When it comes to homophobia, hip-hop doesn’t have the best track record. “Faggot” and other anti-gay slurs have been used as generic insults on wax throughout the genre’s history. In the mid-1990s, Wendy Williams sent a shiver through the industry by threatening, daily, to out the then-unimaginable “gay rapper” on her radio show on New York’s Hot 97. Strong female rappers have been automatically branded lesbians out of a need to marginalize their voices. Girl-on-girl action began showing up in videos at a certain point, but only as an objectifying peep show. (What exactly about M.O.P.’s “Ante Up” would inspire two women to make out?)

However, recent events suggest a more complicated picture. In fact, while violence, misogyny and materialism may be with hip-hop for a long time, there are signs that the culture’s attitude toward gays may be changing.

It started, one could argue, in the late 1990s, when Puffy and Jay-Z immersed themselves in the world of fashion. It’s hard to run in those circles with any deep-seated prejudice against gays, even if the stereotype of the nattily dressed gay man is itself a harmful one. (It’s worth noting, though, that even as Jay was running Rocawear and rubbing shoulders with the fabulous at fashion shows, in 2001’s “Takeover,” he hit both targets hard, calling out Nas as “the fag model for Karl Kani/Esco ads.”) In 2001, Eminem, so famous for his homophobic lyrical content, took the stage with the famously gay Elton John at the Grammy Awards—the two held hands at the end of their performance of “Stan.” By 2009, when Lil Wayne and Baby were photographed kissing on the mouth, after a collective Internet giggle, fans forgot about it and moved on. Wayne later rhymed about it, taunting anyone so uptight to think this made him gay, but he was also, apparently, not particularly worried about blurring those boundaries.

In June 2010, Em told the New York Times that he supported gay marriage. “I think if two people love each other, then what the hell? I think that everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable, if they want.” When Hot 97’s Mr. Cee was arrested this past April for engaging in oral sex in a parked car with self-proclaimed “drag queen” Lawrence Campbell, a.k.a. Brooke-Lynn Pink Lady, hardcore vets like Prodigy and 50 Cent spoke out in his defense. “I’ll make him my DJ any day,” Fif told Hot 97’s Miss Info. Cee’s reputation, and the role he has played in the careers of icons like Big Daddy Kane and The Notorious B.I.G., seemingly outweighs any concerns about his sexual preferences. Cee pleaded guilty on June 1; five days later he was spinning for 50,000 rap fans at the 18th annual Summer Jam, and made light of the incident by dropping both Shawnna’s “Gettin’ Some” and Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out”—the sample for Biggie’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems,” but also a statement in itself. The crowd either didn’t notice, didn’t care or appreciated the honesty and humor.

Tyler, the Creator, the underground’s latest critical darling, has been taken to task for his over-the-top use of “faggot” in his lyrics. But he delivers those lyrics over beats spun by an openly lesbian DJ, Syd Tha Kid. Lil B, another rising Internet-age star (and a favorite of Tyler and his OFWGKTA crew), who was chosen as one of the cover subjects for XXL’s 2011 Freshman Class issue, has announced that his new album will be titled I’m Gay.

I’m Gay is the flash point for hip-hop’s new attitude toward the gay community. Since the April announcement, Lil B has received death threats and had some stereotypical thug rappers go at him—at least once on wax. But he has stuck by the title, even if no one knows exactly what it means. The Oakland, California, MC, noted for his bizarre, lo-fi style and cryptic sensibility, wants it known that he’s straight. He also wants you to know that the title is no mere publicity stunt. Lil B’s motivations, at least the ones he will admit to, get at the paradox of hip-hop’s homophobia. The language is used without thinking, but the underlying prejudice won’t go away just because the words do. “If I want to say that I’m gay, I can say whatever I want to,” Lil B insists. “Really, the word doesn’t mean anything to me but ‘happy.’ ” At the same time, he hopes that “some people that might have been homophobic and respect my music might widen their horizons and ease up, relax and say, ‘People are human.’

“You see how serious life is, and, you know, it’s time to grow up and quit being inside your head so much,” he says. “I think a lot of people are inside their head. [They’ve] just gotta really live life. And once they get away from some stuff they’ve been taught the last 100 years—what their parents taught them or whatever—they’ll be mentally free. That’s what it’s all about. You won’t have any shackles.”