A sea of rainbow flags and the arms of queer youth sway to the beat during Hayley Kiyoko's recent Los Angeles performance of "Girls Like Girls." Fans sing along, cry, and hug each other. For many of them, this concert is the only place they feel like they can truly be themselves.
In June 2015, when Kiyoko released her self-directed video for "Girls Like Girls," the world was a different place, and queer women didn't really have a space in pop music or very many spaces at all. Now, two albums and seven years of hard work later, Kiyoko has carved out a space for lesbian and queer women like her to not just live but to thrive.
The 31-year-old performer is also in a different place. She's in love, matured as an artist, and recently released Panorama, her most personal and mature album yet. The artist affectionately dubbed Lesbian Jesus by fans wasn't just born, she was self-made.
Kiyoko says it took her a long time to get over the negative connotations she felt with the word lesbian, which has now become nearly synonymous with her brand. For a long time, she identified as gay rather than use the L word. But that changed as she grew as a person. Kiyoko believes that both words and people go through many transformations in their lives, and that society should better accept the multitude of ways to be a lesbian. "A lesbian doesn't look just one way. A lesbian isn't 'x, y, and z,'" Kiyoko emphasizes. It's so many, so many things."
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Shattering stereotypes is part of this journey, particularly harmful ones that members of this community are transphobic. "I think that it's been really hard to break those stereotypes and stigmas that society has just placed on so many people that have been unwarranted and unwelcome, she says. So we're getting rid of those, hopefully, as more people learn to love themselves and exist and change the way others see one another."
"I think being a lesbian has been such a journey, and I've always known I was a lesbian since I was 5," she adds. "So I've really grown a wonderful relationship with that word, knowing that being a lesbian is powerful, being a lesbian is beautiful, being a lesbian looks many ways. And it's been exciting to reclaim that word and what that means to me and what it means to the world, truly."
Another relationship she's grown is one with Becca Tilley, a former contestant on The Bachelor. The two came out this year as a couple of four years when Tilley made a cameo appearance at the end of Kiyoko s "For the Girls" music video. Their relationship has impacted Kiyoko's creative journey. Panorama is the first album she's written since she began dating Tilley, whom she first met at her Expectations album release party in 2018.
Recently, Tilley even joined Kiyoko on tour. "As an artist, you're influenced by your life experiences," she says. "And I've been really grateful to experience true love and a healthy, incredible relationship.
And Kiyoko is spreading that queer joy. Kiyoko says performing "Girls Like Girls" -- which she plans on doing at every show for the foreseeable future -- is still just as electric as it was when it first came out in 2015. "It's just such a special moment in my show and a moment for my fans to just celebrate themselves in an unapologetic, safe space," Kiyoko says. "And I look forward to that moment every time I do a show. And I'm just very grateful for my fans, for always showing up for me, because I wouldn't be able to dream without their support."
She's more thankful now than ever before. As right-wing politicians launch political attacks on LGBTQ+ people, Kiyoko s concerts have become a refuge where queer people can come to fully be themselves. "It's so important to create safe spaces for people to celebrate themselves and to love themselves and to grow their self-love," she says. "Because so many queer people in our country and in the world live in a place where they're not safe to be who they are, or safe in their work environment or in school."
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In recent years, the number of other pop artists who are sending the same empowering message has grown exponentially. It used to be that just a few artists among them, Kiyoko, Janelle Monae, Kehlani, Halsey, and Tegan and Sara -- were singing about sapphic love on pop playlists. Today, dozens of singers and bands like Muna, Fletcher, Zolita, Carlie Hanson, Rina Sawayama, Chloe Moriondo, Rebecca Black, the Aces, Sarah Barrios, King Princess, and Dove Cameron are making music that revels in the joy of being queer and loving women.
"It's been incredible. I think that it's long overdue. And I'm so grateful that we are normalizing our queerness in mainstream and in pop music," Kiyoko says. "Growing up, I never could have imagined I'd have the opportunity to sing about women so boldly and still chase my dreams of being a pop star and to be mainstream. And it's been an incredible journey and ride. And a win for one is a win for us all in just moving the needle forward in representation."
Kiyoko sees this joyful tone as a welcome shift from the sadder lesbian songs of yesteryear. "It seems as though there is more space for us to celebrate our wins and our joy and our happiness," she says. She points out that queer artists have always written about joy; it just wasn't always accepted by the mainstream. "A lot of times in the media, it's focused on our trauma and how challenging it is to exist. And so it's finding the happy balance of validating both of those experiences," she says. "I think we have a long way to go in Hollywood and television and film. But in the music space, I feel like we are able to listen to songs where we can just celebrate ourselves for who we are and celebrate finding love."
Now that Kiyoko has helped create this freer music landscape, Lesbian Jesus is planning on expanding her queer kingdom. Fans of Kiyoko's work in projects like Disney Channel's Lemonade Mouth or The Fosters should know that she's not giving up on acting. The former softball player even has one show in particular she'd love to be on.
"I watched A League of Their Own on tour, which was so fun," she says of the new Amazon Prime Video show inspired by the classic 1992 sports film by Penny Marshall. "And that was really exciting to see queer narratives at the forefront.... I feel like that was something that we don't really get to see."
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To remedy that, Kiyoko is also focusing on directing. She's already directed most of her music videos and now wants to expand to feature films and television in order to tell queer narratives. The road isn't easy. "It's been really interesting to navigate that space as well and how challenging it is for [queer creators]," she observes. "There's a reason why we don't get to see a lot of queer narratives in shows because it's just so hard to get them made."
She also recently announced that she has written her first novel, a coming-of-age romance based on her breakthrough song "Girls Like Girls." The novel of the same name is set to come out May 30, 2023 from Wednesday Books. She also has said that her "biggest dream" would be to adapt the novel into a series or movie. Let's pray to Lesbian Jesus that that happens.
As an artist, Kiyoko says she always has "4,000 things" going on in her head at a time, and that she's excited to show as many of them to fans as she can. Even as she's wrapping up her current tour, she's planning headlining one where she hopes to get to perform every song from Panorama. Lesbian Jesus has worked hard to build her message of self-love and queer joy, and she's going to spread this gospel as far as she can.
talent HAYLEY KIYOKO@hayleykiyoko
photographer COYOTE PARK for GOOGLE PIXEL 7coyotepark.format.com@coyotepark
executive producer & senior director TIM SNOW@snowmgz
creative director RAINE BASCOS
1st assistant MASON ROSEmasonrose.photography @masonrose__
light tech EVADNE GONZALEZ@evadnegonzalez
digitech MERLIN VIETHEN
video AUSTIN NUNES austinunes.com@austinunes
producer STEVIE WILLIAMSx2production.com@beingstevie of X2 Production
set designer ORRIN WHALENorrinwhalen.com@orrinwhalen
art assistant BRANDON LOYD @ohmyloyd
stylist EDWIN ORTEGA firstname.lastname@example.org
styling assistant BROOKE MUNFORD @brookesquad
hair/groomer ABRAHAM ESPARZAabrahamjesparza.com@thisisbabe
manicurist RILEY MIRANDA@rileymiranda.nails
makeup artist MARLA VAZQUEZ@marlavazquez
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This article is part of Out's November/December 2022 issue, out on newsstands November 8. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.