"'Oh, this fag can rap?' Yeah, they saying that, they listening."

The lyrics are from the Harlem-based MC Mykki Blanco. But the sentiment expressed in her after-hours party anthem "Wavvy" is shared by other pioneering rappers who bristle at being defined by their sexual orientation—even as it helps bring attention to their work.

The seven artists in this portfolio are wildly diverse, but they're all about as far from the down-low as possible. In the "Wavvy" video, Blanco evolves from a male street tough in a backwards Raiders cap to a vamping glamazon in stilettos. When the rap duo House of Ladosha played New York City in July, Dosha Devastation accentuated her beard with a leopard-print sarong, gold hoop earrings, and a waist-length wig; Cunty Crawford Ladosha, all six feet eleven of him, rocked In Living Color Fly Girl-style biker shorts; and the group closed with their calling card, "B.M.F.," short for "black model famous," a paean to being as fabulous as Naomi Campbell. Artists such as these—once confined to gay clubs and art-world openings—are inching toward the mainstream.

Of course, they stand to benefit from the actions of Frank Ocean, a member of the Odd Future collective (which also includes Syd tha Kid, who's openly lesbian) who came out in July through an offhand missive on his Tumblr. Ocean's revelation made waves, but the backlash was more subdued than many had expected. "The fans are more tolerant," says the rap impresario Russell Simmons. "A catalyst with courage like Frank Ocean making public statements like that can flourish."

But a sea change was under way even before Ocean's disclosure. In March, the Grammy-nominated producer Diplo featured the New Orleans bounce rapper Nicky Da B on the dance-floor burner "Express Yourself." Earlier this year, House of Ladosha opened for Azealia Banks (who came out as bisexual in February). In April, the New York native Le1f released his debut mixtape, Dark York, to critical praise from music authorities like The Fader. "We've gotten attention not just for being gay rappers," Le1f says, "but for being particularly progressive rappers."

At Paris Fashion Week in March, Zebra Katz's minimalist, menacing "Ima Read" became a sensation. The song is a sly reference to Paris Is Burning, the 1990 documentary of vogue culture, which defined reading as "the real artform of insult." But whereas the Harlem queens in Paris Is Burning carved out a separatist society by necessity, only to see their culture co-opted by Madonna, Inc., the new wave of queer rappers are bringing their art, undiluted, straight to the masses. Take Cakes Da Killa's description of the cover for his debut EP, Easy Bake Oven: "I have nut all over my face. It looks like a porno shot. I was kind of going for that."

These boundary-breaking artists are hardly the first gay MCs. "There's always been a 'queer' presence in hip-hop," says Andreana Clay, the author of The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back, citing out-and-proud acts like Deep Dickollective and Yo Majesty. Then, Clay adds, "there are artists like André 3000 and Lil Wayne, who vacillate between challenging and upholding a hypermasculine identity—these performers have helped create a space for 'out' identities in the mainstream."

But acceptance has been hard-won. While strains of resistant homophobia still run through reggae, country, and metal, rap is responsible for the most explicitly antigay rants to ever go platinum, from Eazy E ("This is one faggot that I had to hurt") to Eminem ("Hate fags? The answer's 'yes'") to Cam'ron's popularization of the phrase "No Homo"—which Chris Brown directed at Ocean. Yet some surprising members of the hip-hop community rushed to Ocean's defense, like 50 Cent, who told reporters, "Anyone who has an issue with Frank Ocean is an idiot."

Ultimately, the artists in this portfolio are linked by their sexuality, but queerness is not a genre of music. It's just one facet of who they are—and just one way in which they're pushing hip-hop forward.

• • •

The Pioneers
 

Mykki Blanco

Le1f

Nicky Da B
 

House of Ladosha

Cakes Da Killa

Big Dipper