A muddy cobblestone path weaves its way through half-dead wildflowers, leading you to the lip of a forest. You take your first steps onto the damp earth, listen to the soft crunch of leaves and twigs beneath your feet. The forest seems to inhale and exhale with every step you take. Robins perched in the branches watch you with beady, still eyes. You allow the fog to lead you along a path blanketed by moss. You know there is something alive about this place, sentient and knowing, beckoning you to a place unknown, but wanted. No, not wanted – needed, desperately, leaving you gasping and thirsty.
Girthy church bells bellow in the distance, beckoning you further into the endless greenery. What you’re searching for is so close. You can feel it.
Suddenly, the trees part their branches. You are Moses, drawing back the Red Sea to reveal a dark secret. It’s then that you see it: a cathedral as tall as heaven with stained glass windows and grey stone that blends into the endless sky above. Within its wooden doors stands a woman. You know her from your dreams. She is perfect. She smiles at you with the softness of a late spring day and extends her hand to you.
And then, a voice in the distance begins chanting so quietly that it more resembles a faint, imagined thought rather than an audible sound, and you hear words being sung:
No masters or kings when the ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am human
Only then I am clean
Amen, Amen, Amen
Your eyes widen. Your breath hitches. You would recognize the melody anywhere. This is Irish singer-songwriter Hozier’s 2013 hit single “Take Me To Church”.
You take the woman’s hand. Together, you walk into the cathedral. Nothing feels as holy or sacred as the flesh of her fingers against yours. Neither of you speak, for there is no need – her eyes, washing over you with the intensity of a mighty ocean, say everything that needs to be said. The doors close behind you. Hozier’s voice fades into the forest, returning to where it came from.
So. I couldn’t have been the only 16-year-old girl who heard this song for the first time in 2013 and had this vivid fantasy?
If you’re a human being with internet connection, you know that Andrew John Hozier-Byrne, better known as Hozier, has quite the enthusiastic fanbase of queer women in his corner. A quick scroll through Hozier’s tag on Tumblr or Twitter shows LGBTQ fans — mostly lesbian, bisexual, and pansexual women — sharing memes, tweets, and inside jokes about Hozier being possessed by a lesbian witch. For his part, Hozier has eagerly accepted the mantle of lesbian icon. “I’m becoming more and more informed of my lesbian cult following,” Hozier said in a 2018 Tumblr Q&A session. “You guys are amazing.” He’s held up various pride flags at his concerts, and he supports his queer fans regularly on social media, whether it’s a simple and funny acknowledgment that he sees and loves them, or a comment on a more serious topic within the LGTBQ community.
There are a plethora of queer female artists who have cemented themselves as gay icons, both in underground indie circles and on a larger, more public scale: Janis Ian, Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge, King Princess, Hayley Kiyoko, girl in red, Pheobe Bridgers, and Mitski, to name a few. But it’s one thing to be a gay artist, and quite another to be a “gay icon.” There’s a long history of ostensibly heterosexual musicians garnering cult followings of gay fans. This is especially true of straight female artists and gay male fans — think Judy Garland and Carly Rae Jepsen. Who gets to be a “gay icon” has less to do with a star’s own sexuality than their persona and social impact. Perhaps the adversities they’ve faced, such as addiction or public shaming, tap into feelings of struggle and ostracization shared by the LGBTQ community. Perhaps they ascribe to a particular aesthetic that borrows from campy queer fashion and imagery. Or, in the case of Hozier, perhaps their music, about yearning for a secret and divine love and all the first-time, delicate, and shy emotions that come with it, is what can’t keep the gays away.
Lesbians have historically embraced men like James Dean and everyone’s favourite dad rock pioneer, Bruce Springsteen, as icons. Dean, who is believed to have been bisexual, garnered lesbian fans via his influence on butch fashion in the 1950s. Springsteen’s classic song about wanting someone you can’t have, “I’m On Fire”, downright reeks of queer desire. As writer Natalie Adler once wrote, “Springsteen’s ‘butch persona’ allows him to reveal the smoke and mirrors behind the construct of masculinity. It also allows him a sense of empathy.” Harry Styles, by hinting at sexual fluidity, has also attracted a sizeable fanbase of queer women. Still, it’s rarer for lesbians to adopt a man as an icon than for gay men to adopt a pop diva. So when a gentleman does sweep up the attention of queer women, my interest is piqued: why do we love him? And how did he capture our hearts?
As a bisexual woman and Hozier fan myself, I’ve certainly listened to “Run” and envisioned myself vehemently bounding through a moss-coated forest to find my long lost wife. I’ve played the deliciously sensual “NFWMB” and pictured the “Buff Bunny vs. Small Bunny” Twitter meme, imagining my crush as the “Buff Bunny” and myself as the “Small Bunny.” I’ve gotten lost in the cascading acoustic guitar of “Like Real People Do” and dreamed of a gentle slow dance between childhood best friends turned lovers — both women, of course.
What is it about Hozier that that draws queer women in like serene waves to a lonely shore? Is it his perfectly rugged aesthetic? His siren-like vocals, produced to sound like he’s singing in an echo chamber? His presence on social media, equal parts hilarious and politically aware? Or, is there something larger and unseen at play, something in the essence of a Hozier song that queer fans can easily relate to?
I have my theories, ones that I’m positive are shared by other LGBTQ Hozier fans. I should first, of course, start at the very beginning, back in 2013, when Hozier started his career with a big queer bang. The video for “Take Me To Church” depicted a gay couple subjected to the attacks of a homophobic hate group. Hozier has said that the song and video were a direct response to the anti-LGBTQ laws being set in Russia at the time, meaning the song did have a strong, intentional queer narrative and wasn’t secretly hiding in subtext. The song wasted no time in solidifying itself as a gay anthem. One lyric — “I was born sick, you heard them say it” — later becomes, “I was born sick, but I love it.” When Hozier shuns church and urges listeners to “worship in the bedroom,” LGBTQ listeners can undoubtedly relate.
“The song is very much about sexuality,” Hozier said in a 2015 interview. “But the song more deals with the religious organizations that would undermine a very natural part of the human experience… [T]he song more references the Catholic church, but I suppose that the chorus is an ideology that would undermine every natural, wonderful part about being a person.”
At the time of the song’s release, I was in the eleventh grade, a baby bisexual too afraid of the word ‘bisexual’ to actually use it to describe myself back then. When I heard the song, I fell in love — but I was confused, too. How could a song written and sung by a straight man capture my experience as a queer woman so perfectly? It wasn’t until I was older that I realized Hozier wasn’t trying to emulate the perspective of a queer woman; rather, he was authentically and soulfully singing from his own experience, but his use of she/her pronouns within the song built a bridge to an audience of queer women. The idea of worshipping and praising the woman he loves like she’s a deity, even while oppressive outside forces conspire to keep her away — it speaks to queer women, even if it’s delivered by a straight man.
The many allusions to biblical stories and mythology in Hozier’s lyrics also contribute to his gay following. Mythology, particularly Greek mythology, is, as we all know, inherently gay. “Movement” is about watching a woman Hozier is enamored with dance, with the lyric “Honey, you, you’re Atlas in his sleepin’”. In Greek myth, Atlas is the Titan who holds up the world on his shoulders, and the Earth is generally perceived to be a feminine symbol, as Hozier likely compares his lover to stability and strength. In “Talk”, Hozier gets a little more carnal by using a short reference to the myth of Orpheus, who travels to the underworld to reunite with his dead lover Eurydice, only to lose her once more when he turns around to look back at her as he exits the underworld, something Hades forbade him from doing, making Hozier’s temptation and sexual desire to be with his woman all the more difficult to resist. Hozier interpolates these mysterious literary figures and divine tragic heroes to illuminate his emotions – and like the stories he features, most are about admiring or pining after the women at the center of them. Witches and magical women are widely known to be a symbol of queer femininity, so it isn’t a surprise that Hozier’s own witchy and magical aura would be compelling.
His mythic descriptions of women and femininity are reminiscent of the way, say, Sappho or Dickinson would write about women aching sexually and romantically other women. Sappho once wrote, “In the crooks of your body, I found my religion;” I hear an echo of her spirit when Hozier sings, “The only Heaven I’ll be sent to is when I’m alone with you.” In a letter to her sister-in-law and lover, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, Emily Dickinson wrote, “And I do love to run fast — and hide away from them all; here in dear Susie’s bosom, I know is love and rest…” Hozier matches her longing in his song, “Run,” one of my favourites: “Rare is this love, keep it covered, I need you to run to me, run to me, lover.” Like Dickinson and Sappho, Hozier paints a soft, watercolour picture of a love so rare and special it must be kept as a secret for lovers to savour.
I spoke with my good friend Hailey, a lesbian and Hozier fan, about why she thought Hozier has attracted such a loyal audience of queer women. She begins with the obvious: “Take Me To Church,” an anthem of gay love. “He criticizes the church that was used for oppression, while also praising this feeling of maybe God being the way he feels about this girl,” she says. “That’s powerful.”
Hailey also mentions Hozier’s respect and admiration for women. “Hozier has big ‘Respect Women Juice’ energy, but his love songs aren’t cookie cutter mainstream conventional love tropes. So, I think lesbians find that relatable and appealing. His music makes that unique feeling come to life.”
The tenderness of his lyrics also creates a safe romantic environment for wide-eyed baby gays discovering love for the very first time. Kealy Koritko, a 19-year-old bisexual woman, explains: “I like the soft and loving energy. Even his songs about sex are so much of that ‘making love’ vibe.”
I noticed both Hailey and Koritko both touched on something intangible: that feeling present in Hozier’s sound, the thing that speaks to queer women like a siren song. Maybe it isn’t always perfectly visible or easy to articulate to a heterosexual audience, but it’s there, in subtext and in heart. This “feeling loving” atmosphere that Koritko described can come alive in young queer girls who haven’t had any romantic experiences with other girls, whether due to fear of coming out or lack of a queer social circle.
“Romantic relationships are sort of new,” Hailey tells me. “You didn’t get to practice growing up, and there aren’t stereotypical gender roles that apply – ‘Do I approach her? Do I wait for her to approach me?’ Which is the typical default, since women are taught to be passive and wait to be wanted.”
And isn’t this the wider importance of Hozier’s music making queer women feel seen? Making them feel as though they can run through their own hazy forest into the arms of a woman they’ve been dreaming about? Letting their young hearts explore that desire even if they haven’t experienced it in real life yet? Hozier’s anthem of unashamedly basking in forbidden love in the face of oppression is what started it all. To put it simply, he just gets it.
Anyway, back to that woman in the woods. After the gray clouds looming over the cathedral have drifted apart, as rays of pale light bleed in through the tall glass windows, she grasps your hand once more. She leads you gently outside. She moves so gracefully, floating above the cobblestones. There’s nothing that can touch her, nothing that can take her from you.
The sun above is dazzling, but not domineering. The ground is damp with dew, and the unkempt grass is lush and green. A kaleidoscope of colours gather in a soft bed, a meadow in the middle of a small hill. She runs up to it, playfully laughing and looking back over her shoulder at you. You smile. You follow her with no hesitation. You climb to her as though mounting the stairs to heaven — or at the very least, a place only made for you two.
You join hands, standing face to face, smiling so wide your cheeks hurt. Once more, an enchanting voice backed by a glorious gospel chorus begins to sing in the distance:
Each day, you’d rise with me
Know that I would gladly be
The Icarus to your certainty
Oh, my sunlight, sunlight, sunlight
Strap the wing to me
Death trap clad happily
With wax melted, I’d meet the sea
Under sunlight, sunlight, sunlight
You nod to yourself, recognizing the tune. It is Hozier’s 2019 song “Sunlight.” Its fluid guitars flutter in the air like insects, and you both descend to the soft bed of flowers together, laying down side by side, facing one another. You both use your elbows as pillows, propping your heads on them, assuming the gay girl pose. The woman closes her eyes, her long eyelashes casting the tiniest of spidery shadows on her cheeks underneath the sunlight. You beam with bliss. Hozier continues to sing, his voice bouncing off of the trees and echoing up into the sky. You are exactly where you are meant to be.