“I’m beautiful in my way, ‘cause God makes no mistakes,” Gaga sings, referencing common “coming-out” rhetoric. “I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way.” If this isn’t clear enough, read the bridge: “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgender life. I’m on the right track baby, I was born to survive.” (Gaga herself identifies as bisexual.)
The song drew necessary criticism upon its arrival. Asian American and Latinx listeners were not pleased with Gaga using the words “Orient” and “Chola” in the bridge. It wasn’t OK then, and it’s not now. But the queer criticism around the song is a bit less defined. Detractors of “Born This Way” view the song as pandering and too simplistic; I see things differently. For a mainstream song to explicitly and intentionally embrace queer identity—no matter how “simple”—was revolutionary. “Born This Way” came at a time when discussions about gay teen suicide were reaching all-time highs, and shows like Glee were trying to normalize queer love on screen. Gay identity was still on the fringes of culture, and that very much affected how gay teens lived their lives.
Then, along came “Born This Way,” a song that wasn’t just telling you to “vogue” or be a “firework” or that you’re beautiful. It was screaming at you, in the plainest language possible, that you were queer—magically, perfectly, beautifully queer—and the biggest pop star in the world saw you. Sure, maybe that is simple when examined critically. Maybe “Born This Way’s” success can be partially attributed to the empowerment “trend” of 2010s pop. But to an 18-year-old gay boy growing up in South Carolina, none of that mattered. Hearing my sexual orientation acknowledged on top 40 radio—that was what mattered.
The rest of Gaga’s Born This Way album taps into her love of metaphors. Songs like “Judas” and “Electric Chapel” use religious iconography as conduits for larger themes—and she tackles sex, partying, and other pop tropes with a puzzling, techno-grease gusto only she can pull off. But I’m happy “Born This Way” doesn’t follow this trend. Its simplicity is actually one of its biggest strengths, in my opinion. We talk constantly about how representation matters—how just seeing yourself reflected on screen can do wonders. I know for myself and many, many other queer people, hearing ourselves was just as impactful.
Hearing the words gay, bi, lesbian, and—perhaps most importantly—transgender sung loudly and clearly on a massive pop hit was life-affirming. It was life-changing. And knowing everyone understood it—even the people who scratched their heads at Gaga’s meat dress—made it all the better. I came out to my parents in 2011, and I don’t think I would’ve had “Born This Way” not existed. It was the nudge I needed to step out from the shadows and into my identity. My mom still texts me whenever she hears that booming, bombastic chorus.
Frankly, there hasn’t been a song like it since. Ten years later, and music still hasn’t delivered another mainstream smash that so overtly addresses LGBTQ+ identity. And we need one. Pop-culture, music in particular, is still deeply underserving queer communities. The work isn’t done. Lady Gaga got us on the right track, baby, but there’s still a ways to go.
Christopher Rosa is the entertainment editor at Glamour. Follow him on Twitter @chrisrosa92.