20 years ago this month, Beyoncé released "Crazy In Love."
It was a pivotal moment for the then-21-year-old. It was the first single off her upcoming debut album and her breakaway from the Grammy-winning group Destiny's Child, becoming the song that cemented her as a pop force to be reckoned with. (Who else could make a t-shirt and jeans iconic??)
Though I had no idea I was gay at the time, I was obsessed. When I got home after school, my dad would occasionally run to the grocery store and leave me in charge, and I'd jump at the opportunity to blast "Crazy In Love" and pretend like the long hallway to the bedroom I shared with my little sister was a runway. At five years old, she'd try to keep up.
"Walk like this," I'd say, then strut down the hallway to the duhhhh dun dun dun dun dun duhhhhhh's, swishing my hips and flipping my nonexistent hair at the exact beat Bey does in the video. When the song ended, I'd run to the tape player and rewind, aching to start the dance all over again.
What is it about strong women that little gay boys latch onto? Growing up in Houston, Texas in the late '90s, I don't remember life without Beyoncé. My mother listened to Magic 102.1 in the mornings and they'd squeeze in Destiny's Child hits between Luther Vandross and Teena Marie. "Say My Name" was one of the first songs I knew every word to at seven years old. On our way to church, we'd drive by the House of Deréon (the group's shop and studio in Third Ward) and I'd gasp every time I spotted the giant murals of Bey, Kelly, and Michelle. They once sang the national anthem at a basketball game I went to on a class field trip, and I remember crying in my seat. I couldn't tell you a single thing about that game.
Needless to say, I was teased about being gay before I even knew what the word meant. I'd rather practice riffs than play a sport, and the other kids noticed. In my middle school's after-school program, the boys and girls were separated. We were all forced outside to play basketball while the girls got to stay in the air conditioning and choreograph dance routines to Cassie and Destiny's Child songs.
One week, the girls made up a routine to "Lose My Breath." My eyes devoured the scene, though I tried to remain calm and cool so as not to arouse derision. I had to come up with a plan. I told the counselors I had a big project coming up and needed to stay inside and work on it. They let me sit in the corner and "do homework" but I was really taking detailed notes of the choreography, then I'd go home and practice them with my bedroom door closed. The next few times the girls performed the song, I'd subtly mime the choreo in the corner. I was occasionally caught flicking my wrist along with them, and someone would inevitably ask, "Are you gay?"
"No," I'd say. "Why?"
They'd look me up and down. "Because you know every word to 'And I' by Ciara."
My queerness was always there, I just didn't know what to do with it. But Beyoncé possessed all the femininity I couldn't express and she wielded it like a weapon, tossing it over her shoulder with her hair. It was power, and I craved it even when I couldn't place why.
Another gay boy with a pop girlie obsession (cliché I know), but Beyoncé has always been there for me, and 20 years after her solo debut, she's now created something not just peripherally for me, but for us. For Black, queer culture. You might say we're in a Renaissance.
Beyoncé dropped her seventh studio album last year, a smorgasbord of R&B, disco, dance, trap, and pop directly honoring and uplifting a community that's often overlooked and when they are included, used as props. Renaissance is a love letter to her Uncle Johnny, who died of an AIDS-related illness in the late '90s. "He was my godmother and the first person to expose me to a lot of the music and culture that serve as inspiration for this album," Bey said in the album credits. "Thank you to all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long. This is a celebration for you."
And you can see it all up and through the record. "Break My Soul" is an act of defiance, and who knows more about that than Black queer people. Big Freedia is featured on the record alongside TS Madison, Honey Djon, Syd, Moi Renee, MikeQ, Kevin Aviance, and Kevin JZ Prodigy. On "Pure/Honey", she invites "all the pretty boys to the floor" before ballroom legend Kevin Aviance instructs us to get "c*nty." She's not just inspired by us, she's working with us, dancing alongside us, paying us, and singing with us.
The name of a Black man who died of AIDS, the worst thing I thought I could be, is screamed in jubilance and love. "Uncle Johnny made my dress/that cheap spandex/she looks a mess..."
What would that have been like, to feel this love this as a confused kid, a scared teen, and a closeted young man? The thing I was once so terrified to be, and now am, is beautifully and carefully placed front and center, chosen as sacred by one of the biggest artists in the world and greatest musicians of our time. I can only imagine how much heartache I might've been spared, how much fear I could've brushed away on the dance floor if I had this then. I hope young folks understand how precious it is.
We underestimate the power of being seen. At 10 years old, I never wanted to be. I hid the swish in my hips. I watered down the sugar in my tank. I mouthed every word to every song under my breath, afraid to sing it out loud. Now, each syllable is screamed like a ratchet hymn. This is a sermon for all the Uncle Johnnys out there. Beyoncé truly sees us and celebrates us. And I can't thank her enough for that.
At the top of "Crazy In Love," Beyoncé looks deep into the camera and asks, "You ready?" I wasn't. But I am now.
And by that I mean I finally know the choreography, so get ready for a twerk-off at the Renaissance World Tour!