Jake Borelli + CupcakKe + Paris Hilton + Wanda Sykes
On 1 January 2018 at 6:17pm (local time), Hayley Kiyoko hit ‘send’ on a tweet that would define her year. “It’s our year, it’s our time,” she wrote to her huge following. “To thrive and let our souls feel alive.” It read like a prophecy from Lesbian Jesus herself. And then came the hashtag that cemented the tweet as legendary. #20GAYTEEN.
“I had no idea that it was going to catch on and that people were going to continually post about it and talk about it,” Hayley tells us, reflecting on its undeniable popularity in LGBTQ internet culture. “It’s almost become the mantra of the year. It’s been a fun year. Obviously the world is going through hard times, so it’s been nice to have some lightheartedness with my fans and being able to share that mantra with them. It makes them feel good and proud of who they are.” For every incredible, empowering, and humourous LGBTQ moment in 2018, a response including the #20GAYTEEN hashtag would follow shortly after, declaring it the result of a year the queer community ruled supreme. And while LGBTQ rights and people have been threatened in very real ways in today’s climate of divisive politics, in popular culture it feels like queer voices are rising up and making exciting, engaging and, quite frankly, much more excellent art compared to our heterosexual siblings.
At the forefront of that revolution has been Lesbian Jesus – the moniker her fans have lovingly given Hayley Kiyoko. But she hasn’t been given that title just because of her prophetic declarations, but also because she is a divine force in queer pop.
Hayley’s full-length debut album Expectations was released a few months into #20GAYTEEN, but remains a glistening jewel as it comes to a close. “This brilliant debut album is a kind of female companion piece to Troye Sivan’s Wild and Years & Years’ Communion: a cool, contemporary mainstream pop record which explores inherently queer themes, sometimes subtly and sometimes more overtly,” we said in our five-star review of the record earlier this year. With singles as infectious as Curious, as free-spirited as What I Need, and as wistful as Feelings, it will go down as a stand-out queer record.
But it’s Mercy/Gatekeeper that Hayley names as the moment on the record she’s most proud of. “That was a song that was a journey for me, and a dark time for me,” she reveals. “For any artist it’s exciting and inspiring to feel that feeling and emulate that sonically. I didn’t really know what it was going to be at the time until I finished it. I feel like a lot of the songs I’m extremely proud of.”
We’re taking the opportunity to look back at the year #20GAYTEEN during our time with Hayley to reflect both on her tremendous successes, but also a few other LGBTQ moments we’ve celebrated in the past 12 months.
Although Hayley is still busy touring her debut album Expectations, the impact of her music is already being felt. Every time I’ve sat down with young queer female musicians this year and
conversation inevitably turns to their inspirations, Hayley Kiyoko’s name has continually popped up. “I think it’s amazing that, first of all, people know who I am and can find inspiration and courage to be themselves,” Hayley says when I tell her that fact. “I’m thankful that I’m able to inspire them and kind of give them that extra push. I’m really just here to give everyone that extra push to be themselves, and to go for it. I’m their cheerleader so to speak.”
All you have to do is scroll through the replies to Hayley’s tweets, or comments under her Instagram posts to see that she also has a similar impact on her
LGBTQ fans. “I get a wide spectrum of comments and messages,” she says. “I think that the thing that really connects with me are messages about not being able to relate with their parents. Having them not understand who they are, and not having that dialogue. I think that’s the hardest thing sometimes is when you don’t understand one another, how do you even begin that conversation? You need communication to be able to build that bridge.”
Hayley enjoys her position as a role model to LGBTQ youth, ready and willing to inspire a new generation of kids to love and live as their true selves. She also acknowledges that it’s about visibility, using her platform to educate and promote empathy. One of the more memorable moments of #20GAYTEEN was Hayley’s cinematic music video for What I Need, which saw her embark on a road trip with fellow queer music artist Kehlani.
“I just wanted to tell a story that maybe parents or adults could relate to when they watch the video with their kids or their friends,” Hayley explains. “To be able to be like, ‘Wow, that’s what I feel.’ That opening scene in What I Need is really two people not understanding eye-to-eye. It doesn’t mean that they don’t love each other, they just don’t understand. I really wanted to just show the realness of how it is sometimes. When that happens you seek happiness in other places and hope within friends. Friendship is so important to discuss your everyday lives, so everything just kind of started building up through those concepts and ideas.”
Hayley has directed all of her music videos since 2014, coming up with storyboards that usually centre around a queer narrative. “With my music videos I really just try to validate those feelings that we all feel,” she adds. “We all have aspirations and dreams of falling in love, and getting the girl or boy or whoever we want, and so I try to showcase that.”
To say these videos empower Hayley’s fans to be loud and proud about who they are is an understatement. In fact, reading through the comments under one of her videos is like the online equivalent of getting glittered up and unapologetically celebrating your queerness during a Pride parade. “Being straight has left the chat,” one fan put under the What I Need video. Another added: “I didn’t think I could get any gayer but this made me 173727% more gay.” Oh, and there is the obligatory “Lesbian Jesus come through!”
“I love them,” Hayley laughs when I read a few out to her. “I’m always cracking up. I’m like, ‘Who is writing this?’ There’s so many different Twitter accounts and comments and again, life can be so hard sometimes – well, most of the time quite honestly – so it’s just nice to have a moment to laugh and get to share those experiences. Sometimes being gay can be such a dark feeling for a lot of people, so to be able to make light of it and be like, ‘I’m gayer than ever!’ and laugh about it is really healthy.”
Of course Hayley is able to enjoy this as an openly gay artist, using her queerness to cultivate a fanbase that is truly inclusive and celebratory. “It’s really empowering. It makes me emotional,” she says. “We all go through tough times accepting ourselves and to be able to know so many people accept me for who I am – I just feel like we all want that validation and to be able to love yourself. You’re wanting people to approve so then you can feel free to be who you are. My fans are able to give me that, and I try to give them that energy straight back to them – give them that space to love themselves, and to feel open and free.”
Her fans also gave her another gift this summer when they voted in their droves for her to win her very first MTV Video Music Award – an accolade all pop stars worth their salt dream one day of achieving. “This validates any queer woman of colour that you can follow your dreams,” she said at the show, before declaring them the “VMGAYS!”
“It really meant a lot to have everyone come together and be like, ‘Hey, this is someone who is really important to us so recognise her.’ That’s a part of what that win meant,” she elaborates now, reflecting on the moment. “The other part meant that you can be what you’ve always dreamed of. It’s been my dream to succeed, win a VMA, and be recognised for my work. My fans were able to accomplish that for me.”
#20GAYTEEN also saw Hayley Kiyoko embark on a world tour, taking Expectations across North America and Europe. “Touring is obviously exhausting, and I’m not used to the cold so I’ve learned to wear appropriate clothing,” she laughs. “But I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s been so amazing to meet fans who have been there since day one, and be able to connect to them on a personal level.” This opportunity to meet queer kids in different countries allowed her to speak to them about the adversity they still face. “I think the biest challenge is their parents loving them and accepting them for who they are,” Hayley explains. “People forget that although times have changed and progressed, they haven’t changed immensely for a lot of people. So I meet a lot of kids who have been kicked out of their homes and their parents don’t speak to them anymore. It’s really about creating a community of love, and reminding people that there’s a place for them. We need to remind them of unconditional love. I think that’s been hard for a lot of people to experience.”
As we speak about acceptance, talk turns to the power of allies to help change attitudes and contribute in the fight for true equality. One of those allies is someone Hayley actually got to perform with in front of 70,000 people back in July in what she describes to me as a “godly experience”. Hayley Kiyoko was introduced on stage to perform Curious with Taylor Swift as part of the latter’s Reputation stadium tour. “This is someone whose music I’m absolutely obsessed with,” Taylor said during her intro. “This is someone who I think is one of the most exciting new artists out there.”
Hayley admits that she had no idea Taylor was going to introduce her with such praise. “I hadn’t even met her and she was just so genuine with her words,” she says. “It was a really touching moment to have someone of her status to validate my work, and give me a stamp of approval.” In terms of Taylor’s position as a visible ally following her public political support for LGBTQ rights in the run-up to the US midterm elections earlier this year, Hayley agrees that it’s vital we appreciate those who use their platform to elevate our causes. “It’s so important to have allies,” she says. “It’s important in general as an artist to speak up and be brave for your beliefs and what you believe in, because once one does, everyone else follows. I think it’s really important to try to better the world.”
But as we’ve witnessed time and time again,
popular culture really does have the power to change the world. As part of our look back at #20GAYTEEN we highlighted a few breakthrough moments that really captured the spirit of that mantra.
It goes without saying that Love, Simon – the first major studio romcom to feature gay lead characters – was a watershed moment. “I loved Love, Simon,” says Hayley. “I just loved the whole campaign. It was just a great big romantic comedy that felt real, authentic and genuine.” She adds that the idea of “wanting to feel normal” as teen is what resonated with her the most in the film. So, would Hayley Kiyoko like to star in a lesbian romcom in the future? “Yeah I think I could,” she says. “I would like to direct one.”
Next on the list is FX’s groundbreaking series Pose, which took us back to the ballroom scene of 1980s New York City. Ryan Murphy assembled the largest cast and crew of trans talent for this fierce television series. “Representation is extremely important, and having the opportunity [to tell your own story] is extremely important,” Hayley says of the series. “There’s an authenticity about this show specifically, and I think that is inspiring for people to be able to look up to.”
No conversation about the year #20GAYTEEN would be complete without mentioning Netflix’s reboot of Queer Eye. “I’m a big fan,” Hayley immediately says when I mention the show, adding that she has cried “way too many times” while watching it. “It’s an important show because it reminds people to love one another, and to get along and not judge each other based on stereotypes.”
Finally, I bring up the decriminalisation of homosexuality in India, which has to be the ultimate #20GAYTEEN moment. “It’s incredible to see the progress and growth that we’ve had, but across the world there’s so much more to do to continue to help people be who they are, have equal rights, and be treated with respect for just being human,” Hayley remarks. “I think there’s still a lot of room to grow in a lot of countries. Obviously what happened in India was really inspiring and gives hope that things are starting to change.”
And with that, Lesbian Jesus gives a call to arms for the entire community to rally together and fight for the rights of every LGBTQ person from every nation. “Everyone has a responsibility to stand up for our neighbours, and our strangers as humans,” she says. “As people we all have hopes and aspirations, we all wanted to be treated equally. That’s still not the case. Whether it’s gender, race, sexuality, there’s still so much room to do more. So we have to stay aware and vocal. If you’re vocal and brave, then someone else will also be vocal and brave. We need leaders, and we need people to stand up.”
So as #20GAYTEEN draws to a close, the hashtag may fade but the spirit won’t. Hayley is back on tour in Europe in January and February, and there’s promise of brand new music in the near future. “I’m just going to try keep creating. For me, I just want to do bier and better things,” she says. “I’m just going to continue to spread the word. People still don’t know who I am so I’m going to continue doing my thing.”