October 29, 2020 | Arts and Culture
without losing myself
an exploration of my sexuality through queer music
When I really like a song, I imprint on it. What I mean is that, every time the track floats through my earbuds, I’m taken right back to the place I was when the song first found me. And I don’t just mean abstract memories. I mean when I close my eyes, I can see everything about where I was when the imprint happened: the dark car of a train whisking me from Montreal to Toronto on a late November night, a snowy street on my early-morning walk to school, my dining table the week before exams with a freshly-made panini sitting half-eaten next to me. More importantly, I can feel exactly the way I felt when I realized the song meant something to me. Listening to “Slow Dances” by Winnetka Bowling League brings me back to the borderline euphoric serenity of that train car and its beautiful silence; hearing “BAGDAD” by Rosalía evokes the longing I felt on that snowy morning—reaching for someone I couldn’t have—so vividly that I have to stop whatever I’m doing any time it comes on. For both these songs and all the others that I’ve loved over the years, part of the reason they’ve had such a profound effect on me is because they found me at the moment I needed them most.
The first time I imprinted on a song was during my eighth-grade winter break. Troye Sivan’s album Blue Neighbourhood had just come out, and I was obsessed. I’d been listening to Troye’s music since the release of his first EP, TRXYE. At the time, all of my friends had been talking about the album. I hadn’t yet heard of Troye, nor was I aware of his queerness, but I gave the EP a try anyway just to say that I’d listened to it. While, yes, this was partially due to the fact that I lived under a bit of a rock in middle school, it was also because I was so far removed from queerness in general that none of those themes stuck out to me in his music. I wasn’t fazed by the male pronouns he was using to describe his love interests and instead reverse-engineered some heterosexual explanation for why they were appearing (“he’s singing from the girl’s perspective” was my go-to line). It wasn’t until I heard “BITE” that I got it. And when I got it, I really got it. If boys can kiss other boys, I thought, that must mean… No. It was too scary, too real, too raw. As the album played on loop, the images in my head switched from the imagined world created by Troye’s music to the very real, very concrete world that I called my own. Instead of seeing Troye and his fictional boyfriend, I saw myself and…well…my then best friend. My head was spinning, my breaths grew heavier, and I felt like I might physically be sick. I was scared shitless.
More importantly, though, Blue Neighbourhood was the first album I’d ever heard that openly celebrated queerness. Up until that point, I’d only seen queerness represented as some overly dramatized, cliche gay character in the background of a TV show. Blue Neighborhood was the only piece of queer media I’d consumed that felt honest. It felt whole. It felt deeply personal. For that two-week vacation, I sat alone in my room and just tried to process everything I was feeling. Blue Neighbourhood wasn’t only my entry into the world of queer music but also the soundtrack to the discovery of my queerness.
Going back to school, I was changed. To everyone around me, I might have looked like the same person, but I walked the halls feeling utterly exposed. I scrutinized each and every one of my mannerisms, wondering if they might reveal what I was hiding. Granted, I wasn’t even sure what exactly it was I was hiding. It had no name or form, only the abstract sensations of shame and longing and lust and guilt. And it stayed that way for three years. Three years of living in the middle of two realities—my queerness versus the heteronormativity of my surroundings—that, in my mind, were and would always be mutually exclusive. It was queer music that, at least in part, brought these realities together.
For the rest of eighth grade, Troye chronicled my every move; “Without losing a piece of me / how do I get to heaven?” he crooned. I had as much a clue as he did. My pieces hadn’t even been found in the first place. But what I couldn’t find in the real world I made up for in songs and albums and artists and music videos. I sifted through my YouTube recommended videos and combed through interviews just to try to find more, more of this content I didn’t know I needed but found myself craving. I’d lie awake in bed every night, swimming in sound. The words that floated through the room felt dangerous: “he’ll never love you like me” (Hayley Kiyoko); “we’re not lovers, we’re just strangers” (Halsey); “there’s something wrong in the village” (Wrabel). There was something so intimate about the late nights I spent with those songs—we grew intertwined, and I felt as connected to them as I did my own friends.
Like me, many other LGBTQ+ folks turn to the intangible to find our own pockets of acceptance and validation in the absence of physical spaces to safely find community. As the years went by, I sunk into a precarious peace with myself. Hayley Kiyoko’s Expectations got me through my first relationship—one that nobody knew about. Without a support system, I relied on her music to heal and think and cope with the waves of emotion that come with any first love, let alone a queer one (“At least I got you in my head / sleepovers in my bed”). King Princess’s first EP, Make My Bed, helped me cement myself in my identity: “I hate it when dudes try to chase me / but I love it when you try to save me.” I was queer, and I was okay with that.
In the winter of my junior year, I came out. But when I did, a funny thing happened. Instead of diving into my identity, I shied away from it. I felt that I should be discreet—I didn’t want to “overdo” the gay. I worried my friends’ openness was fleeting (disclaimer: it wasn’t, I have the best friends in the world), so I contorted myself to fit the brand of queerness that I thought my cishet peers would find acceptable. In essence, I was queer in name only. In doing so, I also left my world of queer music behind.
Fast forward to March of 2020. With nothing else to do, I took the time to listen once again to all my favourite albums. Listening to Blue Neighbourhood for the first time in over a year felt like a homecoming. A part of myself that I’d been missing came back to life. I dragged out my queer favorites, and added new ones to the list. It seemed like everyone else was doing the same. Conan Gray was topping the charts, “Sweater Weather” became a bisexual anthem, and it seemed like the whole LGBTQ+ community had congregated on TikTok to crown girl in red queen of the gays.
My new dive into the queer music community was different from the one before. Instead of timidly listening in the moonlight, I screamed “they’re so pretty it hurts / not talking bout boys, I’m talking bout girls” at the top of my lungs. I cut my hair, threw out my old clothes, found new ones, became comfortable with a label that actually fit me (I’d previously identified as bisexual, but this summer I re-came out as gay), and took time to figure out who exactly I was away from the extremely heteronormative environment of the school I’d grown up at. This transformation allowed me to see myself in a different way: I was queer, and I was proud of that. I understood that nothing about the journey I’d been (and still am) on would have been possible without the LGBTQ+ artists who provided the soundtrack of my self-acceptance. When I couldn’t even put a name to the feelings I was having or visualize the future I wanted for myself, they showed me what was possible. And, if there’s anything I’ve learned from that process, it’s this: Queer music is liberation, it is strength, and it is one of the most powerful forms of artistry our community has got.