In expressing her aversion to homosexuals American Idol finalist La’Porsha Renae was only following that show’s inglorious tradition of homophobia.
I almost feel sorry for La’Porsha Renae, runner-up of the final season of American Idol and object of derision for saying that she was “one of the people who don’t really agree with [the gay] lifestyle”. She was being asked for her opinion of her home state Mississippi’s new law that uses “religious liberty” to enable discrimination against LGBTs.
“I wasn’t brought up that way. It wasn’t how I was raised. But I do have a lot of friends and a lot of people that I love dearly who are gay and homosexual and they’re such sweet, nice people. We should just respect each other’s differences and opinions and move on.”
Words like “don’t agree”, “lifestyle” and “that’s not how I was raised” are Homophobia 101, the kind of clichés mindlessly parroted by people who probably haven’t thought very deeply about the issue. Renae continued to not think much when she issued a “corrective” statement that just had the effect of making everything worse.
“Live and let live” is a sweet sentiment but it rings hollow in the light of Mississipi’s new laws where LGBTs don’t get to “live” with the same rights as Renae herself.
Renae’s tone deaf homophobia was a fitting end to American Idol, a show that has never been LGBT’s best friend and, in fact, has often been our enemy.
From before it began American Idol existed in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” world. This is no surprise; gays are encouraged to remain closeted in most parts of the media and especially in music. Will Young, the singer who won the very first Pop Idol, the UK show American Idol was based upon, was told to keep his sexuality a secret if he wanted a career in the USA. To his credit, the moment he was free of the show’s confines Young came out. The announcement clearly didn’t affect sales of his debut song Evergreen – it went on to sell almost 2 million copies.
Young’s post-Idol success should have paved the way for American Idol contestants to come out while competing. Unfortunately, it did not.
Season 1 (2002) American Idol finalist Jim Verraros was told to delete an online journal that mentioned he was gay. He was also very quickly booted off the finals in murky circumstances. It was later claimed that the judges had been told to “nail Jim” and that then co-host Brian Dunkleman was lambasted for not sufficiently demoralizing the contestant on camera.
The message to future gay contestants was clear – you don’t fit our image of an Idol. Whether “gay-seeming” contestants were purposefully not selected for Idol is unknown but it’s clear they weren’t welcome, nor was anyone who didn’t neatly reflect heteronormative stereotypes.
Original judge Simon Cowell once told a rejected male auditioner that he should ”shave off the beard and wear a dress, because he’d be a great female impersonator”. Another original judge Randy Jackson asked a different male contestant “Are you a girl?” Perhaps Jackson can now get a job standing outside the bathrooms in certain US states to make sure no pesky transsexuals get into the wrong bathroom.
The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy remained in effect for over a decade. Of course, some LGBT’s did slip through the nets. Most significantly, runner-up of Season 2 (2003) Clay Aiken, who literally radiated gayness. After years of speculation Aiken finally came out in 2008. He’s claimed that Idol helped him come out, but given that he was effectively dragged from the closet it’s actually more likely it did the opposite, the pressures of the show and the music business forcing him deeper into denial.
Another notable LGBT moment came in Season 4 (2005) when Mario Vazquez quit the show soon into the pre-final televised portion. Rumours that he was about to be outed swirled around at the time and while Vazquez has never come out he was the subject of a harassment suit by a male Idol employee. Again, the scandal only further emphasised that gay contestants should stay mum.
Even uber-gay Adam Lambert, the runner-up of Season 8 (2009) did not come out during the show even though the internet was bursting with images that confirmed his sexual orientation.
Then again, American Idol didn’t exist in a bubble. In many ways, it reflected the mood of the USA itself. The early to mid-2000s were the George W Bush years, where the country embraced conservatism.
Post-Obama’s election in 2008, however, the mood of the USA began to change. The country spent the next few years slowly ushering in gay marriage. Meanwhile, Idol was still terrified of the possibility of gay contestants. Between seasons 2 and 11 the show was a smash hit and they wouldn’t have wanted anything, especially not the stink of queers, to jeopardise that.
It took until 2014, the 13th season before the homophobic dams started leaking. That was the season we got the first openly gay finalist, MK Nobilette. Unsurprising it was a lesbian who smashed the pink ceiling – lesbians are typically less threatening than gay men, possibly because they’re fetishized by straight males.
Proof of that double-standard came earlier that same season when openly gay male Keith London was humiliated for singing Beyonce’s If I Was a Boy as an audition song. Judges Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr were shown visibly confused by this song choice and his boldness. “That don’t impress me. It’s bizarre.” Lopez said. Connick was equally critical, “Oh yeah, it’s a weird choice. It’s like “okay we get it.” The two were so put off they talked through his entire audition and they then forced London to have to sing a different song. One would have thought J. Lo would be more open-minded considering that without gay men she wouldn’t have a career. Or a boyfriend…
That display of intolerance from the judges was nothing compared to the gay baiting that took place in the early seasons between Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest. The two traded homophobic put-downs on many occasions, typically questioning each other’s sexuality in a derogatory way. Their seasons of hateful back and forth remains one of the show’s most shameful legacies.
So I truly do almost feel sorry for La’Porsha Renae, emphasis on the “almost”. Taking American Idol at face value one would think it was a place where gays were encouraged, even expected, to remain closeted. Renae was just following a script that she’d seen played out on the show for the past 15 years, one that told her gays were inferior and unwanted.
Unfortunately for her, there’s another Idol script, one where even contestants who achieve “runner up” status on the show do not achieve the hoped-for stardom. Just ask Justin Guarini, Diana DiGarmo, Bo Bice, Blake Lewis, David Archuleta, Crystal Bowersox, Lauren Alaina, Jessica Sanchez, Kree Harrison, Jena Irene, and Clark Beckham – all runners-up but names that only fans of the show will likely recognize.
In music, lasting success is a lot easier when you can capture a loyal fanbase and, unfortunately for Renae, she just alienated the most loyal fanbase of all. We gays can help make and sustain careers, especially those of divas. It’s too early to tell whether Renae’s unhelpful words have derailed her career but one thing is for sure, there aren’t any gay clubs, dance parties and pride marches in her future.
In ONE MILLION DOMS Dominic Sheehan comments about political stuff. Yes, the title is a parody of One Million Moms. No, he hasn’t watched the new version of American Idol. Yes, he thinks that Katy Perry sexually assaulted that guy by forcing her kiss upon him. Yes, he thinks she should have been immediately fired from the show for it.