The Powerful Connection Between Music And Sexual Identity

“Queer is my leather jacket, I am ready to fly.”

Photo by istock

I’m at an Ingrid Michaelson concert in Central Park, swaying to songs new and old about home. She makes jokes, people laugh, and at one point Steve Perry from Journey shows up to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It’s the perfect July night, and when she starts to strum out one of my favorite songs—“The Way I Am”—I stand there, sing, and start to cry.

 

There is no easy way to explain what this song means to me. It not only became a quick favorite, but also began the journey to discovering my sexuality.

Where did it start? It was when my mom was obsessed with “Grey’s Anatomy.” I don’t know what sold her: the sappy-then-infuriating love story or the fact that she could watch someone be cut in half. But if nothing else, it was the music that made her fall in love. The amount of times she played “Chasing Cars” is easily in the thousands.

I was going through a hard-goth phase. My eyeliner was always smudged unevenly, in what makeup artists call “fallout,” and although I questioned everything about myself, there were two things I was sure of: I was a writer and I was bisexual.

We were sitting in the car on the way back from a family vacation. My mom played “The Way I Am” from a playlist on her iPod, and I was drawn to it. I imagined what my life would be like with the woman I’d fall in love with: she was tall, with blonde hair and soft features. She reminded me of Titania in “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She would pull weeds out of our garden with her bare hands. I would read her my new poems and she would close her eyes, the sunlight hitting her face in our garden, bathing in the language. We would cook together—cutting peppers and rinsing the seeds out with care, her stealing bites of uncooked spaghetti from the box—and we’d have two cats, one orange and fat and one thin tuxedo. Their names changed monthly.

For years after that, I was convinced that Ingrid Michaelson’s iconic song from a medical drama—despite the fact she has never stated this—was a lesbian love song.

But perhaps it was earlier, this connection I had with her narrative, my gut feeling that I had that Ingrid Michaelson saw me.

Entering my awkward pre-teen years, I was completely consumed by my love of “Rent.” After seeing a production at the local playhouse—and then again in the movie theater—I ate, slept, and breathed “Rent.” I watched every documentary on the movie, read Anthony Rapp’s “Without You,” attended several concerts of original cast members, and read my coffee table book cover-to-cover. I even had “Rent” parties, inviting my artist friends to come over, eat pizza, and watch a film about what I thought our future might look like. I regularly told people for years I wanted to move to an East Village apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen.

What really drew me in was Maureen: the boisterous, bisexual beauty. She held avant-garde political protests, made lewd jokes—but most of all—expressed her sapphic desire. After we walked out of the theater the first time we saw the show, my parents talked about who their favorite characters were. “Angel, hands down,” my mom said, and my Dad agreed. They asked me who I liked. “The sister,” I told them. They looked at each other, confused, then back at me.

“Who?” they tried to clarify.

“The sister, I can’t remember her name,” I tried to draw up a scene. “The one who sang Over the Moon.” My parents started laughing, explaining to me that she was dating Joanne and that the sister line was a joke.

I think deep down I knew that. I just was too scared to admit that I understood her story. And even though my parents would accept my coming out, they were the last people I told. There was no way for my younger self to know whether they would still love me or not.

And maybe it started before this: six-years-old and I was playing with Barbies on the living room floor. My parents had MTV and VH1 on during weekend mornings to see the Top 20 Videos of the Week. A woman in a red jumpsuit appeared on the screen. She had perfectly straight, strawberry blonde hair down to her hips. The leather was tight on her body, and heels were sewn into the material. She strutted around space like she was Queen of the Universe.

Often people ask if back then I was Team N’sync or Backstreet Boys.

I was neither. Team Britney all the way.

My mom might even turn around and argue. No, it is because of all the Ani DiFranco I played in the car when you were a baby, she could say, only half-joking, and the fact that everyone mistakes me for a lesbian. My mom looks like a combination of Joan Jett and Sinead O’Connor, often wearing sleeveless “Fallout” t-shirts to show off her tattoos. My earliest memory is of her shaving her head in our tiny, yellow bathroom.

So at thirteen, sitting in my parents’ car, there I was: filling in the blanks. I had this sad, yearning sensation for a friend that had recently moved away. I wasn’t willing to admit to myself until then that I may have been falling in love with her.

Bisexual was a very new word to me. My only references to it were lyrics from “La Vie Boheme” and Dr. Callie Torres. But right then, when I wasn’t sure I’d ever I’d ever find love from a man, that I was even capable of being loved in return, it felt right. “Bisexual” as an identity felt like a hand-me-down sweater: it was comfortable, and in it,  and I felt warm and safe. It was something I became proud of. “I’m bisexual,” I would tell my classmates. It was a new word for them too, but many accepted it into their vocabulary, alongside early-taught SAT words and text abbreviations. Some would whisper something about Katy Perry and I’d flip over a chair. No, this was a real experience for me: slowly easing into the terms of my queerness, and slowly discovering my boundaries in the larger scope of my relationships.

 

But like a hand-me-down sweater, it started to shed. My bisexuality had shrunk in the wash a few times, was stained with pizza grease and tears, and holes were starting to appear at the hems. Nothing else fit quite right. It felt scratchy, somehow limited in my experience. I realized my love was continuous, constantly in flux, and I didn’t know what to make of that. And then one day, a friend of mine asked how I identified. I explained, “I tell people I’m bisexual, but really that label doesn’t fit right either. My sexuality feels more fluid than maybe a single term.” They asked me, “Would you consider yourself queer?” It fit me like a glove but offered the room to breathe.

I am back at Summerstage, slowly falling in love with a new partner and building a history for my feelings. Tears were streaming down my face, and I remembered how I felt, almost ten years ago to the day. I remembered my misunderstanding about the song in the first place. But so what if Ingrid Michaelson’s song wasn’t about two women who fell in love? It was the first thing that made me feel right in my skin. Sometimes now, even when I play it in the car, or walking down the street, I think of the life I want to live: surrounded by new people constantly, falling a little bit in love with the people I meet, someone by my side to listen to my writing, and maybe finding a little bit of inspiration in them. Calling them about what I’m writing. Their smile and support.

I still question some things about myself, but I am sure about two things: The first thing is that I’m a writer. The second thing is easy—

Queer is my leather jacket, I am ready to fly.