They won't break our souls: We must find queer joy, even as the clouds darken around us
Beyoncé's new album Renaissance, a tribute to her gay uncle, is a powerful reminder to fight for our freedoms
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Shortly before midnight on summer solstice, I left my house to do what I have done on countless anxiety-tinged nights over these past few turbulent years: I put on my headphones, turned on some music and went for a walk. Except, unlike all those other nights, this time I had a flawless antidote for my unease. I'm 'bout to explode / take off this load / Spin it, bust it open, won't ya make it go.
I had, of course, just detonated "Break My Soul," the Beyoncé single that, for a moment in June, united those of us still bold enough to seek joy in this desperate society with its proclamation of dancefloor liberation. It certainly sent me moving down the streets of my neighbourhood — and into the summer of 2022 — with a verve that had been hibernating for far too long. The second the song ended, back to the beginning I'd go, with the sampling of Big Freedia's "Explode" greeting me over and over again with its glorious instructions: Release ya anger, release ya mind / Release ya job, release the time / Release your trade, release the stress / Release the love, forget the rest.
One of the things that struck me — and, as would be clear when I arrived home later, every homosexual on the internet — during this one-man listening party was that "Break My Soul" is a queer anthem on a level Beyoncé has never quite offered before. I had to skip back several times in awe to confirm that she had, indeed, uttered the lyrics "the queens in the front and the doms in the back." And then there was that very prominent sampling of queer queen of bounce Big Freedia (which includes a Beyoncé-approved directive to "release ya trade") and the song's undeniable homage to the house music of the 1980s and 1990s, a movement born out of and nourished by Black and brown queer culture.
It seemed like no coincidence that "Break My Soul" was being released days before Pride celebrations in several major cities around the world — and were we ever grateful for it. I was heading into both my and Toronto's first in-person Pride in three years, and thanks in large part to Beyoncé, I felt armoured to enjoy it with a sense of determination that we were finally entering some new era of existence that wasn't so unbearably bleak.
But that armour started to wear thin when I awoke on the Friday of Pride weekend to the appalling news that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, a pillar of women's rights in America, and that LGBTQ and contraceptive rights might be their next target.
Spending the next 72 hours partying in the name of LGBTQ rights suddenly felt much less thrilling than it had a day earlier. I tried my best. But too often the power of queer unity soundtracked to a Beyoncé single was simply no match for our society's spiral into dystopia. Did I release the love? Absolutely. Did I forget the rest? Not so much.
Obviously, "the rest" isn't just the conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court eagerly dismantling the rights of women and LGBTQ folks. Queer culture specifically — and our existence within it and within society as a whole — seems to have reached a most extreme best of times/worst of times scenario this year.
Yes, Covid restrictions are over and, for the first summer since 2019 (at least in most major Canadian cities), we queers are free to unite anywhere and everywhere, whether it be Pride or a party or a night at the club. Except Covid hasn't gone away: any attempt of queer people to assemble and celebrate brings with it the omnipresent risk of contracting the virus. Worse, now there's monkeypox, a virus with extremely painful symptoms that spreads through close physical contact (but is not sexually transmitted, despite much misinformation suggesting so). Monkeypox is disproportionately affecting men who have sex with men, and thanks to a botched global response that reeks of homophobia and is a little too reminiscent of the early days of HIV/AIDS, is now spinning terrifyingly out of control.
Also spinning out of control is the rampant homophobia and transphobia coming out of conservative circles, which have aggressively targeted trans rights, queer and trans youth and their parents and drag queens, with drag queens in particular becoming a full-on obsession for the extreme right. The specific focus on keeping children and youth away from any exposure to or information about LGBTQ people (even if they themselves identify as such) threatens the mental and physical health of millions of queer youth and eerily calls to mind campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s. And if you're naive enough to think this is a problem only America has, remember how often Canada is just a few years behind their sociopolitical trends.
And yet, just as governments are trying to turn back clocks and make it illegal even to "say gay," popular culture has never been saying it more. At the same time that Beyoncé was telling the queens to come to the front, the RuPaul's Drag Race franchise was allowing its queens to do the same in a uniquely unified and uplifting manner. For its "all-winners" edition of All Stars (which just concluded last week), no queen was voted off, no queen was criticized by the judges, and no queen showed anything but love for their competitors (at least in the edit that we saw). It was also one of the most entertaining seasons in the franchise's massive herstory, serving as a reminder of how radical this kind of positive mainstream representation would have felt just a decade ago.
And it's far from an outlier. In the past few months alone, we've been offered content that feels like it's pushing us forward as much as the right wing would like us to move backward. Movies like Fire Island and Everything, Everywhere All at Once and TV shows like Heartstopper and the rebooted Queer as Folk have offered a counterbalance to the powers that be as they actively try to break our souls. Which, if the history of sheer resilience in our communities is any indication, they cannot do.
Last Friday, Beyoncé offered an extraordinary celebration of that history while pushing queer culture as far into the popular culture as it gets when she released her seventh album, Renaissance. Its lead single "Break My Soul" was revealed to be only the beginning of a grand plan: the album is largely influenced by Black queer dance culture of decades past, particulary that which grew out of a need to experience a release during the initial years of the AIDS epidemic.
Beyoncé was born almost exactly two months after a 1981 New York Times article brought the syndrome that would come to be known as HIV/AIDS into mass public consciousness for the first time, noting that "a rare cancer" had been seen in "41 homosexuals." By Beyoncé's 4th birthday, over 11,000 people had died from AIDS-related complications in the U.S. alone, the vast majority of them gay men. No truly life-saving treatments would come until 1995, a year before Destiny's Child would form. By that point, over 500,000 cases had been reported in the U.S., 62% of which had ended in death.
In the liner notes for Renaissance, Beyoncé pays tribute to her late Uncle Johnny, who passed away from complications from the virus, and whom she called "the most fabulous gay man I ever knew, who helped raise me and my sister" in her 2019 GLAAD Media Awards speech.
"He was my godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album," she writes of Johnny.
As dark and ominous as the clouds of 2022 may seem for queer existence, leave it to Beyoncé to remind us what our elders went through by releasing the year's most anticipated and acclaimed album — and making it double as a history lesson in how AIDS did not break their souls. With Renaissance, she has surely become a godmother figure to so many of us as we anxiously try to navigate our way through the relentless nature of our present. And she's done so by masterfully both honouring and reinventing the past, and letting it ultimately serve us as a blueprint for finding joy in the future. She's building her own foundation, and if we truly want to release our love and forget the rest… it's best we do too.