All Hail The New Queer Teen Stars

The rise of young, unapologetically queer artists like King Princess is thrilling, but makes me a little sad for the closeted kid I once was.

In a Genius lyric explainer video from earlier this year, Mikaela Straus, better known as King Princess — the fast-rising indie singer-songwriter and first signee to Mark Ronson’s new label, Columbia imprint Zelig Records — explains the meaning behind her debut single “1950.” Straus chose the titular year as a metaphor for modern-day unrequited love. "When someone’s cold to you in a public place, that’s similar to the way people once couldn’t be gay in public,” she says. “I wanted to pay tribute to that point in history.”

I’m not even 10 years older than Straus, but hearing her explanation made me feel suddenly decrepit. There wasn’t a single kid in an openly gay relationship at my suburban Connecticut high school; as recently as the mid-aughts, so many of us were still playing 1950. But to young people like Straus, life in the closet might already seem like the stuff of ancient history.

King Princess is one of many queer teen and twentysomething artists whose meteoric rises have filled me with joy and wistfulness in near equal measure. Listening to music by the likes of Hayley Kiyoko and Troye Sivan and Shamir — musicians whose songs and videos are brimming with explicit, unapologetic queer aesthetics in terms of both gender presentation and desire — makes me thrilled for queer kids growing up today. But I’m also a little bit sad for the queer kid I once was, back when even Tegan and Sara weren’t using female pronouns in their songs.

Now, seeing queer teenagers look better at their proms than I’ve ever looked in my life makes me think of the last scene in Ryan Murphy’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, when Ned (Mark Ruffalo) attends a party for Gay Week at Yale after years of seeing his community ravaged by AIDS. Sitting by the fireplace near the dance floor, he smiles with tears in his eyes as he watches young queer couples sway in each other’s embrace, their whole lives ahead of them.

For so long both institutionalized and internalized homophobia has meant that many older LGBT public figures have slowly and painfully inched their way out of the closet for years, if they come out at all — such that somebody getting to the point of publicly embracing their identity has been a big deal. But many younger celebrities are coming into their fame while being openly queer already; instead of waiting around to see if they’re going to claim their queerness, we get to watch them figure out what they’re going to do with it.

To be clear, my adolescence wasn’t marked by anything close to a gay epidemic. In fact, I’m sure that some older LGBT people would look at my life now the way Ned in The Normal Heart looks at those lucky college kids. I live with my partner in a post–marriage equality New York City, where, for the most part, we feel comfortable being openly queer. Every morning I wake up with a person I love next to me and feel as if I’ve stumbled upon an embarrassment of riches. I know that so many LGBT people from past generations weren’t nearly so privileged — and so many queer people living today, in different parts of the country or at different intersections of marginalized identities, aren’t either. Queer history, and queer progress, isn’t neatly linear.

Still, there is a small part of me that will always mourn the loss of an openly queer teenagehood I never had. It’s the bittersweet appeal of someone like King Princess: She’s the promise of a better future; a reminder of freedoms lost.

Straus doesn’t shy away from explicitly gay references or imagery; they are, in fact, the basis of her whole brand. 

Straus doesn’t shy away from explicitly gay references or imagery; they are, in fact, the basis of her whole brand. In the video for “1950,” she sports a little drawn-on mustache like that of Dorian Electra, a songwriter and performance artist whose own drag-tastic video for “Career Boy” has been among my obsessions this summer. Both Electra and King Princess are masters of what writer Mikaella Clements calls “dyke camp”: “a movement directed, for the first time, not by the tastes of gay men but gay women: a specific brand of humor, manners, and sensibilities guided by lesbian identity.” Other dyke camp iconography from the “1950” video: graphic tees; a “Gay Power” hat from the queer cool-girl retail store/studio Otherwild; cigarettes lit with long-reach butane lighters; a wide-collar shearling coat. Another King Princess video, for “Talia,” is just as rich with dyke camp touches, from a sports bra to Adidas sweatpants. Let’s count the sex doll she’s rolling around with as dyke camp, too.

Onstage, and on her Instagram, Straus is cocky and suave, a Cool Weird Teen. She wears overalls and Cher shirts and fanny packs and bucket hats. She reads Patricia Highsmith and Alison Bechdel. I could easily see Straus’s wavy, shoulder-length hair, parted deeply enough so as to suggest a variation on the classic lesbian mullet, becoming the next haircut androgynous queer girls everywhere start adopting, à la the Shane. Her vocabulary includes heavy use of the word “gak” — described in a recent profile of Straus on the Cut as “a lifestyle” though it “functions as both adjective and noun: gay, amazing, fabulous, a good time” — as well as “dyke,” in reference to herself: “farm dyke”; “gay dyke ass bitch.”

In the same profile, Straus talks about her own genderqueer identity in a way that floored me: “I’m a great example of somebody who is gay, but exists on a very complicated gender spectrum,” she says. “I’m okay with that uncertainty, and I’m okay with existing in a gray area and not always being sure.”

Earlier this year, I wrote thousands of words about my own complicated relationship with queerness and gender that could basically be boiled down to this radically simple sentiment. I’ve tortured myself trying to wrap my head around the idea that I could be a lesbian committed to the preservation and expansion of lesbian identity white dating a transmasculine person and going through some gender exploration stuff of my own — ideas that I’ve felt the need to endlessly qualify and defend to others, and especially to myself. The fact that a 19-year-old could confidently, casually call herself a “great” example of something I’ve struggled to proudly claim left me breathless, and a little infuriated.

But of course it makes sense that a Gen Z young person would be more equipped than I am in this department. Some of us who were forced to remain closeted through our teenage years — that crucial, terrible time for developing the earliest iterations of our adult identities — end up internalizing some slow-brewing queer shame. I definitely did. It’s rarely ever the sort of thing I’m conscious of, but watching the way that many young people nowadays are able to talk about and claim their identities is a stark reminder. But at the same time, it’s inspiring — seeing this path that young queer people are forging for themselves. And for all of us, really.

The actor Amandla Stenberg, who’ll soon be starring in The Hate U Give and features heavily in Straus’s Instagrams, is another young queer person who’s been navigating her identity in the public eye with admirable aplomb. (One could easily assume they’re dating, though on that matter, Straus told the Cut “no comment,” with a smirk.) In 2016, Stenberg came out as bisexual in a Snapchat post (peak Gen Z); she has also since come out as nonbinary, and has in the past used they/them pronouns; however, her representative recently confirmed to BuzzFeed News that these days she uses she/her. Earlier this year, in an interview with Straus, she came out again, this time as gay.

Some of us who were forced to remain closeted through our teenage years end up internalizing some slow-brewing queer shame. 

“I distinctly remember walking out of my junior year English class reading: ‘Amandla Stenberg comes out as a queer,’ Straus writes in her introduction to the interview. “She unknowingly set a precedent in my life, a gold standard of how to be proud and exist in the intersectionality of multiple identities that were once thought of as being conflicting.”

Though Straus is basically living a gay teenage dream — the kind of thing more easily achieved by white kids who grow up in their father’s Brooklyn music studio than it is for others — she’s still someone who’s been shaped by the confines of heteronormativity; she and Stenberg, she writes, have therefore put effort into “rejecting the institutions that reluctantly raised us.”

Their conversation is delightful. Straus asks Stenberg: “What do you love about being gay?” and “So you know when you’re gay and everything becomes clear and you start crying naked in bed, can you tell me a bit about the Gay Sob?” Stenberg’s description of discovering her gayness (punctuated by the requisite Gay Sobs) is so wonderfully and candidly blunt: “Socialisation is a bitch and a half and kept me from understanding and living my truth for a while. I was so overcome with this profound sense of relief when I realised that I’m gay — not bi, not pan, but gay — with a romantic love for women.” At a time when identities like “fluid” and “queer” are gaining in popularity for a younger crowd — which is exciting and welcome — identities like “gay” and “lesbian” have simultaneously threatened to fall out of fashion for young women and female-assigned people. It’s lovely, then, to see someone like Stenberg find a home in gayness without shame over its alleged un-radicalness or fear of contradiction: “My sexuality is not a byproduct of my past experiences with men, who I have loved, but rather a part of myself I was born with and love deeply.”

The great irony of labels within the ever-expanding LGBT-plus umbrella is that a label can help us feel more deeply connected to ourselves and to each other; but they can also, at times, feel oppressive and limiting. It’s such a welcome change to see that young queer celebrities are cool with figuring it all out and being open about their own evolutions, holding close what makes sense for them while also being unafraid to let go of what doesn’t work anymore.

Straus, for her part, doesn’t need to market herself to a mainstream audience in order to find fame; her appeal, especially to young queer and queer-adjacent fans, is inextricably tied to her performance of gender and sexuality, rather than in spite of those things. She and other queer artists in her orbit are also opening up channels for the embrace and performance of lesbian and genderqueer culture that isn’t in response to (straight, cis) oppression and trauma, but rather a thriving culture of its own. Watching all this go down can kind of make me feel like this @xenaworrierprincess meme of Marge Simpson.

I do wonder, every so often, if I was born in the wrong time. I’m just old enough to have missed the window in which queer representation really started to ramp up on television and on the internet, which might have saved me a lot of confusion and heartache. Some of my friends feel this too; the ones who are now pursuing top surgery or hormone therapy in their late twenties mourn the loss of their young adult years, which would have been so much less miserable if only trans awareness back then was anything like what it is now. The teenagers now happily vlogging their transitions are evidence of different possibilities — of what might have been.

I’m also young enough that I missed out on a particular heyday of lesbian life. I wonder what it would have been like to be a grown-up gay woman before nearly every physical lesbian institution, from bookstores to bars, had been forced to close their doors. I’m far from alone here; nostalgia for dykedom in different eras has birthed new queer cultural institutions; now they’re just more likely to live online, like on @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y and @_personals_.

Coming into your own queerness can feel like that cliché of moving to New York City: You’ve never arrived at quite the right time. But just as it is with New York, there never is a right time to start living the big gay lives that were once unavailable to us. And even if there were, there’s nothing we could do about which queer era we inherit, which ones we build. I’m happy to be here. And I’m happy King Princess is too. ●

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