Am I straight or gay?
In the same 1981 Rolling Stone interview where Prince intentionally muddied the waters of his racial background, he made another thing uncharacteristically clear. “Appearances to the contrary,” reported journalist Bill Adler, “he says he’s not gay, and he has a standard rebuff for overenthusiastic male fans: ‘I’m not about that; we can be friends, but that’s as far as it goes. My sexual preferences really aren’t any of their business.’ A Penthouse ‘Pet of the Month’ centerfold laid out on a nearby table silently underscores his point” (Adler 1981).
The artist was similarly adamant in a Los Angeles Times interview the following year, when he took the opportunity to address three rumors that were apparently needling him: “One, my real name is Prince. It’s not something I made up. My dad’s stage name was Prince Rogers and he gave that to me: Prince Rogers Nelson… Two, I’m not gay. And three, I’m not Jamie Starr” (Hilburn 1982). Of course, as we now know, Prince in fact was Jamie Starr, the fictitious recluse credited with engineering Dirty Mind and, later, with producing the early albums by protégé acts the Time and Vanity 6. But he appeared to have been telling the truth about his sexuality: despite his surface ambiguities, by all credible accounts Prince was unequivocally and enthusiastically straight.
These surface ambiguities, however, are worth examining; because, while Prince was notably less coy about his sexual orientation than he was about his ethnicity, he was in many ways equally strategic. We’ve already mentioned the famous story told by guitarist Dez Dickerson in which Prince announced to his band that he would use his onstage persona to “portray pure sex” (Dickerson 62). What he understood better than most heterosexual performers was that in order to create this kind of fantasy, he would need to court the attentions of not only straight women, but also gay men and others.
That Prince’s persona had queer undertones is a truth generally held to be self-evident; for proof, one need only look to the iconically androgynous cover photos for 1980’s Dirty Mind, 1979’s Prince, and even 1978’s For You. Part of this implicit queerness, of course, was simply a function of his appearance. Prince’s petite frame and soft features were easily read as effeminate; growing up, he later recalled, other kids would call him “sissy, punk, freak and faggot. See, the girls loved you, but the boys hated you. They called me Princess” (Jones 47). By the time of his first professional photo shoot in 1977, however, he had already learned to lean into his unconventional sex appeal. “Prince was open to taking his shirt off,” photographer Robert Whitman recalled. “I had him blowing bubbles, we put sequins on him” (KSTP 2016).
It’s impossible to determine the precise level of intentionality with which Prince pursued a queer aesthetic; what is clear, however, is that he was drawing from a well of influences similar to those of many openly gay artists. J.M. Ellison, a scholar of queer and transgender history, notes that Prince “rooted himself in the tradition of flamboyant Black male artists, like Sly Stone and James Brown”–a list to which we can also add the “omnisexual” Little Richard and the openly gay Sylvester–“and in the style of Black divas.” In particular, Ellison points out the striking similarity between Prince’s second album cover and the cover for Donna Summer’s 1977 album Once Upon a Time, and raises a fascinating question posed by another LGBTQ historian, Stewart Van Cleve: “was Prince patterning himself after Donna Summer herself or after a Black drag artist performing Donna Summer?” (Ellison 2018).
We do know that Prince at least encountered drag while on the Dirty Mind tour in Paris, where he played “gay night” at Théâtre Le Palace. “I was sitting up in the lighting booth, being surrounded by these six-foot-five drag queens,” production designer Roy Bennett recalled to Uptown magazine. “I think Prince was amused by it… The bizarreness of that whole side of life probably fascinated him in a theatrical sense” (Nilsen 1999 76-77). But whether or not he was deliberately taking cues from gay culture, Prince clearly benefited from its indirect influence. The briefs he wore on the Dirty Mind cover look like they came straight out of an International Male catalogue; the moustache and bandana are strikingly similar to a look sported by the cover model of the March 1979 issue of gay men’s magazine Blueboy (see below).
Even more than his look, however, Prince’s music evoked a distinctly queer sensibility. Most R&B and pop music in the early 1980s approached love and sex from an essentially heteronormative angle; but the judgment-free hedonism of Dirty Mind in particular resonated with a pre-AIDS gay club culture. It helped, of course, that Prince left some deliberate ambiguities in his lyrics of the era: mumbling “she’s the reason for my, uh, sexuality” on “Sister” in such a way that one could easily hear “bisexuality,” or constructing the eyebrow-raising scenario of another man “sleeping in between the two of us” on “When You Were Mine.”
It thus feels like something of a tease when, on “Controversy,” Prince huffs that he “just can’t believe all the things people say”–as if there was something inherently preposterous about the notion that a pretty, moustachioed, scantily-clad man jerking off his guitar might not be entirely heterosexual. There’s an argument to be made that “Controversy” is pure contrivance: the artist censoriously tut-tutting over a scandal of his own design. That’s where music journalist and biographer Dave Hill seems to land when he argues that, by “declining to provide any answers” to the questions he poses, Prince “back-handedly endorses those questions. Is he black or white? Is he straight or gay? What’s with the fuss? he complains. We might ask him the same thing. The obvious conclusion is that he loves the attention of fame, but not the questions it raises” (Hill 98).
This may have been true; but more importantly, by begging the question of his sexuality and then leaving it unanswered, Prince left an opening for identities beyond the binary of “gay” and “straight.” Statements attesting as much flooded the Internet following Prince’s death in April 2016–notably including one from alternative R&B artist Frank Ocean, whose 2012 open letter addressing his own bisexuality (without ever using the word “bisexual”) was a watershed moment for his generation’s relationship with sexual orientation. Prince, Ocean wrote, “made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity[,] etc. He moved me to be more daring and intuitive with my own work by his demonstration–his denial of the prevailing model” (Ocean 2016).
Indeed, while Prince’s flirtation with “post-racial” ideas in the Controversy era now seems antiquated and naïve, his similar flirtation with a post-gender aesthetic feels remarkably ahead of its time. I write this post within days of the release of Negro Swan: the remarkable new album by another musical polymath, Devonté Hynes, who releases alt-R&B with a distinct Prince influence under the moniker Blood Orange. Like Ocean, Hynes is a queer artist who resists defining his sexuality with concrete labels; and, like Ocean, it would be difficult to imagine him doing so without the space for this kind of indeterminacy that Prince helped to create. “I think a lot of people look at me and think, ‘No, it’s strong if you define yourself and it’ll be helpful to others,’” Hynes told London’s Evening Standard magazine in 2016. “But I think they don’t realize that I’m not hiding in not defining myself. I’m openly not defining myself. To me, that’s the school of Bowie and Prince, where they were just themselves” (McLean 2016).
It’s this radical refusal of definition that remains arguably the most visible part of Prince’s extramusical legacy: the strongest evidence of the “new culture” which, as Nancy J. Holland argues, he helped to create. By offering himself as a projection for all forms of sexuality, without delineation, Prince laid the groundwork not only for new inflections of straight and gay identities, but also for emergent identities that would take decades to enter the mainstream consciousness: “non-binary,” “gender-fluid,” “gender-nonconforming,” et al. Whether or not he intended to do so is ultimately beside the point; queer audiences got the message and responded in kind. In the words of Andrea Jenkins, the Minneapolis-based poet and activist who recently became the first African American transgender woman to be elected to public office, Prince “opened up a whole lot of space for people” (Ellison 2018). In the silence after the question “Am I straight or gay?” were infinite possibilities.
(I’ll be back with the third and last installment of this mini-series in early September–thanks!)