Shortly after Hayley Kiyoko’s new year’s tweet dubbing 2018 #20GAYTEEN, fans on social media christened the LA pop star ‘Lesbian Jesus.’ The title, which first appeared on Urban Dictionary in February and has populated numerous headlines since, reveals Kiyoko’s astounding impact on her fans. A 27-year-old singer-songwriter, Kiyoko fits the pop star mold: she’s talented, beautiful, young, unapologetically sexual, and a former child actor. However, she differs from her peers in her complete devotion to exploring LGBTQ+ experiences through her music. Other female pop stars tease bisexuality to bait queer audiences and stoke male fantasies (see Britney Spears’s 2016 video for “Slumber Party” and Katy Perry’s mega-hit “I Kissed a Girl.”) Conversely, Kiyoko identifies as a gay woman and produces music specifically intended to connect with her community. Her songs are swimming with female pronouns, her videos showcase queer romantic relationships, and she frequently speaks out on queer representation in music.
Kiyoko has said that she didn’t set out to become a gay icon or ‘Lesbian Jesus,’ it just sort of happened. She spent years attempting to jumpstart a music career, trying everything from starring in the Disney Channel musical Lemonade Mouth to fronting The Stunners, a band which toured but dissolved before releasing an album. Her debut solo EP, A Belle to Remember, was crowd-funded and, like her other early efforts, met with only moderate success.
Then Kiyoko changed the course of her career with the release of her 2015 music video for ‘Girls Like Girls,’ a single on her sophomore EP, This Side of Paradise. The video, which Kiyoko co-directed, showcased longing between two young women in a way that was relatable to Kiyoko’s fans. The actresses looked like regular teenage girls and their feelings resulted in a happy ending that typically eludes queer couples in media. Lyrics normalizing the girls’ feelings, “girls like girls like boys do” and “I’m real and I don’t feel like boys,” stood out. For the first time, Kiyoko was directly referencing her sexuality and it hit a chord with audiences. ‘Girls Like Girls’ garnered millions of views on YouTube and secured her a contract with Atlantic Records.
Kiyoko dug into her newfound niche for her third EP, Citrine. The songs “Pretty Girl,” and “Ease My Mind” explicitly referred to romances between women and videos for “Gravel to Tempo” and “One Bad Night” showcased individuals in the LGBTQ+ community. Kiyoko also appeared more at home in front of the camera this time around, exhibiting hip-hop flavored swagger alongside her unapologetic homosexuality. The pivot in focus allowed Kiyoko to nurture a quickly growing fanbase of queer women who had rarely before seen their romantic desires reflected so earnestly in pop music.
However, Kiyoko’s dedication to speaking to and up for her fans and the space they inhabit in the world is what’s catapulted her into the celesbian stratosphere. She’s tweeted critically in response to Rita Ora’s coming-out song “Girls” and touted the importance of self-validation over the approval of others. Kiyoko has spoken repeatedly on the need for people who feel underrepresented to speak their truths. In an interview with Elite Daily, Kiyoko explains “I think the reason I'm just continuing to tell my story is because I didn't really have that growing up. I never really had someone that I could 100 percent relate to. It was difficult, to never have that.”
By the time Kiyoko’s latest album and first LP, Expectations, came out, her Lesbian Jesus nickname was canon. The album celebrates her ascension to a gay icon and the fans behind her rise. Released in March 2018, the album delivers catchy and truly enjoyable pop while reveling in the experiences of women who date women. The cover art features a nude female form, lyrics cover longing, lust, rejection and everything in between, and the videos present all forms of sapphic relationships.
In deciding to fill the need for a socially active and politically-minded gay female pop star, Kiyoko’s music is able to connect with, lead, and inspire young queer women specifically. For many fans, Kiyoko is the first celebrity to speak directly to them. By saving them from a status quo in pop music that ignores or misrepresents their desires, Kiyoko delivers hope for a more accepting future. It’s no wonder that fans lovingly refer to her as a prophet delivering the good word. “Lesbian Jesus” is here to stay.