I have spent more time worshiping Beyoncé than just about any other pop star. I’ve spent countless hours dancing to “Grown Woman” alone in my apartment. I’ve been the only guy in a dance class aimed at teaching the “Single Ladies” dance, and I loved every second of it. Beyoncé has been queen in my life since the first time I watched the “Crazy In Love” video.
Over the past few months, Beyoncé has repeatedly refused the opportunity to speak out against the legalization of discrimination against LGBT people in her hometown. And as hard as it is to say this, her refusal should raise serious questions about her support for her gay, bisexual and transgender fans.
Last night Houstonians voted to repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of 15 different characteristics, including race, sex, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. HERO’s repeal is likely the biggest setback for LGBT civil rights since the 2008 passage of Prop 8 in California.
In August, I found out that HERO would be going up for a public repeal vote, and my stomach turned. Laws like HERO tend to lose, badly, when they’re put up for a public vote. I thought about my friends in Houston — activists I had worked with on HERO for months, people who had dedicated their work, their free time, and their emotional energy to ending discrimination in their hometown. I imagined watching their hard work erased at the ballot box. I imagined having to sit through another expensive, brutal campaign about whether it should be legal to discriminate against LGBT people. I wanted to help.
So I did what any god-fearing gay man does in his time of need. I turned to Beyoncé.
In August, I wrote a blog asking Beyoncé to make a single Instagram post in support of HERO. My decision to focus on Beyoncé wasn’t random. She’s spoken supportively about the LGBT community before. She’s occasionally chosen to use her Instagram account to take positions on social issues. She’s the world’s most famous Houstonian — the “Visit Houston” website has a page dedicated to Beyoncé, who said “this will always be home to me!” And with fifty million followers, she has one of the most influential social media presences in the world. A single post from her would have motivated young voters to the polls, focused national attention on the fight over HERO, and dramatically reframed the narrative away from the talking points of HERO’s opponents, who ended up saturating media coverage of the ordinance.
To my surprise, a group of young Houston activists turn the post into a fully-fledged online campaign. Before I knew it, HERO supporters in Houston were using the hashtag #BeyBeAHERO to urge Beyoncé to back the ordinance on social media. During a time when many LGBT activists would have been groaning about the prospect of a public vote, there was a kind of electricity surrounding the idea that a scrappy group of Houstonians might be able to convince the world’s biggest pop star to help them protect the ordinance they had fought so hard for.
The campaign garnered the attention of local and national media outlets including NBC, Buzzfeed, Vox, Salon, Upworthy, Houston Chronicle, and Texas Monthly. Major LGBT organizations, including GLAAD, Courage Campaign, and the National LGBTQ Task Force joined in asking for the superstar’s help. Even Sylvester Turner, the leading Democratic mayoral candidate in Houston, launched a petition asking Beyoncé to back the ordinance.
But despite repeated requests for help from HERO supporters in Houston, Beyoncé declined to comment.
On Instagram, I watched her post images from her Vogue cover shoot.
“It’s only August. I’m sure she’ll say something.”
As the fight over HERO continued, opponents flooded the airwaves with ads falsely claiming that HERO would endanger women by letting men into public restrooms – a scare tactic that’s proven incredibly successful at eroding support for non-discrimination laws. HERO supporters worked to gather endorsements from businesses and faith leaders, including Beyoncé’s pastor, who spoke strongly in favor of the ordinance. Early polling showed that, while supporters had a slight advantage, the vote would be close.
The drumbeat for Beyoncé to speak up in defense of HERO continued. Two weeks into the #BeyBeAHERO campaign, the hashtag had made over 10 million impressions on social media.
But still, nothing.
One night, I found myself lying on the grass in a park by my apartment, distraught. I had done everything I knew how to do to get Beyoncé’s team to react. I had bugged every reporter friend, forwarded every press hit, tweeted incessantly. I had given it my best shot. And I was starting to feel like a failure.
On Instagram, I watched Beyoncé post a photo of a pizza.
“Why hasn’t she said something?”
Early voting began on October 19. A number of Houston celebrities, including Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons, came out in support of the ordinance. Even Hillary Clinton tweeted her support for HERO, urging voters to vote for the measure and oppose discrimination.
But despite those endorsements, young voters, who were expected to support HERO, weren’t turning out for early voting. Supporters worried that the low turnout among young Houstonians could spell doom for non-discrimination measure on Election Day.
Behind the scenes, activists again urged Beyoncé’s team to post something, anything voicing her opposition to anti-LGBT discrimination and encouraging Houstonians to keep HERO.
On Instagram, I stared at a picture of a drink Beyoncé had while on vacation.
“She’s not going to say something.”
Election Day came and went without a word from the world’s most famous Houstonian, and HERO ended up losing badly at the ballot box, stripping basic legal protections for LGBT people in Houston.
Watching HERO lose is probably one of hardest things I’ve had to experience in my work as an activist. My colleagues, my friends in Houston had fought tooth and nail to protect their non-discrimination ordinance. I remembered how excited they had been when the #BeyBeAHERO campaign launched, how energized they were by the prospect that Beyoncé might lend them a helping hand.
But last night, they could only be devastated by a massive setback in their fight to live free from discrimination.
On Instagram, I watched a video of Beyoncé posing silently in front of an American flag.
“I can’t believe she didn’t say something.”
In September, The New York Times and Daily Beast argued that Beyoncé’s brand is defined by a kind of intentional silence: refusing to make any public statements that might stray from her highly micromanaged PR strategy.
Last night, staring numbly as election returns rolled in, I thought about Beyoncé’s refusal to utter a word in defense of her hometown’s non-discrimination ordinance. I thought about the disconnect between her brand, which has thus far suggested a kind of vague support for the LGBT community, and the impulse to stay out of public battles when the stakes are high.
The few times Beyoncé has chosen to express support for the LGBT community, she’s avoided offering more than vague, kind sentiments about the need for equality. She waited to tweet about California’s Proposition 8 until the measure was being handled by the Supreme Court, firmly out of the hands of voters who might be swayed by her position. She waited nearly a full week before posting a video celebrating the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision this year. In both cases, she avoided taking a position that might make her a target in a public controversy.
HERO was different. With HERO, Beyoncé had a golden opportunity to oppose an active effort to legalize discrimination against LGBT Houstonians. It wouldn’t have taken more than a single Instagram post, but she would have inserted herself as a real, active ally, proving her support for the LGBT community is more than mere lip service.
No celebrity is obligated to weigh in on social issues. Beyoncé is one of the most powerful women in the world, and she doesn’t owe her voice, her influence, to anyone but herself. Being an artist doesn’t require someone to also be a social justice warrior, and Beyoncé is entitled to avoid political disputes in the name of protecting her public brand.
But at least part of that brand has thus far suggested her support for the LGBT community. HERO offered her an incredibly simple opportunity to demonstrate that support when her fans and her hometown needed her the most.
HERO is gone, now. And for her queer fans who watched and waited while Beyoncé decided it wasn’t in her brand’s interests to speak out in defense of her hometown’s non-discrimination law, all there’s left to do is ask “why not?