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Lil Nas X showed the difference between tolerating and embracing queer people

If you don’t embrace someone’s actual self-expression, you are not tolerant

Lil Nas X’s new music video, in which he gives the devil a lap dance, left conservatives fuming. (Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images)

In March 1989, Madonna released a music video called “Like A Prayer” that soared to the top of the charts and became a generational touchstone. The lyrics were tame enough for the song to debut in a Pepsi commercial, but the video — which featured burning crosses, stigmata, a Black saint and a narrative about police unfairly arresting a Black man — was widely condemned, including by the Vatican. Nevertheless, Madonna flourished. The controversy seemed to distill both her talent and her identity. Ever since, she has pretty much lived her life and expressed her art on her own terms.

Just 10 years after “Like A Prayer,” Montero Lamar Hill was born just outside of Atlanta. Last week, just shy of his 22nd birthday, Hill, now known as Lil Nas X, released his music video for “Montero.” In it, there are only two characters: Satan and multiple iterations of Lil Nas X himself. First a serpent seduces him in an Eden-like garden. Then, clad in pink, he is brought into a gladiatorial arena and condemned by facsimiles of him made to look like classical statues. Finally, he rides a stripper pole down to hell, clearly enjoying the experience, struts to Satan’s throne, and gives the devil a lap dance before snapping his neck and stealing his crown. In four days, “Montero” acquired 42 million views on YouTube.

Then, in a sign of how unchanged conservative America’s playbook is over more than 30 years of social progress, culture warriors denounced Lil Nas X as a Satan worshiper trying to trick his fan base into loving the Devil. “Lil Nas is a whole new level of demonic,” wrote Bridget Mack, a self-described motivational speaker and life-skills coach, to her 407,000 Facebook followers. Former NBA player Nick Young told his 524,000 followers that Lil Nas X’s music was now banned in his house. And, quoting Matthew 16:26, South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) tweeted, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” at Lil Nas X. (For his part, Lil Nas X seemed unbothered, telling critics, “Y’all love saying we going to hell but get upset when i actually go there lmao,” and posting his father’s pride in him.)

My own rape shows how much we get wrong about these attacks

Fans and critics already knew Lil Nas X was gay after he came out while enjoying success for his genre-nonconforming hip-hop country song “Old Town Road.” His gayness was tolerated by folks who believe tolerance is a virtue. But the power of “Montero” — for queer people of all stripes, including me — is that it calls out the limits of gay tolerance. It pushes us toward the higher purpose of queer acceptance. To tolerate something is to regard it inherently as inferior, or at least different and abnormal. True acceptance is to know that there is no benchmark against which people should be measured, that judgment of a soul is the jurisdiction of God alone.

Being queer is not about sexuality or gender identity; like anything that truly matters, it’s about freedom and control. At 41, it took me half my life to come out as gay. I’m still working on coming out as queer. Queerness demands an understanding that nobody’s existence is bound by someone else’s comforts. You can be whatever you want to be. Supposedly, as former senator Rick Santorum famously argued, being unbound by strangers’ discomforts is an invitation to all manner of monstrosities, including conservatives’ go-to sins of bestiality, pedophilia and slavery. Those are crimes, and the people who conflate self-determination with crime are telling on themselves.

Of course, conservatives are not the only ones allergic to queerness. Plenty of It Gets Better advocates don’t seem worried about whether trans lives matter and deserve to get better, too. Or supposedly proud and supportive gay men who drone on about understanding and empathy and truth while using gay-hookup-app profiles that claim “no femmes, no fatties, no Asians, no Blacks,” typically as “just a preference.” Actual queerness is indifferent to other people’s preferences.

I’m queer. Lil Nas X is queer. And Madonna is queer, as was a cadre of pop artists she rose up with in the ’80s, including David Bowie, Prince and Freddie Mercury. Madonna’s queerness was rooted in her daring to presume the same freedoms as a woman that male artists already enjoyed. In “Montero,” Lil Nas X presumes the same freedoms in his homosexuality that heterosexual artists already enjoy in music videos suffused with naked bodies and allusions to, and pantomimes of, sex.

As an evangelical Christian who led my college’s weekly meetings of 1,200 students in Campus Crusade for Christ and as a former missionary to China, I see “Montero” less as a romp and more as Lil Nas X’s queer take on Bible stories. There’s the seduction in the Garden of Eden, of course, but with the telltale twist of the apple — the fruit of knowledge — being replaced with a kiss, or even a “gay stare.” At one point, the tree at the center of the garden reveals an inscription in Greek from Plato’s Symposium: “After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half,” recalling Hedwig’s “Origin of Love.”

I read decades of Woody Allen’s private notes. He’s obsessed with teenage girls.

Next comes an internal debate: Blue-clad jailers in Lil Nas X’s form condemn a shackled girl-pink version of him as the classical statues cheer. This is the weight of cultural expectations and its refusal to accept him. Still, he lands in hell brimming with confidence because he has come to slay inner demons. Eventually, he lords over his kill and claims the crown — his power of true agency — and is granted new eyes and angels’ wings. The throne, for what it’s worth, is encircled with a Latin inscription: “They condemn what they do not understand.”

“Dear 14 year old Montero,” Lil Nas X wrote in a note to himself on Twitter when he posted the eponymous music video. “I wrote a song with our name in it. It’s about a guy I met last summer. I know we promised to never come out publicly, I know we promised to never be ‘that’ type of gay person, I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist. You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay the [expletive] out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”

This week is Holy Week — Madonnaesque timing, truly — and it culminates with Good Friday, when Jesus died and spent three days in hell battling demons before resurrecting on Easter Sunday to live the fullness of his purpose. Jesus’s life on Earth had been one of defiance, of centering the marginalized, of being humble and open to correction by others, and even of fighting white supremacy — all while maintaining unshakable confidence in who he is and what he brings to the table.

Jesus was — is — queer. Yet Christians do not just tolerate Jesus. They embrace and love him, and urge others to do so as well. That is what true acceptance looks like. And Montero knows it. Amen.