I was around 12 years old when I had my first wet dream. I remember waking up in the back of my mother’s car as we made our way from Maryland back to North Carolina after a family vacation. I’ll spare you the lurid details, but while most young men entering puberty probably envision a woman while experiencing this biological phenomenon, I distinctly remember being aroused by the image of a man.
This memory is not painful. For me, it’s one of those moments I think about because it is definitive proof of when I began to recognize that I was not straight, though it would be at least five full years before I would have the courage to utter that out loud to anyone. But I needed to gain a better understanding of what this meant for my life and so I consulted my mother to get her take. I recall specifically asking her about the line in the book of Leviticus in the Bible that says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Was that really true, I wondered? “Yeah,” my mother replied matter-of-factly. As if there were nothing else to discuss, as if this was simply just the way things were. Naturally, I looked it up for myself, and there the words were, as plain as day.
Sadly, my situation is not unique. Countless queer people have had to either pull themselves out of religious indoctrination — or figure out a way to make it work for them — in order to live their lives as true to themselves as they can. So when I saw the video for Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” with its overt themes of heaven and hell, I was overjoyed to see the rapper, who is Black and gay, directly engaging with religious doctrines that have been an oppressive force in the lives of Black queer folks for generations.
The video begins in the heavens, high above the clouds. “In life we hide the parts of ourselves we don't want the world to see,” Lil Nas X says in a mystical voiceover. “We lock them away. We tell them no. We banish them. But here we don’t. Welcome to Montero.” It’s immediately clear: This is a reinterpretation of the story of Adam and Eve. The rapper is enchanted by a snakelike creature — played by Lil Nas X himself — who tempts him, opening his eyes to a world he never knew existed. In another scene, he’s held captive by different versions of himself, suggesting some sort of internal struggle. There are several layers to this symbolism, as pointed out by Olga M. Segura, author of Birth of a Movement: Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Church, in an interview — “masculine identity fighting society's idea of what it means to be masculine, what it means to be feminine.” The video ends with Lil Nas X ascending to the heavens (after being hit in the head with a butt plug) and subsequently descending into the pits of hell — via a stripper pole — to face the ultimate big baddie: the devil himself.
The video is playful and deliberately provocative — that’s the point. It is not, however, a tacit endorsement of Satanism, as some critics say. But when people feel their faith is being maligned or mischaracterized, there’s going to be chatter. Several people were upset by the Satanic imagery and overtly sexual scenes in the video; they were also disturbed by the release of the so-called Satan Shoes, Nike Air Max 97s that included blood in the soles, which Lil Nas X put out with MSCHF. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem weighed in on the shoes, saying, “Our kids are being told that this kind of product is, not only okay, it's ‘exclusive.’ But do you know what's more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul.”
The hate is coming from the places you would expect. Detractors have been trying to take Lil Nas X to task and failing miserably. Conservative commentator Candace Owens’ approach, unsurprisingly, lacks any nuance: “Why has ‘oh, but I’m gay’ become a default excuse for immorality?” she tweeted. Kaitlin Bennett, aka “gun girl,” levied a racist attack, saying, “Do you still see your dad?” He responded, “yep and i might fuck yours” — which sparked its own mini controversy on right-wing Twitter.
Fellow rapper Joyner Lucas praised the rapper, tweeting, “as a artist [Lil Nas X] is doing everything he supposed to do.” But, in a now-deleted tweet, he criticized the "adult" nature of the "Montero" video: “I think the biggest problem for me is the fact he dont understand ‘old town road’ is every kids anthem. Children love him for that record. They tuned in and subscribed to his channels. So with no disclaimer he just dropped some left field ish & all our kids seen it. Smh.” Lil Nas X tweeted at Lucas, pointing out the flaw in his critic’s assessment: “i literally sing about lean & adultery in old town road. u decided to let your child listen. blame yourself.”
I see more than just a stunt in Lil Nas X’s retelling of the Adam and Eve story. As an adolescent, it was difficult for me to square the fact that I had feelings for men — feelings that I was told were not acceptable — and yet I had been put in this predicament by the omniscient being who created me. How is it a sin to be gay if God created us all? I thought. If I have free will, why does it matter if I like men? Isn’t it my choice? None of the answers given to me by my mother or any of the other elders in my family were satisfying. I wish I had known then that this condemnation of queerness was a fear-based tactic, something used to control people in order to get them to behave in a certain manner.
That’s why watching Lil Nas X don thigh-high boots while sliding down a pole, walking into Satan’s lair, and falling into his lap feels so subversive. Imagery of the devil is powerful, especially for queer children who have been told that hell is the fate they will meet, burning for all eternity in the company of this being. While a lot of the discourse around the video has been about bothered parents blasting its content, what’s truly groundbreaking about it is that Lil Nas X rejects the heaven and hell binary altogether. As Louis Virtel, who cohosts the podcast Keep It!, pointed out, “The queerest thing about the Lil Nas X video isn't the going to hell, it's the rejection of heaven's invitation.” Lil Nas X’s approach signals confronting one's fears head-on while crafting a new narrative, one that rejects the good versus evil dichotomy in favor of a story that works for you. In the end, he slays the devil, making it very clear that the point is to live your life — on your own terms.
“Montero” has more than 36 million views and counting. For the better part of the weekend, Lil Nas X has handily dealt with folks from the right who are purportedly upset. His direct approach to critics' taunts is impressive. “y’all saying a gay nigga twerking on a cgi satan is the end of times like slavery and the holocaust didn’t happen,” he tweeted last Friday, when the video debuted.
In the few years that he’s been building his name and brand, Lil Nas X has been a disrupter, a provocateur. Though his hit “Old Town Road” holds the record for the song with the most ever weeks at No. 1 and toppled Mariah Carey’s nearly 25-year reign, it was originally dismissed for not being country enough. He’s been an underdog from the moment he set foot in the industry, which is why it feels like something is actually at stake when he does push boundaries. His decision to publicly say he is gay, making him one of the few Black men in hip-hop who are out and proud, couldn’t have been easy. And he’s said as much, telling the world he thought it would be something he would take to the grave. The personal has obviously influenced his art, which is what gives his work depth.
If conservatives believe they will win this fight by furiously typing bad-faith arguments to Lil Nas X, they’re wrong. “i thought y’all didn’t like political correctness. what happened?” Lil Nas X tweeted, trolling incensed people on the far right. (As a teen, Lil Nas X was one of the Barbz, the name by which Nicki Minaj fans are called, and they are some of the fiercest — oftentimes abusive — people to get into an internet debate with.)
And honestly, what moral ground does someone like Owens, who still supports Donald Trump, have to stand on? How can a woman who is apparently so frustrated by the idea of “cancel culture” want to attack a young Black gay man for something that essentially boils down to artistic creativity? Spoiler: It’s because these people don’t actually care about morality. If they did, they would condemn immorality even when it wasn’t politically convenient. It’s just another talking point until the next faux controversy, like the mind-numbing Dr. Seuss discussion from earlier this month.
“When you traumatize a whole generation (and more) of kids with the concept of a literal hell (something Jesus never preached) don’t be surprised if they grow up, realize it was a control technique and then use the imagery to make a point in their art,” wrote empowerment coach Ashley Easter, in a tweet that went viral. The stir Lil Nas X caused will soon pass, but I am encouraged by the fact that he seems to have learned a lesson that took me several years to get, and even longer to put into practice: knowing when to tune out other people’s opinions about what’s “right.” When you’re consumed by the fear that you’ll burn in flames, it changes how you navigate life. You start relationships late, you feel shame for even having the feelings that you do, and then, if you’re lucky — which not everyone is — you somehow make it through.
It took me until I was well into my late twenties to feel fully secure about my sexuality, stripping myself of the heaviness of religious indoctrination, so it’s heartening to see a young Black queer man like Lil Nas X unapologetically take up space and forge a path forward for himself. The “Montero” video — Montero, by the way, is the rapper’s actual government name — is a clear sign that old, oppressive stories no longer have a hold on him. It quite literally demonstrates the power of imagining new futures and possibilities for oneself. And because of his boldness, the next generation of Black queer youth may realize that they have the power to conquer their own devils too. ●