Prince: Gay Icon, Whether He Wanted to Be or Not

How to reconcile his later conservatism with the sexual liberation he stood for earlier in life?

Prince standing at a microphone, holding a guitar, in the rain.
Mike Blake / Reuters

In 2008, the New Yorker writer Claire Hoffman asked Prince what he thought of social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Reported Hoffman of his response: “Prince tapped his Bible and said, ‘God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’”

This exchange caused one of the last great controversies in Prince’s career. The “homophobe” label attached itself to him, accompanied by the bitter shock of many fans. “The irony, it burns,” wrote the blogger Joe Jervis. “The pop star who made his name on his effete, androgynous ‘Is he GAY or not?’ persona—now he hates us.” Representatives for Prince would tell Perez Hilton that the New Yorker misquoted him: “What His Purpleness actually did was gesture to the Bible and said he follows what it teaches, referring mainly to the parts about loving everyone and refraining from judgment,” Hilton wrote. But the years after that saw Prince actively avoid talking about gay rights, and some writers saw subtle homophobia in a few of his later lyrics and actions.

The question of how someone whose art once seemed to preach the very idea of “sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever”—with magazines, etc.—could become so conservative is both fundamentally unanswerable and very simple. People change, and who knows why? Prince became a devout Jehovah’s Witness in the early 2000s, after which his performances often featured toned-down versions of the lyrics to his raciest songs. As he told Arsenio Hall in 2014, “When you’re 20 years old, you’re looking for the ledge ... You want to see how far you can push everything ... and then you make changes. There’s a lot of things I don’t do now that I did 30 years ago. And then there’s some things I still do.”

But whatever his later beliefs were, they pretty clearly don’t undo the earlier impact he had in widening popular notions about sex and gender, nor the fact that he made lots of people who weren’t heterosexual feel better about themselves. The remembrances of him that are flooding in after the news of his death at age 57 take the queer dimensions of his influence as settled fact. Here’s Dodai Stewart at Fusion, opening her meditation on his life:

Dig, if you will, a picture: The year is 1980. Many states still have sodomy laws. The radio is playing feel-good ear candy like Captain and Tennille and KC and the Sunshine Band. TV hits include the sunny, toothy blond shows Three’s Company and Happy Days. There’s no real word for “gender non-conforming.” But here’s what you see: A man. Clearly a man. Hairy, mostly naked body, cock bulging beneath a satiny bikini bottom. But those eyes. Rimmed in black, like a fantasy belly dancer. The full, pouty lips of a pin-up girl. Long hair. A tiny, svelte thing. Ethnically ambiguous, radiating lust. What is this? A man. Clearly a man. No. Not just a man. A Prince.

Stewart goes on to write about how even though Prince’s lyrical viewpoint was almost always heterosexual—his songs were about men wanting women and women wanting men—he was unafraid of being called feminine, gay, or perverted. “If I Was Your Girlfriend” was a fantasy of gender swapping and lesbianism. “Controversy,” famously, sniffed at the simplistic questions directed at him: “Am I black or white, am I straight or gay?” So did “I Would Die 4 U”: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” Even as recently as 2015, a Boy George joke about having had sex with Prince seemed so plausible as to be widely misunderstood as a serious confession.

The meaning of Prince’s provocations will be dissected for a long time, but there’s no debating that they had a concrete influence on queer people. One of the more poignant reactions to Prince’s death has come from the young R&B singer Frank Ocean, who has had perhaps the most famous coming-out of recent musical history. “[Prince] was a straight black man who played his first televised set in bikini bottoms and knee-high heeled boots, epic,” Ocean wrote. “He made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity.”

Of course, his earlier influence doesn’t necessarily excuse Prince if you find his latter-day attitudes to be disheartening. But read back on the New Yorker piece from 2008, and you might get a more sympathetic picture of what Prince’s deeper intentions on the issue might have been:

“Here’s how it is: You’ve got the Republicans, and basically they want to live according to this.” He pointed to a Bible. “But there’s the problem of interpretation, and you’ve got some churches, some people, basically doing things and saying it comes from here, but it doesn’t. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum you’ve got blue, you’ve got the Democrats, and they’re, like, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Gay marriage, whatever. But neither of them is right.”

Neither of them is right. In politics, as in so many things, Prince was trying to transcend the binary. This led him to a stance on queer people that, at best, can be described as confusing. Perhaps he saw that the conversation on the issue had become too rote, too obvious, with much of the transgressive edge behind calls for liberation drained away by the simple march of progress. It was progress he helped cause, regardless of how he later felt about it.