Katy Perry Wins Yet Another Gay Allyship Award, Admits She More-Than-Kissed A Girl, Only Kinda Liked It

Another day, another top-level LGBT allyship award being granted to Katy Perry, an accomplished musical artist who produces irresistibly catchy pop songs on topics including but certainly not limited to: feeling like a plastic bag, dancing through fire while feeling like a tiger, and making out with the cherry-flavored mouths of girls for ambivalent and largely absent boyfriend figures.

This weekend, the Human Rights Campaign granted Katy Perry its National Equality Award, described as the group’s “highest honor.” This morning, the national media is buzzing regarding Perry’s disclosure during her acceptance speech that she, in fact, has done far more than just kiss a girl, although she apparently didn’t like it enough to actually be gay. But she did like it enough to get a very misleading haircut!

LOS ANGELES, CA – MARCH 18: Katy Perry attends the Human Rights Campaign’s 2017 on March 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by JB Lacroix/WireImage)

“I kissed a girl and I liked it,” Perry confessed. “Truth be told, I did more than that.” But she was unable to reconcile those feelings with her conservative upbringing, continuing, “What I did know is that I was curious and even then I knew sexuality wasn’t as black and white as this dress.”

After citing her LGBT fans as the group she feels most indebted to, Perry admitted that she “hasn’t aways gotten [representation] right,” but that “in 2008, when that song came out, I knew that I started a conversation that a lot of the world seemed curious enough to sing along to.” Perry recounted growing up in a community where homosexuality “was synonymous with the word ‘abomination’ … and hell.” She gave a strong shout-out to our VP, continuing, “A place of gnashing of teeth, continual burning of skin and probably Mike Pence’s ultimate guest list for a barbecue. No way, no way. I wanted the pearly gates and unlimited fro-yo toppings.”

Perry recalled wondering about her own sexuality, trying to pray the gay away at Jesus camp and eventually breaking free of her close-minded bubble through her music career, which opened her eyes to the fact that “these people were nothing like I had been taught to fear.” She continued:

“…they were the most free, strong, kind and inclusive people I have ever met. They stimulated my mind and they filled my heart with joy, and they freaking danced all the while doing it. These people are actually magic, and they are magic because they are living their truth. Oh, my goodness, what a revelation! – and not the last chapter of the Bible.”

(FTR, Revelation is the last book of the Bible, not the last chapter.)

It is fantastic that a person from such a conservative background as Katy Perry has recognized faults in her own thinking and dedicated herself to fighting those beliefs through her advocacy. Her narrative was clear and impactful, eventually leading up to:

“It would have been easier just to stay the whipped-cream-tits-spraying-poppy-light-fluffy-fun-anthems-by-the-way-of-animal-totems singing girl who was basically somewhat neutral in stance and just that, ‘more hugs could save the world’ [mentality]. No way. No longer can I sit in silence. I have to stand for what I know is true and that is equality and justice for all period.”

Perry ended her speech on an inspirational note, concluding:

“I hope I stand here as real evidence for all that no matter where you came from, it’s about where you are going, and that real change, real evolution and real perception shift can happen if we open our minds and soften our hearts.”

Perry was introduced at the HRC Gala by her best friend, actress Shannon Woodward, who wore a suit-type outfit in an apparent attempt to queerbait our hearts. Woodward noted Perry’s chart-topping successes in the music industry and called her a “tireless campaigner” for “equality champion” Hillary Clinton. Woodward added, “Katy finds a way to act as an ally virtually every single time she performs or speaks publicly.” This is certifiably false, but whatever.

What has Katy Perry done for LGBT folks, though? For a certain segment of mainstream America, even Katy Perry’s now-frequent social media shout-outs to LGBTQ folks and pro-equality messages have made a quantifiable difference. She is the world’s most popular Twitter user, with more than 96 million followers, which undoubtedly includes a lot of Trump voters and their family members, as well as closeted queer kids all over the world and people from conservative religions struggling to accept their queer family members.

Perry has long been a darling of Gay Inc, starting in 2008, when Out Magazine couldn’t bring itself to put a lesbian on the cover of its People of the Year issue, but it somehow made room for Katy Perry. In 2012, Katy Perry received an award from The Trevor Project, a non-profit dedicated to LGBTQ youth suicide prevention. It was a puzzling choice, as in 2007 Perry had released a song called UR So Gay, which opened with the lines “I hope you hang yourself with your H&M scarf /While jacking off listening to Mozart.” But that was only part of the Overall Problem with Katy Perry. I don’t think I have to get into the lesbian discomfort around 2008’s “I Kissed A Girl” with y’all, it’s become a tale as old as time within our community, and its message was critiqued at the time by celebrities like P!nk, Beth Ditto and Kathleen Hanna. Although I will take this opportunity, while I have your attention, to remind you that in 1995, out queer artist Jill Sobule released a song called “I Kissed A Girl” with a delightfully campy music video starring Fabio that appalling numbers of young people seem entirely unaware of, and if you are one of those people, you should go watch that video ASAP.

Furthermore, you’re likely already familiar with Katy Perry’s history of otherwise problematic behaviors and rampant cultural appropriation (including her explicitly racist Geisha-inspired AMA performance), as well as her ignorant rebuttals to this criticism and continued employment of AAVE. Perhaps you also noticed that when she performed “I Kissed a Girl” at the Super Bowl in 2015, it was turned into a duet with Lenny Kravitz, of which (former Autostraddle writer) Gabrielle Korn wrote at Nylon, “as if by adding a male voice to the lyrics, the already-vague bisexual (or as some call it, barsexual) themes are watered down.” Katy Perry is one of many straight cis white musicians whose aesthetic is almost entirely borrowed from people of color and gay camp and who manages to make a shit-ton more money than those marginalized folks ever do when they express themselves authentically. In an excavation of the “contemporary fag hag,” in Stan Hawkins’ Queerness in Pop Music: Aesthetics, Gender Norms, and Temporalitythe style of Perry and her contemporaries is described as “defined chiefly by their effervescence, a quality that they share with (and in some cases even borrow from) certain practitioners of drag.”

Still — it has been ten years since the release of “I Kissed a Girl” and “UR So Gay,” and we can give her space to grow and change, right? Yet regardless of how you feel about those songs, it’s still not entirely clear what Perry has done for the LGBT community that other bankable pop stars or celebrities haven’t. Being a pro-equality pop star isn’t, in and of itself, remarkable, and hasn’t been for a few decades now — popular musicians were some of our very first visible allies. It’s also difficult to state if Perry “deserves” an award like this because it’s not entirely clear what the National Equality Award truly represents, besides its repeated citation as “the HRC’s highest honor.” I couldn’t find a definitive list of previous honorees, but pieced together from various press coverage that the award has previously gone to Governor Mario Cuomo (2016), gay pop star Elton John and his husband David Furnish (2014), the Prop 8 Plaintiffs and Attorneys (2013), NAACP President Ben Jealous (2012); out actress Jane Lynch, politician Nancy Pelosi and basketball player Sheryl Swoopes (2007) and out Tennis star Billie Jean King (2006).

It’s true that since the election, Katy Perry has become more explicitly political. She’s recently used her instagram and twitter accounts to raise awareness of progressive causes like letting trans kids go to the g-damn bathroom alreadyPlanned Parenthood, fighting Betsy Devos’ confirmationBlack Lives Matter (although her caption about “woke af” holiday shopping is cringe-worthy) and Standing Rock. Perry has also donated to a number of AIDS charities. According to Look to the Stars, Perry’s charitable contributions include Elton John AIDS Foundation, AIDS LIFE and the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Those donations shouldn’t be overlooked, but it’s worth noting that there are no explicitly gay non-profits listed on her profile… not even the HRC.

But does it actually even matter if Katy Perry deserves this award? It very well might not. She did give a good speech, it got a lot of press, and hopefully will resonate with people. Regardless, the HRC probably should’ve waited to see what happens next with Perry, and how her increased political awareness will play out beyond social media, rather than lowering the bar in order to shoot her a premature but expediently quick award toss. It is troubling that Perry’s honoring fits into a longstanding tradition of gay organizations headed up by cis white men often elevating straight artists who produce sanitized and desexualized queer representation rather than promoting more authentic work that might challenge the status quo. “In America, politically thoughtful artists are looked down on,” writes novelist and activist Sarah Schulman in Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America. “… art that exposes uncomfortable truths is diminished for being didactic, while art that promotes a false veneer of comfort is considered neutral and is promoted.” Perhaps the real danger in this ongoing celebration of Katy Perry is that it plays into the myth of a “post-gay” society, pushing forward a narration of mainstream acceptance that erases the very much ongoing struggle for actual queer equality beyond state-sanctioned institutions like the military and marriage. As Alexandria Lenzi wrote after Perry’s Super Bowl performance, “The only time I’ve ever seen a football stadium cheer for same-sex attraction is when Katy Perry sang about it at the Super Bowl.”

In today’s political climate, Katy Perry’s Equality Award is probably last on my list of “upsetting things in the news this week,” but I’m annoyed just enough to think about it just enough to definitively say she couldn’t have been a standout candidate. So why was she given the award? Well, obviously the Human Rights Campaign needs to raise money in order to do its work, and these galas are some of the organization’s biggest fundraisers. How does Perry’s presence impact their bottom line, though? Certainly a diehard Katy Perry fan would rather invest in a concert ticket than tickets to a gala where she’s gonna speak for five minutes. But the HRC isn’t just selling tickets in a room, it’s also selling table sponsorships and VIP packages, which sometimes include face time, photo ops, private receptions with or adjacent seating to honored celebrities. This HRC Gala also honored America Ferrera, who was introduced by Lena Dunham (who yes, I know at least half of you have strong negative feelings about), as well as Senator Tim Kaine. But the big money for these events comes from corporate sponsors. Local businesses can pay $12,500 – $50,000 for packages that net them VIP tickets that are often seen as big perks for their employees or potential clients. I’ve been to these galas before as a volunteer or on a press invite, and usually ended up sitting with LGBTQ people who were given tickets by their employers and were very happy about it because galas like this are pretty fun. Free drinks, great food, gift bags, cute outfits, lots of famous people on stage talking about the gays. National Sponsors like Coca Cola, Target and Nike could be especially keen to sign on to an event that honors a bona-fide and non-controversial success like Katy Perry, rather than a more progressive choice that might not sit well with the board.

One thing that’s not up for debate, however, is America Ferrera’s worthiness of the award she was granted for Allyship. So let’s end on an excerpt from her speech, which contained no headline-grabbing disclosures of sexual dalliances with woman, but did address intersectionality and reflect her ongoing dedication to speaking out on social justice issues. Ferrera “fired up the crowd,” according to The Advocate, with this “inspirational moment”:

Anything I’ve ever done on behalf of the LGBTQ community, I did in service to myself. Anything I ever did for the rights of this community I did because I believe — with every fiber of my being — that my liberation is bound up in the liberation of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and in the liberation of my black brothers and sisters, and in the liberation of immigrants, and refugees, and Muslims, and sikhs, and women all over the world, and the incarcerated, and the criminalized, and the uneducated, and the poor, and the hungry, and, and, and, and, and.”

onstage at The Human Rights Campaign 2017 Los Angeles Gala Dinner at JW Marriott Los Angeles at L.A. LIVE on March 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.


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Riese is the 35-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York City and mellowed out in California before returning to Michigan for reasons that are unclear to her now. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2354 articles for us.

47 Comments

  1. 23

    I don’t know if the headline was supposed to sound as bitter as it did in my head, but I loved it.

    I feel like the “gays are magic” comment should be on a bad allies bingo card. I mean we are magic, but it annoys me when non-LGBT say it… I might just be too bitter 😬

    Thank you for ending with Ferrera’s words. They are beautiful!

  2. 37

    I’ve been waiting for the Autostraddle commentary on this event all day. You did not disappoint. Thank you for being one of the few remaining queer publications who has never drunk the Katy Perry Kool aid. The corporate sponsorship angle is spot on, and in regards to the haircut, I think we should know by now that appropriation is Katy’s m.o.

  3. 10

    I have lots of mixed feelings about Katy. She HAS done some good things for the LGBTQ+ community and “I Kissed a Girl” was very important to me at the time but everytime I hear about her winning an award I can’t help but think of all the people who are so much more deserving of every single one. Or at the very least actually LGBTQ+.

  4. 26

    Spot on and nuanced take, thanks Riese. I’m glad this isn’t just a “fuck the HRC” article cuz all the major LGBT orgs have these galas and it’s worth investigating their function. As a former employee of one of these orgs, I saw my colleagues struggle with a lot of the questions you raised here. What’s more important–headlines and ticket/table sales, or awarding someone who is “worthy”? How do you measure worthiness? How can you avoid tokenizing an POC/trans/minority honoree, but also make sure minority LGBT people are recognized for their advocacy? How can you make the same boring gala seem exciting year in and year out? Are these galas worth all the trouble (its an incredible amount of work for staff)? How much does it really matter who the annual honorees are (who is paying attention besides the LGBT press)? Where does all that money raised end up, anyways? I’m glad I don’t work in this world anymore but I’m glad you’re writing about it.

  5. 20

    This put into words a lot of the discomfort I’ve had for years around Katy Perry being hailed as some great ally of our community. I feel like I’m a character in Arrested Development because every time I see Perry being honored I’m just like “Her?”

  6. 14

    You put my thoughts into perfect words! When I heard that Katy Perry had won I was just kind of confused. I’ve never understood why gay organizations have to give so many things (other than ally awards/recognition) to straight people. They’re there to lift up LGBTQ voices, not the same straight cis ones we’ve been hearing our whole life.

  7. 5

    FWIW Jill Sobule went on Howard Stern when Katy Perry’s “I kissed a girl” came out and claimed that she had been contacted by some producers about the song and how it was written to be a hit maker for KP. With that said KP has said numerous times that she wrote the song. She is a puppet of the “music” industry and why people give a f about what she has to say is something I don’t understand.

  8. 11

    YES to all the points you raised.
    I always felt very insulted by ‘I Kissed a Girl’, but nevertheless appreciated the irony when it came on in the background at a party in my very heteronormative university dorms in 2008 when I was making out with a straight girl (who went on to reassert her straightness when I asked her out later). Was that really a decade ago? I’m so old.

  9. 15

    She sounds like she’s in the closet and possibly starting to work her way out of it. I’m not a fan, but I don’t understand why someone who said “I had sex with girls and was messed up by the fundamentalist culture I was raised in and also sexuality isn’t black and white” is probably not a heterosexual.

  10. 6

    i loved katy perry a lot when i was like, 13? i saw her in concert with my best friend in all of her glitter cotton-candy pastel whipped-cream extravaganza glory and it was the wildest night of my tweenage life. and i did my fair share of tweenage scream-singing to “I Kissed a Girl.” i’m just putting that out there as a thing that happened.
    but i’m really done with her and i’m really done with this whole “gay people are magical!!” thing — or rather, sassy twinks on the E! Hollywood red carpet are magical. i doubt katy perry, or other straight celebs who “love the gays!!” are palling around backstage with an entourage of gray-haired biker dykes and black queer theorists and old activists who remember when AIDS was called GRID. those gays aren’t ~magical~ and they don’t look nice in a cotton-candy music video marketed to middle schoolers.
    there’s this whole image straight people have built up that the LGBTQ community is just one big year-round pride parade where we all say “haaay guuurl” and dance to techno and do tequila shots and affirm the shit out of each other and it’s all rainbows and glitter and fun! which is like, yeah, okay, the pride parade is a fun weekend of glitter, liquor, and partial nudity. flash your tits and get free mardi gras beads. hug an adorable twink in a tutu and roller-skates. get told you’re pretty by a troupe of drag queens. smoke pot in front of city hall. forget your troubles, come on, get happy. yay pride! yay gays!
    which is all to say that being gay isn’t a 24/7 fun glitter magical rainbows and unicorns party. it’s a fucking struggle, every day, and it’s hard as shit sometimes even for those of us who are lucky enough to be white and middle-class and live in gay-friendly places with families who love and accept us. it’s still fucking hard to be gay and it’s a political fight every minute of every day and i’m trying to keep my community alive and keep myself alive and struggle against a hostile world and live my damn life and most of the time i am too tired after coming back from a protest to go clubbing with straight girls who “love the gays.”
    i don’t want more pop stars getting awards for telling me i’m magical. it feels hollow and it feels like shit. sorry i’m such a bitter dyke.

  11. 0

    Wow! Thank you so much for mentioning me in the piece. I can’t believe my college op-ed somehow appeared in an article on one of my favorite websites!

    It’s interesting to see how this issue is becoming more complex since Perry released the song. I’m glad she seems to have accepted a more fluid view of her sexuality recently, despite still identifying as straight, but she still wouldn’t be my first pick for such an award. I like how this article explores Perry’s journey and let’s the reader draw their own conclusions. Like Perry’s music, her allyship will mean different things to different people. For me, neither have achieved positive change for the bisexual community, but I do appreciate her donations to LGBTQ causes.

  12. 0

    There’s a lot of bi erasure going on here. By her own words, Katy Perry is not straight. She is not a straight ally, she’s not a straight appropriator of queerness, she is bisexual. Therefore a bona fide member of the LGBTQ community.

    No one has to like the song “I Kissed A Girl,” but I’m not sure how the bisexual themes are “vague.” It’s about a woman who both has a boyfriend and enjoys kissing girls. The only way it could be more explicitly bisexual would be if it were literally called “I am a bisexual human who experiences sexual attraction to people of my own gender and of different genders, because I am bisexual” — and then people would still ask “But wait, are you gay or straight?”

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