Was Prince a homophobe? Probably. How much does that matter?

In the wake of the passing of the great singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer Prince, we’ve seen multiple discussions of his work’s overt, unapologetic exploration of human sexuality. Just as importantly, the man’s flamboyant embrace of masculinity, femininity, and the grey spaces in between helped give a new generation of young people — including and especially young black kids — explore their own relationships with sexuality and gender expression.

But his legacy here isn’t entirely uncomplicated. Later in life, decades after coyly singing, “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” he made remarks that had bewildered fans asking: Wait. Is Prince, of all people, a homophobe?

In 2008 — several years after becoming a practicing Jehovah’s Witness — Prince gave an interview to The New Yorker’s Claire Hoffman. In that interview, he said, “you’ve got the Republicans, and basically they want to live according to this,” pointing at a Bible. Then he went on to say:

“But there’s the problem of interpretation, and you’ve got some churches, some people, basically doing things and saying it comes from here, but it doesn’t. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum you’ve got blue, you’ve got the Democrats, and they’re, like, ‘You can do whatever you want.’ Gay marriage, whatever. But neither of them is right.”

The interviewer went on to ask for his view on social issues such as gay rights, and Prince responded with a rather more overtly homophobic remark: “God came to earth and saw people sticking it wherever and doing it with whatever, and he just cleared it all out. He was, like, ‘Enough.’”

The remarks, on top of being offensive, were baffling. Prince, pop music’s avatar of unapologetic sexual freedom, was now condemning those who sought the freedom to “stick it wherever and do it with whatever.” He later claimed to have been misquoted, but patently refused to disavow those supposedly misquoted statements or clarify what he actually said or meant.

Then, in 2013, he seemed to put any doubts about his views to rest with his song, “Da Bourgeoisie”:

Yesterday I saw you kicking it with another girl,
You was all wrapped up around her waist,
Last time I checked, you said you left the dirty world,
Well it appears that wasn’t the case.
Hey, I see you undercover like the CIA,
Snatching little wigs from another bouquet,
I guess a man’s only good for a rainy day,
Maybe you’re just another bearded lady at the cabaret.
I wish I never kissed your (loud spit) 

Many public figures and entertainers make statements, overt or artistic, earlier in life that they ultimately distance themselves from. The also recently-deceased Merle Haggard, for instance, came to regret — at least in part — the message behind his anti-anti-Vietnam War “Okie from Muskogee,” saying by 1990 that he sometimes wished he hadn’t written it, and was an outspoken critic of the similarly disastrous Iraq War. It’s so much more disappointing when someone actually comes to, and apparently sticks to, alarming views later in life, treating their own past tolerance — or at least benign indifference — as the mistake to be corrected.

At the same time, a few reluctant statements and some admittedly upsetting song lyrics do not an activist make. Prince’s response to these controversies was not to double down, but to largely refrain from commenting on issues surrounding sexual orientation. That may not be the noblest thing in the world, but perhaps the stridency of the condemnations we’re seeing (the term “gay basher” has been thrown around more than a few times) isn’t justified by the impact of his admittedly alarming words.

It is also wrong to remove the context of Prince’s life and work. The fact remains that his presence made the world a safer place for kids who don’t conform to society’s expectations of gender and sexuality — and he did it in the context of a racist, frequently puritanical culture that so often goes to great lengths to pathologize the sexuality of black men in particular. For him to not only defy gender norms but also introduce overt, unapologetic sexuality into his music and performance in that context was both brave and groundbreaking.

I can’t tell you, readers, how to feel about Prince’s somewhat retrograde, arguably hypocritical views. Truthfully, I’m not sure how to feel — the idea of the fey and flamboyant Prince being even a casual homophobe generates an enormous level of cognitive dissonance. And it does seem wrong to give him credit for making the world safer for LGBT youth if his own views ran so directly counter to those goals.

But maybe this isn’t about Prince as an individual. After all, the majority of those mourning him, and nearly everyone discussing his putative homophobia, aren’t his friends or family, but his fans, people who have never met him. And to tell LGBT individuals that their grief is misplaced or wrong because of his later statements does nothing to punish the deceased Prince, but is needlessly cruel to the people for whom Prince’s work was a lifeline.