The Gay Duckling
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When I was four years old, my parents gave each of their three sons a pet duck. You can’t do much with a pet duck, so most of the fun was deciding on a name. For weeks, my duckling went by two different names: Elvis and Britney (Spears, of course). Eventually, I firmly settled on Britney, and shortly thereafter she was attacked by a local clan of raccoons and put to rest (may she rest in peace).
Fast-forward 15 years: I sat my parents down in our living room, a short 100 feet away from the scene of Britney’s tragedy, and told them I was gay. Saying “the word” took me a half hour in itself. I danced around it, using phrases like “my boyfriend” and “dating him” instead. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to articulate my sexuality or not because, just like with Britney’s name, I’d always been an indecisive kid. My parents had hours of questions that evening, but I had just as many for myself. I remember going back to Ann Arbor for my sophomore year, looking for answers for both myself and my parents thinking, “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.”
It was true, I had no idea what being openly gay meant. But I knew of someone I could ask for help: Britney. No, not Britney the duck, not even Britney Spears herself, but rather Britney as a cultural element — pop stars’ emboldening lyrics and the fan bases they draw.
I’d always lacked a community growing up, never loving sports. Pop stars filled that space. Akin to how sports unite fans in competition, fandom was my sport. I was a “Little Monster,” which meant that I rooted for Lady Gaga to “win,” whether it was beating Katy Perry on the charts or besting Madonna in critical acclaim. As sports fans read player stats, I researched chart positions. Pop star feuds were my March Madness brackets, Pharrell Williams and Max Martin my Harbaugh.
Fandom gave me the same sense of competition and camaraderie my friends on the football team had, and I developed a love for the communities each artist fostered. When summer came around, and subsequently pop music albums were released, I pledged allegiance to a team; was I a player in Rihanna’s Navy, Beyonce’s Beyhive or even Taylor Swift’s Swifties? Regardless of whose colors I wore, in each team I experienced a culture that was inclusive, fun and, often times, very queer.
Vibrant stan culture aside, the pop stars I fell in love with offered music that made me feel normal. Their lyrics were empowering and loud — two adjectives I lacked as a closeted kid in a rural Midwestern town. Pop surges with strong beats, inspiring statements and bold outfits; these flooded me with a multisensory wave of distilled confidence. I’d grown up obsessing over pop music behemoths like Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and Prince, all artists whose grandeur and pounding synthesizers injected confidence into my self-image that it lacked on its own.
Prince’s Purple Rain — the first album I purchased when my dad gave me his old turntable — blurred the lines of sexuality and gender, and made me feel okay to be confused. In “I Would Die 4 U,” Prince, an artist both accepted by mainstream culture and generally deemed “straight,” opens with “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something you’ll never understand.” I replayed that introduction hundreds of times on my iPod Classic, thinking if mainstream ‘80s pop music can accept these lyrics, then 21st century society has to be OK with me.
Even more influential was Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. When it was released, I was in 9th grade and finally beginning to associate the word with how I felt about guys. Songs like “Hair” preached individuality, with Gaga belting, “I just wanna be myself / And I want you to love me for who I am” — I couldn’t have said it any more directly myself. Gaga’s album exuded love, a feeling I needed during a time in my life when I felt displaced. Born This Way was monumental, both critically and on the charts, and its widespread international recognition helped me entertain the concept that society would accept me if I was to come out; it was the catalyst for owning my sexuality.
Pop music wasn’t just an internal inspiration though — it also gave me tangible friendships. This past summer, I packed up my brother’s red Ford Focus and drove from Michigan to LA. I’d never set foot in the city of Los Angeles before, and the number of people I knew in Southern California could barely be counted on one hand. I was scared.
The first few weeks were lonely; I had no friends and no known avenues to meet people. I’d come home from work, make dinner and binge-watch “Gilmore Girls” (I finished all seven seasons in less than three weeks). With “Gilmore Girls” finished, I had to stop moping and take the advice a friend of mine: To not be afraid to do things alone.
That week, I met a friend-of-a-friend for a beach concert and began chatting with some of her work friends — Katy Perry had just dropped a single right as Britney debuted “Make Me… ,” and fan-bases were shocked, pitting the Britney Army against KatyCats (?!). This offensive single release tactic wasn’t new to KatyCats, as they’d fought a similar battle when Katy released “Roar” in conjunction with Lady Gaga’s “Applause” in 2013. Katy cut into Gaga’s downloads significantly, tainting the entire album release.
When I received a text about the #drama, I let out an “ohmygosh” under my breath. Concerned, the friend-of-a-friend asked if everything was okay, so I gave him the update. Immediately, his face flushed: “How could Katy do that to Britney? I’m SHOOK!”
The stranger, named Caleb, ended up being one of my best friends for the summer. I went from watching five episodes of “Gilmore Girls” a night alone to spending every weekend on Santa Monica Blvd, where gay bars played music by the very artists that inspired me to go there in the first place. My L.A. experience completely changed because of that simple pop star interaction.
Whenever I reflect on coming out, I think of Britney (the duck). I so badly wanted to name her Britney, but it would’ve been more socially appropriate to name her Elvis. This dilemma served as an important precursor for my life rolling forward — the notion that my love for music and my identity as a gay man are inseparable. In a way, with every new person I meet and every new workplace I enter, I make a decision. More often than not now, I choose Britney over Elvis.