Opinion | Little Richard’s Queer Triumph


It was during a 1966 concert in Paris when Little Richard, drenched in sweat, told a mostly white audience, “I’m ready, ready, ready teddy, I’m ready, ready, ready teddy!” He took off his soaked shirt and the men and women pleaded for it as he swung it over his head like a helicopter, carefully considering who he would bless with his dripping D.N.A.

For those in the audience, it must have been fantastical to see, and a deeply erotic thing to witness. To think, in 1966, a black queer man — over the course of his life he would identify himself as gay, bisexual and “omnisexual” — could be a sex god. He was a symbol of brazen sensuality, three years before Jimi Hendrix would use his tongue and guitar to catapult a nation beyond their prudish sensibilities at Woodstock.

Little Richard, who died Saturday, showed us what sexuality, queerness and passion looked like onstage. When he first rose to prominence in the 1950s, it was more common for popular performers such as Frank Sinatra or Ray Charles to don a suit and tie. Even in the 1960s, he was an anomaly — James Brown may have matched him onstage in exuding sexual energy, but the Godfather of Soul’s sartorial choices remained primarily urbane until the 1970s.

Little Richard’s style was a reckoning between the sweaty southern Baptist church revivals he witnessed as a child, and the raw sensuality that characterized jazz and blues. He bridged and made sense of the flamboyance and theatricality of the black church, and fed it to millions of hungry consumers. And he did it all while embracing a femininity that can be directly traced to his queerness.

We often think about the history of rock ‘n’ roll through the lens of white artists and record executives profiting from black culture, but it’s rare we recognize that the musicians being stolen from have often not only been black, but queer as well. Artists like Little Richard are often seen as separate from their sexuality and gender performance, even though those are the very things that informed their innovation.

Josephine Baker, Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin to name just a few — it would not be a stretch to say that mainstream culture as we know it is a black queer project, often appropriated by others but birthed by black queer people.

One of the primary ways we remember and memorialize our biggest stars is through onscreen dramatizations of their lives; often, these images play a huge part in the mythmaking of their personas. This format is also a common way to erase more complex facets of those figures. In the 2000 biopic “Little Richard,” there is no mention of his queerness, no attempt to connect his gender performance to his brilliant artistry. Likewise, in the 1991 biopic “The Story of Josephine Baker,” there is no reference to Baker’s reported relationships with women.

In 1989, Langston Hughes’s estate threatened legal action against Isaac Julien, the director of “Looking For Langston,” a fictional feature about gay relationships, and the coordinators of a film festival where it was to be shown, if they did not remove direct references to Hughes from the film. One of those coordinators, Ada Gay Griffin, told The Los Angeles Times she believed the estate opposed the film’s L.G.B.T.Q. subject matter. (Hughes’s sexuality has been a subject of dispute among scholars.)

Removing black queer identities from our recorded histories, including film, makes it seem as though iconoclasticism happens by chance. More accurately, creative people who lived or are living in the tension of both queerness and blackness have brought forward brilliant worlds that we all benefit from.

Not recognizing this leaves us with a series of horror stories, such as Whitney Houston and Luther Vandross, popular black figures who were never able to live their fullest truths. It has also led generations of black queer children to believe people like them haven’t contributed anything to culture, when the opposite is true.

At times, Little Richard himself would attempt to distance himself from facets of his queer identity, publicly denouncing homosexuality and his natural urges. Such denial can be its own form of admitting queerness. Yet it matters that despite these pronouncements — and unlike Houston or Vandross — his performance and aesthetic always remained overtly queer and transgressive, as if it was a second skin he couldn’t wash off, no matter how much he attempted to reject it. In performance if not in his personal life, at least, he embraced what made him so special.

The loss of Little Richard, the person, is sad. But he remains living through the work of so many artists who followed in his footsteps: Aretha Franklin, Prince, Marilyn Manson, Björk, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and on and on.

Now is an opportunity to show reverence to the artist. It’s also the right time to remind ourselves that black queer contributions have changed the way we live, think and in the case of Little Richard, listen.


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