrage from select gay and lesbian advocates seems to imply being gay is an all or nothing sport. If Katy Perry kissed a girl and “didn’t like it” or didn’t want to marry her, then she owes huge apologies for leading on that poor unnamed girl. Out there – right now – countless girls and women are entertaining thoughts about kissing other women and girls — and by all means, if the feeling is mutual, I hope they do. Perhaps, by hearing this song, they will feel a little less shame or fear in doing so. Boys too (with this song, or “Medicine” by Harry Styles).
As a young, closeted, gender confused teen in 1970s Cleveland – all I had to cling to were images of Bowie and Prince blurring gender lines on album sleeves. All the songs about coloring outside the lines were transphobic – such as “Lola” by The Kinks. Even my favorite movie, Heathers, kept me locked in the closet, “this is Sherwood, Ohio; if you’re not holding a brewski, you may as well be wearing a dress.” It wasn’t until the early 90’s when I heard the line, “Oh, in another world, yeah, he could wear a dress,” in “Welcome to the Cheap Seats” by The Wonder Stuff. It would be another decade before The Pierces song “Lights On” gave me hope a woman might someday find me desirable while dressed authentically, “Here’s my dress to try on baby / Let me be your man / I will call you pretty darlin’ / Tell me what I am”. These were no mere pop songs, they were life rafts that kept me company and gave me hope until Laura Jane Grace could sing boldly and confidently about her life journey – which mirrors, but isn’t equal to mine. And that’s OK.
The Republican Party and Right Wing in general have figured out a way to weaponize outrage to play the victim on most every social front, all while dismantling the basic human rights for not just the LGBTQ community, but every form of life that isn’t an old, rich, white man in a power suit. Instead of taking the bait — or lowering ourselves to their standards and tactics, wouldn’t it be better to appreciate, applaud and support each other’s life stories and points of view? If “Girls” can de-stigmatize the very concept of two girls kissing, then bi-curious, bisexual, lesbian and trans people can take inspiration to live and love a bit more freely.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to listen to open the windows, let the sunshine in, and listen to “Girls”.