Don’t be a drag, just be a queen: celebrating 10 years of Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’

“Rejoice and love yourself today

‘Cause baby you were born this way

No matter gay, straight, or bi,

Lesbian, transgender life,

I’m on the right track baby,

I was born to survive.

No matter black, white or beige

Chola or orient made,

I’m on the right track baby,

I was born to be brave.”

In just a few lines of prose and booming synth, Lady Gaga validated the identities of queer people everywhere, establishing an unofficial anthem for the trials and tribulations for LGBTQ+ rights in America in the coming years. 

February will mark 10 years since the release of Gaga’s seminal hit “Born This Way.” We are looking back on the song’s implications for music and LGBTQ+ rights, Gaga’s contributions to the movement, and the strides we’ve made since 2011. 

Gaga was far from the first artist to write a song about self-expression; she was even criticized for her song’s sonic and thematic parallels to Madonna’s 1989 hit “Express Yourself.” But the fundamental difference between “Born This Way” and any of its predecessors comes with the explicit mention of queer people; a one-size-fits-all “be yourself” message has never worked for the LGBTQ+ community, and Gaga took note of that void.

No one in the pop music zeitgeist – no one with the stature of Lady Gaga, that is – had ever pointed so directly and unimistakably to queer identities. And she didn’t just point to us; she pointed to us when the whole world was looking, in a song that reached number one in 25 countries. For queer youth – those now entering adulthood – the validation was unprecedented.

Gaga revealed shortly after the song’s genesis that “Born This Way” was heavily inspired by gay preacher Carl Bean’s 1975 recording of “I Was Born This Way,” a song of a similar vein. In the jazzy pop track, Bean declares “I’m happy, I’m carefree, and I’m gay. I was born this way.” 

Bean, now 76, spent the better part of his career as both a minister and queer activist, establishing the Unity Fellowship Church in Los Angeles for Black gays and lesbians in the height of the AIDS crisis. 

Understanding that certain sects of the Christian faith have been great sources of queer oppression for centuries, a certain comforting irony can be found in the knowledge that a modern queer anthem was inspired by someone who so lovingly preached to LGBTQ+ congregations. 

Don’t get me wrong; Lady Gaga is not the sole activist at the center of the gay rights movement. We have a multigenerational army to thank; Marsha P. Johnson, Harvey Milk and Sylvia Rivera are just a few of the many.

 

Although she is bisexual, Gaga’s advocacy has often been criticized as exploitative of the queer community. She addressed this in her Stonewall Day concert in 2019 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the New York Stonewall riots, which sparked the gay liberation movement in 1969.

 

“I may not, to some people, be considered a part of this community, even though I like girls sometimes,” she said. “I would never degrade the fight you have endured. You have the power. You are so, so powerful, and I hope you feel that power today.”

 

Modest as she is as a queer woman, Gaga’s contributions cannot be understated.

Gaga famously protested the U.S. Armed Forces’ “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for LGBTQ+ service members at the 2010 MTV VMA’s.Gaga showed up with just four members of the 14,000 members of the military who had been discharged for violating DADT. 

 

She later took to the stage in a dress made entirely of raw beef, later saying that “If we don’t stand up for what we believe in, if we don’t fight for our rights, pretty soon we’re going to have as much rights as the meat on our bones.”

A few days earlier, Gaga had pleaded with the U.S. Senate in a Youtube video to repeal DADT, and called out the senators who planned a filibuster to prevent the vote. She also told the stories of several LGBTQ+ service members who’d been discharged even if they had not, themselves, revealed themselves to be queer. 

“I am here to be a voice for my generation,” she said. “Not for the generation of the senators who are voting, but for the youth of this country. The generation that is affected by this law, and whose children will be affected.” 

The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act was enacted in December of 2010.

When Gaga was warned of Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda” ahead of her shows in Moscow and St. Petersburg on the Born This Way Ball tour, she fought back. Though she was supported by then Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev who disapproved of the law, conservative Vitaly Milonov vowed to launch an investigation of Lady Gaga for violating it. 

Threatened with arrest and a $50,000 fine, Gaga only preached the message of inclusivity harder. 

“Cuff me Russia!” Gaga screamed to a stadium of 19,000 fans, all screaming back. “Arrest me! I don’t give a fuck!”

The world seemed to stop when Lady Gaga took to the stage for the Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, giving that queer anthem a place in what is regularly one of the most-watched television programs of the year.

 

Gaga’s performance was initially celebrated by many for being a good, old-fashioned, non-political one. But the very opposite was true; anyone who understood the power of “Born This Way” would understand that the performance of such a song for a historically staunchly conservative viewership.

 

Even former Vice President Mike Pence – a politician who has made a point of stoking the fires of prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community throughout his career – was in the audience, forced to sit and listen to Gaga celebrate the very queer identities he’s tried to take down.

The last ten years have been the most promising ones for LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S. In 2015, we saw the dawn of a new era when the U.S. Supreme Court recognized same-sex marriage across all 50 states. Just last summer, the court ruled that LGBTQ+ are, in fact, protected from workplace discrimination under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And the progress hasn’t stopped there.

Across genre lines, LGBTQ+ voices in music have boomed in numbers. Lil Nas X has become a force to be reckoned with in hip-hop. Orville Peck has given the community a number of country-western anthems based on queer experiences. Kim Petras, Troye Sivan and Hayley Kiyoko have brought those anthems to pop airwaves, where artists like King Princess and Phoebe Bridgers have brought them to indie music. Experimental pop will live on in the legacy of SOPHIE, who we lost in an accident just last week.

Although representation, protection and treatment of LGBTQ+ people has still has a long road ahead in the next decade, the role of “Born This Way” in the 2010s is a prime example of the lasting impacts and implications that queer anthems can have.

I look forward to the rise of another gay anthem for the fight against LGBTQ+ prejudice in the 2020s, and thank Lady Gaga for a decade of validation, celebration and a piece of wisdom for the ages: “don’t be a drag, just be a queen.”

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