Trying too hard to find meaning in a piece of viral content is often a fool’s errand: Occasionally a bit of digital ephemera can reveal something deeper about our culture, but more often, #AlexFromTarget is just a weird product of our networked brains. However, the more I consider another recent example—15-year-old local-news background voguer Brendan Jordan—the more I think it falls somewhere in the former category, at least in the context of contemporary gay politics.
Jordan’s original entrée into Internet culture surely sashayed into one of your feeds in recent weeks: A couple of Las Vegas TV journalists think they are reporting on the opening of a new mall, and suddenly, a striking figure emerges from the crowd behind them—piercing eyes, pursed lips, hip cocked outward to an angle not dreamt of in masculine philosophy. Then, the figure begins to dance, his choreography a smoldering take on Lady Gaga, his printed tights a fetching modernist grid. When a girl gets in his way, he implodes her soul with a flash of “stank face,” and he just generally steals the show. This, world, is Brendan Jordan.
After that video-bomb went viral, Jordan found himself where all good Internet sensations end up—on a daytime talk show. This time, it was Queen Latifah who found her camera hijacked; the host’s halting attempts to make sense of her guest were no match for Jordan’s wildly effeminate gesticulations and queenly ejaculations of “fashion!” this and “oooh yaasss” that. In this case, he not only stole the show; he convinced everyone—Latifah, his family, the studio audience, the whole of social media—that he deserves his own.
That was last week. This week, Jordan has run with the momentum, launching a YouTube channel that looks like it will follow the model of other “Internet celebrities” like Tyler Oakley, featuring Q&A’s, favorite product lists, lifestyle tips, etc. But before Jordan becomes just another well-managed cog in that rapidly growing machine, I want to pause for a moment to consider why, exactly, this wonderfully strange kid from Nevada has proved so captivating, especially to the gay media and community.
We are undeniably in a moment where cultural assimilation—or at least the appearance of it—is the main thrust of gay politics. Difference is meant to be downplayed, supposedly harmful stereotypes about effeminacy discarded. But then, here is Jordan, thrusting his hips in a completely different direction. According to his first YouTube channel video, Jordan does identify as gay (he rolls his eyes incredulously at the question), and he expresses his version of that identity in a way we have long been told is inappropriate, or at best, out of fashion. He is loud, he is flamboyant, he is Jack McFarland-like, he is stereotypical—in a word, he is a massive, unapologetic queen. We have been told that his kind is a relic of the dark and backward past; and yet, here is a new royal, only just growing into her crown. She is clearly not embodying some kind of retrograde nostalgia; no, she is expressing a fundamental mode of gayness on her own terms—and if all the attention Jordan is garnering is any indication, it’s one we have started to miss.
It’s also a mode, though, that we clearly don’t quite know what to do with anymore. The Latifah interview, if I can tag such a surreal exchange of energy and bewilderment with that term, is remarkable, in that Latifah manages to never explain exactly why this amazingly queer kid is on her show. She literally stutters trying to qualify his existence, and never quite gets there. (The closest Latifah comes is by bringing in drag performer Raven as, presumably, some kind of comparative tool.) Not once does anyone in the segment mention Jordan’s sexuality, which is quite a feat, considering that for the whole of the seven minutes they are practically swimming in it. When asked about his “boldness,” Jordan’s mom is at a loss: “He’s just always like this. He always has been. He was born to be … this.”
What “this” is, exactly, is the key to Jordan’s appeal. To be clear, he is experiencing this brush with fame precisely—only—because he is delightfully queer. But because it is now impolitic to connect homosexuality to a queenly gay sensibility, “this” cannot be openly expressed. Add that to Latifah’s own troubled relationship to gayness, and the entire segment reads as a deeply impressive balancing act between attraction and avoidance.
On the one hand, it’s fair to think of Brendan Jordan as just some hyperactive kid who danced his way into minor celebrity. But then again, he can only enjoy that spotlight with our cooperation: There are plenty of show-offs on the Internet; he broke through for a reason. Jordan’s fame, however silly, is heartening to me. It suggests that perhaps in our pursuit of “just like you” normalcy, we’ve overcorrected at the expense of an important aspect of gay culture. To be sure, not all gays should (or even can) be like Jordan; but many are. They are not faking it, and they are valuable. As much as many of us hate on the queen figure—just look at the comment sections under Jordan’s videos—we clearly also want him around: Our clicks say that much.
The cognitive dissonance would be amusing if it weren’t so frustrating. But the good news is, queens like Jordan have always existed, and despite the efforts of some, clearly they will continue to. Our task is to give them not only the applause, but also the respect they deserve.