“Smile”, the queer hope of 4:44

Parents want their children to do better than them in life. For obvious reasons, Gloria Carter, Jay Z’s mother, must be a very proud one. She’s featured on a song on his new album, 4:44, called Smile, about how a rough past makes a brighter future even better. It’s also Ms. Carter’s coming-out as a lesbian, which is met by his son with compassion, love, and “tears of joy”.

4:44 was released on the last day of Pride Month, which also saw Germany legalizing same-sex marriage. Despite some distressing steps in the wrong direction — see: the 2016 US election — and even though any semblance of equality is still a long way off, the clouds keep slowly parting. Sure, it’s still impossible to be yourself in many places around the globe, and even in the most accepting circles, your experience will vary significantly depending on things like class, gender and race. Still, while it is certainly not enough, it is undeniable that we have seen unprecedented progress happen in the last few decades.

Pride is a prime time to reflect upon these achievements, which always makes me think of those whose voices we sometimes heed the least: older queer people. How do they feel about all this? Are they thrilled they have lived to see so many changes? Are they furious that they haven’t seen enough? Of course, there’s probably a host of answers to these questions as diverse as the LGBT community itself. Are they happy that their queer descendants get to grow up in much better circumstances? Or bitter that they themselves did not? Or a mixture of both?

Jay Z is a straight man, by all accounts, but we see this progress in his response to his mother’s queerness. Of course, we don’t know everything that happened between Jay’s first acknowledgement of her sexuality and the present day, but in this song, he’s just happy that she has found love. He urges her to put her true self on display, no matter what people think. The track ends with a poem read by Gloria, in which she gives up a life in the shadows for the warmth of love and freedom: “But life is short, and it’s time to be free / Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed /Smile”.

How sweet is that? After so many years, she can step into the light on her own terms now. And all that matters is the width of her smile as she does it.

In a rapidly changing world, pop culture examples like Smile or the last three seasons of Girls — another one that comes to mind — are introducing a kind of story I couldn’t be more excited about: liberal kids dealing with the comings-out of their baby-boomer parents, who didn’t grow up with the social support that exists today, and, like in the song, crying tears of joy for them.

And wouldn’t that be something? A world in which parents no longer have to tell their panicked kids after a clumsy, half-whispered speech that they still love them, but where queer children grow up taking this for granted, and one day look at their parents and go “I know. I always have. And you don’t need to hide anymore. Smile”.

Image: Heavy.com


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