Fifteen years ago on the New York City radio station Hot 97, on-air personality Wendy Williams became infamous for her hateful witch hunt for "the gay rapper." She compiled a list of performers whom she suspected of being homosexual and made insinuating about them a daily sport.
Last week on the very same radio station, the legendary DJ Mister Cee went on air and admitted to having sexual contact with transwomen and gender non-conforming people* (my words, not his). His admission came on the heels of several arrests for soliciting sex from transgender prostitutes and a video blogger's release of a sexual negotiation he'd had with a man. The station refused to accept his resignation and its program director, Ebro Darden, insisted that he was free throughout the DJ's tearful exploration of his sexual identity. In Hot 97-sanctioned PSA out this week, Mister Cee talked about the risks of having same-sex desire in hip-hop:
The decision that I have made to open up about my sexuality has defintely been the most difficult thing that I've ever had to do in my life. ... For me, I felt worried about how my family would be affected, how my coworkers and my friends, and even my fans would be affected by this decision because in this hip-hop community of ours it's not cool to be gay, it's not cool to be bisexual. I felt that if I was to actually be honest with myself that nobody would want to deal with me anymore. But the more that I kept lying and trying to deceive you and myself, the more I was closed in and not really being who I really am.
Cee's high-profile admission--and the institutional support he received from the biggest hip-hop station in the country--begs the question: Has the business of hip-hop evolved in its treatment of homosexuality? I asked industry insiders, activists and thinkers for their take. Here's what they told me:
Filmmaker Byron Hurt, who tackled homophobia in hip-hop in his documentary "Hip-Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes" believes that the hip-hop industry has been influenced by the wider world: "I think the culture in general is changing and we are more accepting of people who identify as LGBT," he says. "It's becoming more commonplace to see celebrities come out. President Obama, Jay-Z and T.I. have spoken publicly in favor of gay marriage. Frank Ocean's coming out has helped. So the culture is shifting in meaningful ways, which I think makes [the industry] more accepting."
Vibe Deputy Editor Clover Hope says every example of acceptance counts: "I think it's a power move for a big hip-hop station to accept and to even just talk about [sexuality]," she says. "People are always afraid of backlash, of being blacklisted, but the more people see examples of people who have come out and are still working, people like Frank Ocean, the more hip-hop will open up."
Author and HuffPost Live Host Dr. Marc Lamont Hill sees a subtle shift in framework of the discussion: "I thought Mister Cee's [admission] marked a really powerful turn in hip-hop culture. When Wendy Williams was on the radio she was looking for a gay interloper in the culture. This time, the [station] wasn't trying to shame and out Mister Cee. The message was, 'Live your truth.'"
BET Digital Director of Music, Celebrity and Lifestyle Shani Saxon-Parrish says industry acceptance has its limits: "Hot 97 sets an example for the rest of the industry. People can see that we're still looking at Mister Cee as the legend that he is and it will be less of a stretch to support rappers who are gay," she says. "But we're still in a place where it's very, very hard to market a gay rapper and not segregate them. For real change to take place, the industry would need an established, already celebrated artist to come out. There would need to be someone whose talent and authenticity couldn't be denied. We also need for old-ass hip-hop heads to change their minds. We hear young people like A$AP Rocky being accepting, we see Frank Ocean. But the old hip-hop heads, the keepers of the culture are still saying it's not hip-hop to be gay."
Activist and writer Darnell Moore believes gender presentation plays a role in acceptance: "My question is, what elements are necessary for a hip-hop community to support someone?" he asks. "What type of person is OK? Would a femme performing brother or a masculine lesbian be accepted? That's the tricky part."
*Post has been updated since publication