And just like that, we're at another peak cycle of diva appreciation. Since she broke the internet with the "Formation" release at Super Bowl 50 earlier this year, Beyoncé's lyrics have trickled down into the collective Instagram feeds, party playlists and sassy coffee shop conversations surrounding gay white men like me.
Typically, I would see this as another repeated cycle of a pop goddess, one where a new blockbuster hit shifts the boundary of pop reference and serves it on a platter for mass consumption. But this time is different. As a gay white man, "Formation" draws a boundary between appreciation and appropriation. However much I may want to see myself in the quips of her rhymes or snapshots of her dancing, they aren't mine.
Of course, I feel like a devout Beyoncé subject. Growing up in farm country outside of Sacramento, it took me a while to come out. I come from a place where cowboys and soccer moms stand together in the grocery line, where churches outnumber schools, and where your masculinity is measured through either your alcohol tolerance or your skeet record at the local shooting range... thankfully not simultaneously. There, I felt my gender coded in a script I couldn't read, and sought proxies that better coded a softer strength extradited from my hometown gender politics.
When I moved to New York City in 2009, I began reading lines from an entirely different script. "Hey, girl" replaced "hey, dude" as I walked down 23rd Street, and I found myself deep into 90's R&B playlists to try to keep up with all the TLC and Destiny's Child performances at karaoke. I fell in line with white gay male culture, joining the throngs of Manhattan queens who invoked Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce as a surrogate for our own inner flare, our own inner strength.
I best remember my newfound gay citizenship as we collectively mourned Whitney Houston's passing. I looked up from my Hell's Kitchen-poured vodka soda to see a friend of mine under the spotlight on a crowded dance floor, one solitary tear sliding down his cheek while he lip synched "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." Here I was, enshrouded in flare and strength, and I loved it.
Like many gay men, I sought solace in strong, independent black diva culture. This language and culture isn't something I've borrowed, however--it's something I've stolen.
In a widely disseminated column in The Daily Mississippian that later ran in Time magazine in July 2014, University of Mississippi (black, female) senior Sierra Mannie asked gay white men to cut it the hell out. Consuming black female culture (like language) or claiming black female icons (like Beyoncé) is more than just appreciation--it's appropriation. Even if intending to emulate this same independence and strength out of respect, "claiming blackness or womanhood" while being white and male ignores powerful structures of privilege. We become consumers and re-tellers of stories not written for us, "whitewashing and repackaging" the pieces we choose to keep. Mannie is clear: "It is not yours. It is not you."
Mannie's writing sat heavily with me as I spent post-Super-Bowl Monday morning watching Beyoncé's "Formation" video on loop. In that video, Queen Bey struts in her full regalia of undeniable style and unapologetic strength, all draped in the social jewels of feminine sex appeal. It is everything about Beyoncé that validates what I've been taught to love in a diva.
But cutting between razor-sharp rhymes and plantation scenery comes a host of dynamics that have no place for a white farmboy converted to the House of Bey: power systems in New Orleans, the nuance of NOLA's black queer bounce scene and countless references to the interplay of black strength and white oppression. Strength and flare are themselves flawless, but thieving those pieces of identity in stark defiance of their necessity is reckless. In a country where racism oozes through our collective social cord, I do not get to pick and choose. Not here. It is not mine. She is not me.
Yet over the past few weeks, well-intentioned fanboys have still coerced "Formation" lyrics into their social media feeds. I saw a Facebook post quoting Beyoncé's "Givenchy dress" in a tongue-in-cheek comment on enduring poverty for the sake of designer labels. I noticed an Instagram photo of three well-dressed, muscled white men posed to "slay" while on a cigarette break from a posh Manhattan dance floor. Here they are: flare and strength. Whitewashed and repackaged.
"Formation" still gives me chills. Beyoncé's two middle fingers pointed toward the camera fly in the face of conformance and enable the re-writing of scripted roles. And with the drop of "Lemonade," I am still on the edge of my seat for each new presentation of strength and flare. But rather than repurposing quipped lines as headlines into new conversations, we need to use them to explore the depth of those already around us.