Solidarity—standing up for a group you do not belong to and putting your own comfort aside in the process—is the linchpin to social justice. Historically, however, celebrities have dropped the ball when it comes to supporting and uplifting marginalized communities, and not for lack of trying. Taylor Swift’s music video for her single “You Need To Calm Down” simplified the complex issue of homophobia and queer identity to rainbow makeup and parades while simultaneously funneling money garnered from the performances of queer folk into her own pocket. Celebrities (poorly) sang John Lennon’s “Imagine” while quarantined in their million-dollar mansions to let us know that we were “all in this together” during the early days of the pandemic despite the glaring disparity between their financial and occupational positions and those of the average person. Kendall Jenner’s 2017 Pepsi ad attempted to end police brutality with the gesture of Jenner offering a can of soda to a cop in riot gear.
This year, however, multiple celebrities have stepped up, sometimes risking backlash in the process, to express solidarity with queer folk as anti-LGBTQ+ legislation continues to pass throughout the U.S. Kelsea Ballerini’s performance as co-host of the 2023 Country Music Television Music Awards stands out as a phenomenal example of celebrity advocacy and solidarity. On April 2—just weeks after Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill banning drag performances in public—Ballerini performed her song, “IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOIN’ DOWN TOO)” on the stage of the CMT Music Awards alongside four drag queens. This country anthem—teeming with lyrics like “dirt on you is dirt on me” and “if it all blows up and we end up on the news / if you go down, I’m goin’ down too”—proclaims a rich and poignant message: We all must stand with the queer community, especially now.
Nearly five and a half million country music fans throughout the nation tuned in to watch the awards, making Ballerini’s choice to highlight drag queens on such a vast stage a gutsy move. In an interview with ET, the four queens who danced alongside Ballerini—Olivia Lux, Jan Sport, Kennedy Davenport, and Manila Luzon—expressed gratitude for the opportunity to perform with her. Lux emphasized that the song itself is about the “celebration of being a community” and expressed that she felt that message was internalized by those watching the performance.
“Just like all of these amazing country music artists, we, drag queens, are also artists, and we deserve a space to be ourselves, express ourselves, and create something wonderful for everyone to enjoy,” Luzon said.
The performance itself was simple, sweet, and fun. Ballerini, her band, and the four performers—dressed in colorful ’60s pinup style outfits with teased hair to match—lounged and chatted on a grass lawn adorned with a white picket fence. A screen behind the performers depicted a lineup of traditional suburban homes that change to different colors of the rainbow with the beat of the music. The performers came together to dance around Ballerini, finishing out the performance against a rainbow background, confetti falling onto the audience. The simple yet effective performance emphasized her message calling for support for drag during a time when the art form is at risk.
Historically, country music has garnered a more conservative-leaning audience. One study found that people who follow congressional conservatives on Twitter are more likely to follow country musicians than musicians of any other genre. Tennessee is particularly vital to the country music scene as its capital, Nashville, is commonly known as the birthplace of country music. Ballerini chose to use the CMT stage to highlight drag performance in a space filled with the same people who support its banning. In making such a statement, Ballerini risked losing a portion of her 10 million monthly listeners, the source of her livelihood.
Ballerini is not the only celebrity using her platform and audience to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community. Two weeks ago, it was announced that Daniel Radcliffe has partnered with the Trevor Project to moderate a new online streaming series, Sharing Space, where six young trans and nonbinary people share their experiences, joys, and needs, as well as what they hope to see from the world in the future.
Radcliffe has been outspoken about his support of the trans community since even before J. K. Rowling—the creator of the Harry Potter franchise which kickstarted Radcliffe’s career—began putting out her extremely transphobic and harmful ideas about gender and womanhood. By continuing to speak out in support of trans youth and trans lives, Radcliffe is risking the fanbase and relationships that defined his public image. Like Ballerini, Radcliffe’s activism acknowledges that standing in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community ought to be considered above all else.
On March 31, a federal judge temporarily blocked Tennessee’s ban on drag performances, deciding that the state had failed to provide a compelling argument for the law’s necessity. This decision comes as the result of the hard work of local LGBTQ+ activists, waves of protestors, organizations like the Memphis group Friends of George who filed the lawsuit against the ban, and, of course, drag performers. Yet the fight is nowhere near over. The Tennessee bill’s blockage is only temporary, and other states continue to draft legislation just like it. But Ballerini’s meaningful performance at a critical time helps prove that drag will not disappear from the public eye so easily.
At the end of the day—despite the great work of these influential allies—real progress comes from the activism of LGBTQ+ people and allies who risk their lives to stand up for their rights. If you find the time to stream a song, see a show, donate a few dollars, or volunteer your time, use that to support drag performers or queer people in your community. Simply streaming Ballerini’s single is not enough. If hateful bills are being presented in your own state, research their impact, contact your legislators, and find authentic queer voices fighting them on the ground to support and listen. But after that, turn up the volume and blast “IF YOU GO DOWN (I’M GOIN DOWN TOO).”