With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that the LGBTQ+ experience in the music industry was a lot like the LGBTQ+ experience everywhere else in 2023 — complete and utter chaos.
There’s no denying that the community faced massive lows throughout the year. Alongside the introduction of record-breaking amounts of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the U.S., LGBTQ+ performers experienced new levels of scrutiny and bald-faced bigotry for their work in 2023. Some performers were questioned over the brand of beer they chose to drink, while others were called “demonic” and “satanic” for simply sporting a pair of horns during a televised performance.
Yet in a year that was often defined by its setbacks for queer and trans folks, the highs experienced by LGBTQ+ performers felt especially high. Between making history with firsts at awards ceremonies like the Grammys and using their platforms to advocate on behalf of their communities, LGBTQ+ artists spent much of the last 12 months working to make both the world of music and the world at large a better place for themselves and their fans. As Ashnikko told Billboard earlier this year, there is always good reason for optimism. “There is a future of forehead kisses, family meals, picnics in the sun, board game nights, holding hands in public, french toast for breakfast, feeling held in every sense of the word, a safe place in this world,” she said in her love letter to the LGBTQ community. “I feel so hopeful … for us.”
In a year that was defined by its unpredictability for the LGBTQ+ community, Billboard is taking a look back at the biggest stories in queer music from 2023 below:
Kim Petras Makes Grammy History
After years spent slowly rising to public prominence, Kim Petras finally broke through to mainstream success in 2022 with her Sam Smith collab “Unholy.” Along with earning the star her first No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, the track also scored Petras her very first Grammy for best pop duo/group performance at the start of 2023. The honor also indirectly extended to her community, as Petras became the first trans woman to ever win in the category. “I hope that there’s a future where gender and identity and all these labels don’t matter that much,” she said shortly after her historic win. “I hope all the kids that saw this that are special or different or feel like they don’t belong … feel inspired that, ‘Yes, you can be yourself and get rewarded for your talent rather than your gender or your sexuality.’”
The Return of the ‘Satanic Panic’
While Petras managed to break records with her win at the 2023 Grammys, she and Sam Smith also managed to spark plenty of controversy during the live telecast. With their performance of “Unholy,” the pair donned devilish outfits and delivered evocative dance moves to drive home the song’s sinister-yet-sexy feel. Conservative viewers decried the performance as “satanic,” with right-wing congresspeople Ted Cruz and Marjorie Taylor Greene calling the performance “evil” and “demonic,” respectively. The whole backlash is part of an ongoing trend in pop culture, where conservatives lash out against queer representation in pop culture as demonic. But as Dr. Joseph Uscinski explained to Billboard, this reaction was nothing new: “Whether it was Elvis, or Ozzy and Judas Priest, or now Lil Nas X, this has always been the reaction to popular culture — that the ‘new culture’ is always dangerous,” he said. “Pop culture makes for an easy punching bag, specifically for politicians and pundits, but ultimately, in order for popular culture to be popular, there needs to be some edge to it.”
Stars Respond to Waves of Anti-LGBTQ+ Legislation
As state legislatures around the United States introduced a record number of anti-LGBTQ+ bills, artists from across all genres made sure that their dissenting voices were heard. Hayley Williams of Paramore spoke up about her home state of Tennessee passing laws targeting trans kids and drag queens, calling them “regressive and unfathomably harmful,” before adding that she and Paramore would “stand in solidarity with our LGBTQIA+ family and local LGBTQIA+ orgs in this fight, not only for inclusion for our friends and family in the queer community, but for radical acceptance and empowerment for each of them.” Lizzo also spoke out regarding the Tennessee bills, saying that she’d “never heard a person say why they’re racist… Or fatphobic … [or] transphobic … I think if we knew ‘why’ these people felt this way there would way less support for these ideals. Because the ‘why’ is more insidious than we realize.”
And, of course, RuPaul himself spoke up about drag bans sweeping the nation, calling the lawmakers passing them “bullies” who wanted to halt progress. “Bullies are incompetent at solving real issues,” he said. “They look for easy targets so they can give the impression of being effective. They think our love, our light, our laughter and our joy are signs of weakness. But they’re wrong — because that is our strength.”
Bud Light & Dylan Mulvaney Spark Outrage from Kid Rock, Travis Tritt & More
In one of the most inexplicable stories of the year, trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney sparked backlash simply for accepting a gift from Bud Light. The beer brand congratulated the influencer on her “Days of Girlhood” TikTok series with a commemorative, promotional can of Bud Light bearing Mulvaney’s face. Immediately, conservative outlets and personalities began lambasting the brand for working with a transgender person and calling on the public to commit to a boycott of the beer. Rock-rapper star Kid Rock decided to express his anger by shooting three cases of Bud Light with a semi-automatic rifle, loudly declaring “f–k Bud Light, and f–k Anheuser-Busch.” Country star Travis Tritt joined in, announcing that he would be “deleting all Anheuser-Busch products” from his tour’s hospitality rider, and said that he would no longer be supporting the brand. Fellow country star John Rich announced that his Nashville restaurant Redneck Riviera Bar & BBQ would no longer be serving Bud Light.
Eventually, the boycott resulted in Bud Light sales plummeting and the brand’s parent company attempting to walk back their support of Mulvaney — who called out Anheuser-Busch for failing to publicly support her as she dealt with transphobic backlash, thanks to their partnership. “For a company to hire a trans person and then not publicly stand by them is worse than not hiring a trans person at all,” she said in the video. “It gives customers permission to be as transphobic and hateful as they want. And the hate doesn’t end with me. It has serious and grave consequences for the rest of our community.”
MUNA, Rebecca Black & More Celebrate LGBTQ+ Culture
With anti-LGBTQ sentiment and legislation sweeping the nation this year, Billboard decided to look for some light during Pride Month. In the latest batch of our Love Letters to the LGBTQ Community initiative, artists like MUNA, Rebecca Black and Joy Oladokun shared uplifting messages of affection for their communities. “[Being queer has] liberated me from fulfilling others’ expectations of me, and forced me to focus on what gives me joy,” MUNA lead singer Katie Gavin said. “It also forced me to rely on others’ love and affection, to stop seeing myself as terminally unique.” Black added that she wanted the community to understand that “they’re trying to erase you, but they cannot. You cannot be erased. You deserve to live the life that you are living.” Oladokun, for her part, applauded LGBTQ people everywhere for their ability to “rise above, learn to agree to disagree without giving ground, and grieve while a system that refuses to mourn us crushes us. I am proud and honored to be a part of the queer community.”
Maren Morris Fights Back Against Bigotry With Drag Stars
After multiple states like Tennessee, Florida and Texas tried banning drag performances in public spaces, Maren Morris decided to team up with a bevy of drag performers to tell those states where they could shove their plans. For the cover of Billboard‘s Pride Issue, Morris posed in Willie Nelson drag alongside Sasha Colby, Symone, Eureka O’Hara and Landon Cider, before sitting down with the four artists to discuss what these attacks against drag meant for the community at large. As O’Hara succinctly put it: “You all know it’s not about drag. Let’s be real. These [are] scare tactics.” Colby agreed, saying that the ultimate goal of these anti-LGTBQ bills was “to colonize our thoughts as well as everything else.” Symone, meanwhile, encouraged members of other marginalized communities to pay close attention to what’s happening. “Don’t think that just because they’re attacking us right now that y’all are going to be somehow exempt from it,” she said. “We’re just the easiest targets.”
As for being an active ally from within music industry, Morris made her position abundantly clear during the conversation. “I have heard the term ‘shut up and sing’ more times than I can count — that’s always the cutesy little threat that they like to make,” Morris explained. “I don’t think any of us got into this art form to be an activist, but that’s ultimately thrust upon you to exist in this space and to feel like you can sleep at night … I know everyone likes money, but is it worth your biography saying that you never picked a side because both sides pay money to buy a T-shirt?”
Troye Sivan Rushes Back Into Pop Stardom
After a few years of waiting (and wishing) for new music from Australian pop sensation Troye Sivan, fans were finally given a feast in 2023. With the release of “Rush” in July, Sivan returned to his pop star status and proved that he was on a hotter streak than ever — his single debuted across 12 different Billboard charts, including his highest Hot 100 peak in seven years. Something to Give Each Other, Sivan’s long-awaited third studio album, proved to strike a nerve with fans as it spawned another deeply queer Hot 100 hit in “One of Your Girls,” Sivan’s anthem to going after inexperienced “straight” guys. The year proved to be a massive one for Sivan, who described his experience to Billboard: “I think I’m just used to putting stuff out to my very safe, immediate audience that I know have my back because they’ve been there for so long and everything. This time feels very different for some reason.”
The 1975 Shut Down a Music Festival With Same-Sex Kiss
The 1975’s Matty Healy has garnered a reputation throughout his career for his surprising and occasionally bizarre demeanor during live performances. But one antic in particular got Healy and his bandmates into hot water back in July — during the band’s headlining set at Malaysia’s Good Vibes Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Healy went on a rant about the country’s anti-LGBTQ laws making homosexuality a crime. “F–king ridiculous to tell people what they can do with that and that,” he said. “If you want to invite me here to do a show, you can f–k off. I’ll take your money, you can ban me, but I’ve done this before and it doesn’t feel good, and I’m f–ked off.” Healy then proceeded to kiss his bandmate Ross MacDonald, which resulted in the group’s set being cut early, and the rest of the Good Vibes Festival being cancelled. The 1975 were subsequently ordered by Future Sound Asia (the organizers of the Good Vibes Festival) to pay them $2.6 million in damages or face legal action for their outburst.
After some online called out Healy’s actions as an example of his “white savior complex” and criticized the group for potentially endangering LGBTQ+ audience members at their show, Healy shared more of his thoughts on the situation at a concert in Dallas, Texas. “Me kissing Ross was not a stunt simply meant to provoke the government, it was an ongoing part of the 1975 which has been performed many times prior,” he said. “To eliminate any routine part of the show in an effort to appease the Malaysian authorities’ bigoted views of LGBTQ people would be a passive endorsement of those politics.”
Victoria Monét, Boygenius & More Queer Artists Dominate 2024 Grammy Nominations
With so much excellent LGBTQ+ music released throughout 2023, it’s no wonder that LGBTQ+ artists showed up so often in the 2024 Grammy nominations. Victoria Monét and Phoebe Bridgers each earned seven nominations for the annual ceremony, tying them with sound engineer Serban Ghenea for the second-most nominations (following frontrunner SZA with nine). Meanwhile, artists like Brandy Clark and Allison Russell represented in the Americana and Country categories, while Romy and Troye Sivan earned their first-ever nominations in the dance and pop categories, respectively. As Julien Baker told Billboard, representation for the queer community meant more than just a potential trophy to them. “It’s cool, because when you’re saying ‘this class of people,’ or ‘this demographic of folks’ … if there’s enough people that fit that category within the organization, it stops becoming a novelty,” she said.
Billie Eilish, Josh Kiszka & More Share Their Truth
As with so many other years, 2023 saw plenty of stars coming out and sharing more about their identities. Perhaps the biggest name to talk about their sexuality for the first time in a while was pop superstar Billie Eilish. In a cover story with Variety, Eilish said that she was “physically attracted” to women, but often also felt “so intimidated by them and their beauty and their presence.” In a later interview, Eilish clarified that she did in fact come out in the interview. ” I saw the article, and I was like, ‘Oh I guess I came out today,’” she said. “It’s exciting to me because I guess people didn’t know, but it’s cool that they know.” Eilish later claimed that the outlet had “outed” her in a post to her Instagram.
Earlier in 2023, Greta Van Fleet frontperson Josh Kiszka also came out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. After watching his home state of Tennessee attack his community ith anti-LGBTQ legislation, Kiszka said he felt a responsibility to speak up for his community. “It’s imperative that I speak my truth for not only myself, but in hopes to change hearts, minds, and laws in Tennessee and beyond,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “The greatest mortal gift of all is our capacity to love and as we travel through time, may our greater understanding of the matter around and within us teach us to love ever deeper.”