"OK, I have to ask you about your sexuality now...."
It's Monday morning, and I've already showered and made myself a coffee (OK, an espresso). Routine often alleviates my anxiety, and I have a phone interview about my new album; we are two minutes into the conversation.
Ten minutes later we are discussing my coming-out story, and I feel my chest tighten. I telepathically will the interviewer to circumvent the conversation about my dating life and steer toward more musical waters: my writing process, or even my influences (a question that often causes me to flounder more than questions about my sexual identity do).
Despite my physiological response to the topic, I am openly queer, and I do not consider myself a private person. Anybody who has seen me perform for four minutes can attest to my compulsive need to share personal details with strangers. I'm a talker.
Correspondingly, by traditional standards, I am extremely "out." Everybody knows and has known for 10 years. My grandparents know. Your grandparents probably know. Teenagers at rest stops in Hankamer, Texas, know. My audience definitely knows. Call it a lack of impulse control coupled with a lack of shame surrounding my sexuality, but my stint in the closet was very short-lived.
Unlike my musical predecessors, I never had to come out in my music career. It is a privilege. I say this because I now witness many of my LGBTQ-identified peers struggling with how to publicly navigate their queer identities amidst their music lives.
Naturally, we each vary in our sentiments about the "queer" label. Some feel neutral, and some find it personally or professionally rewarding. Some are out at home but evasive in interviews or at shows. Some have come out later in their careers, and others feel that they don't need to come out, that being queer is only one aspect of their identity and is irrelevant or inconsequential to their music.
I suspect that many of us no longer view it as a dichotomous matter of being out or closeted. The conversation feels markedly different from before, not so much about shame as about branding. What happens when I attach my personal identity to a product meant for public consumption? How will my work be marked? How will my identity be marked?
I fall into the "happy to be part of the queer artist community" camp, and even I have felt protective over how my sexuality is presented in the context of my music. I can only imagine how my "closeted" peers feel. Nonetheless, here are some anxieties I have felt or hear echoed in my community:
- "I don't want anybody to get it wrong." Personally, I use catch-all/umbrella terms because I view my identity as fluid. Unfortunately, the nature of catch-all linguistics is that they fail to convey the same meaning to every person. I had this epiphany while discussing the word "queer" with a fan after a show, shortly followed by the epiphany that I'll never be able to discuss the nuances of my sexual identity with every fan after every show. I think many of us struggle with retaining agency over how it is presented once it's written, preferring a dialogue over what might inevitably be consumed as a monologue.
- "I don't want to be a figurehead." As an artist and a member of the queer community, I understand the desire for the few visible queer artists to positively represent the rest of us. I also understand that some queer musicians just want to make music and would make terrible figureheads. Frankly, I'm very impulsive, and it's only a matter of time before I pull a Courtney-Love-throwing-shoes-at-Madonna-in-public move, so I get that. Not to mention the problematic aspect of one member of a minority group representing the whole, as there are countless differences among individuals in any given cultural group.
- "I don't want to be pigeonholed/dismissed." This is arguably the biggest concern that queer artists bat around. Nobody wants their work to be considered exclusively valuable to one group of people and dismissed as valueless to everybody else. Attaching "queer" as a qualifying adjective can be perceived as setting the work apart as something "other" or somehow marking it as different from the general "music" category. (It's not "music"; it's "queer music.") For example, I write songs about dating women sometimes, as does Jeffrey Lewis. The difference between Jeffrey Lewis' song about dating a woman and my song about dating a woman is the narrator; the song content is generally applicable to different types of people.
- "I don't want to be a gimmick/I don't want my music to be an afterthought." My friend Zoe summed up a recent blog placement she received for a music video by saying, "The first sentence described me as 'queer artist Zoe Boekbinder.' First 'queer,' then 'artist,' then me. Like being queer was the most important aspect about me, even before my name." I think most musicians want people to care about their work, ultimately. We certainly don't want to be fetishized or reduced to one aspect of ourselves, even if it is one very important or integral aspect.
Suffice it to say that I commiserate with the internal qualms and anxieties associated with attaching one's sexual orientation to one's public work. Additionally, I think a lot of us artist types are tentative about rigid identities and categorical thinking as a whole. Some people exist most comfortably in gray areas, particularly those of us with creative and fickle minds. I also think that many of my peers feel that being queer is not some salacious detail of their lives that they should feel compelled to "come out" about, a sentiment with which I sympathize.
Unfortunately, the catalyst for queer artists' work not being dismissed will probably be the day when more artists start talking about their queer lives. I am sorry that the onus is on us, but unless we can get all straight artists to agree to stop discussing their private lives, it might just be a numbers game.
Consider this: As more artists start casually talking about being queer, it becomes more of a non-issue. The faster that happens, the faster you will wake up one day and your sexual orientation will no longer be sensationalized and you can go back to making music. That's where the culture is headed. I think that in a lot of ways, the next generation is already there, but we can hasten the lag time by talking. At times it might feel awkward to navigate. Everybody might not always get it right. But at the very least you will have started a dialogue.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that there are consequences to evading that dialogue. Just recently, three more people were victims of violent anti-gay hate crimes in my city. LGBTQ youth currently make up 20 to 40 percent of the national homeless youth population. Somebody after a show tells me that they don't know one other queer person. I feel that if I am merely dismissed as an artist, it isn't important. Showing up for our communities should take precedent over that.
What do I want, ultimately? What I want above all else, as a human being and as a musician, is what I suspect we all want: I want to be understood. I want my intentions and actions accurately represented. I want to connect to other people who feel the way that I feel. I want them to be there for me, and I want to be there for them. I want it to be a discussion. So I keep talking.