10/06/2011 11:07 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Midnight Radio: Gay Youth and Pop Redemption

As a small-town gay kid, I knew to search for signs to point me in some kind of direction out of my airless, closeted existence because there was no map to follow, no promise that it gets better. By the age of 5, I knew I had something I needed to hide for a good long time to come if I was going to get along at all and not get hurt. People I looked up to put me down. My kindergarten teacher made fun of my choice of toys at playtime. My dad blushed and smirked when he confessed to friends and colleagues that I took piano lessons. Older kids called me names and dropped their wrists at me, which was just confusing: what exactly was the matter with them? I learned to steer clear of behaving like a girl with varying degrees of success. For as long as I could remember, life was merely an ordeal to survive. I had asthma. I spent much of my early years in oxygen tents. Quite literally, I couldn't breathe.

I found comfort in being by myself. I invented worlds that I alone ruled in the woods behind my house. I spent a lot of time seated at my mom and dad's stereo console, listening to their collection of Ink Spots and Mills Brothers records. I joined the Columbia House Record Club at the age of 8 and somehow knew enough to affix David Essex and Elton John stickers to my introductory-offer order form (12 albums for a penny!). As I grew up, I managed to find reassurance in what was available, and what was available in rural Wisconsin in the mid-to-late '80s was Top 40 radio and MTV. My radio was my salvation all throughout my endless coming-out process. Videos gave me the visual clues I needed to understand that there were in fact options. Musical options. Lifestyle options. So many choices. So many ways to be.

I discovered The Indigo Girls on MTV's indispensible grunge-era indie-rock show 120 Minutes and recognized something familiar in them, so I plugged into their earnest, rough-hewn harmonies, and they became my new, surrogate, big, gay sisters. I took their hard-won wisdom to heart, so much so that by the summer of my fifth and final year of undergrad in 1989, their jangly cheers and aching ballads put me on the road to find out (as Cat Stevens sang), tramping up the Alaskan Highway to find cannery work in Bristol Bay. Those were stupid, blindly blundering days, to be sure, but I learned to respect myself the hard way. Those Girls knew what they were singing about: that "it" (being gay) gets tedious, weird, frustrating and, yes, it might just get closer to being fine over time.

Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project gets it wrong by handing down expectations to young LGBTs. The gift of gayness isn't the reward of a smokin'-hot lover and a life spent swaddled in fabulosity and unconditional acceptance. The gift of gayness is the invitation to realize one's true, singular identity, the call to soul power. It doesn't get better; you can only get stronger. Against my better sonic judgment, I believe that artists such as Lady Gaga have the electromagnetism to gift my gay brothers and sisters, as well as all varieties of marginalized youth, with the inspiration and tools they need to cultivate self-love and respect.

I won't lie. Speaking as a DJ, Lady Gaga is the bane of my existence. I've listened to quite a lot of her music, and I find it cold and derivative, tweaked and auto-tuned to the point where I hear nothing but a shrill, white noise. But you know what? Her songs aren't intended for me. I'm 45, old enough to be Gaga's da-da. I have no reason to be poking my antiquated, gay-man nose in her (anatomically contestable) business. However, there is no question she's captured the imagination of an impressive cross-section of casual music fans and snooty nerds alike: the hipper-than-thou know-it-alls at rated her 2010 release The Fame Monster a respectable 7.8 out of a possible 10, praising her effort as "playful," "subtle" and "well-rounded." Pitchfork! Mein Gott! Pitchfork hates everything!

But the real story is how we gays have anointed her as being gayer than unicorn glitter. She's the distaff Ziggy Stardust, the potty-mouthed Second Coming of Madonna with a shot of The Boss for good measure, and sometimes she's a dude. With "The Queen," a bonus track off her 2011 release Born This Way, Lady Gaga managed to marry Springsteen's "Queen of the Supermarket" to Queen's "Killer Queen." For me, the song defies the listener to dance to it, or to even sing along with it. But for the Gaga-Believers, I imagine it soars with the populist thrust of Pat Benatar's "We Belong" and the transcendent rush of Bowie's hymn to doomed lovers, "Heroes."

From "The Queen":

"I can be the queen that's inside of me, this is my chance to release/And be brave for you, you'll see, I can be the queen you need me to be."

Not exactly Joan Baez, but pretty potent stuff nevertheless.

Since her emergence on the scene in 2008, Lady Gaga has transformed herself into a diva for the people, and she takes her invention very seriously. She's certainly had no problem connecting intimately with her legion of "Little Monsters," because she speaks for them passionately.

By now, the tragic fact of Jamey Rodemeyer's suicide is old news. Jamey, a gay teen from Buffalo, N.Y., posted an "It Gets Better" testimonial wherein he thanked Lady Gaga and her Monster Ball tour for liberating him. I believe that's absolutely true, that her music and the fact of her existence liberated him. Lady Gaga was his avatar, this much is clear. It didn't get better for Jamey, but for a time it got pretty good, good enough to get lost in the fantasy of empowerment that is Lady Gaga and her Monster's Ball. For two and a half hours, she showed him a world of possibility and gave him a taste of what it means to be free and comfortable in one's own skin. Strip away all the chintzy Eurodisco accoutrement, and Lady Gaga still rallies the troops with her unflagging belief in her Little Monsters. Although many take her at face value and dismiss her as one more in a long line of flashy-trashy pop tarts, I concede that Stefani "Lady Gaga" Germanotta is the embodiment of Theodore "Dr. Suess" Geisel's beloved dictum:

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind."