By Dylan Wright
My queer gay life was shaped by my own small-town Indiana version of Full House.
One of the first memories I have takes place at a family dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house when I was about three or four-years-old. My mom’s best friend from high school ended up marrying her older brother, so when she got married a few years later and both couples started having children, we all got together as one large motley crew of a family unit. At that time, it was just my two older cousins: Jessee, Jackie, and myself. Jackie and I were only a year apart in age, and since our parents lived a quick 15-minute drive from each other, she instantly became my first best friend.
As the dinner progressed, and we grew restless sitting at our little blue and yellow Fisher Price "kids table," Jackie and I quietly (probably not so quietly, though) slipped away to go play in her bedroom. We were digging through her big wooden toy chest looking for something that struck our interest, when I came across one of her Barbie dolls with its little mess of blonde hair and red lipstick clad in pink. I was an only child at this point and therefore only had access to toys marketed for "boys" so this object felt very foreign to me, but at the same time incredibly intriguing.
“You can play with that if you want,” she said, assuring.
“Okay, but close the door first,” I replied timidly, not really knowing why I was suddenly overwhelmed in fear and shame.
As young as I was, it had already been ingrained in my head that "girl toys" were for girls, and "boy toys" were for boys. This was clearly a "girl toy," and though I was drawn to it so strongly, I recognized that I was breaking some kind of universal gender toy law.
Jackie gave me a confused look; peering behind her giant cartoon goofy coke-bottle glasses often magnifying her eyes three times their normal size, but didn’t press the matter further. As she closed the door, a part of myself was being closed off with it; hiding for the very first time. A habit I would be painstakingly repeating for the next fifteen years.
I find it funny now, of course, that much of my work as an artist relies on exposing those parts of myself I tried to hide for so long. The music I write is vulnerable, honest, and often emotionally intense; the opposite of what male culture told me I should be like growing up. Boys were supposed to be “tough.” Boys weren’t supposed to talk about their feelings, because feelings were for girls, and girls were seen as weak, or less than. And boys certainly weren’t supposed to dance around their bedroom to the Backstreet Boys Millennium album that they so fervently begged for their birthday.
I was lucky enough, however, to grow up in a household of pretty liberal thinkers. Though my parents never left their home state of Indiana, they were both artists and generally creative people, which lent hand to their more open-minded outlook. My mom is the biggest Bruce Springsteen fan you’ll ever meet, and my dad is a musician who plays bass guitar in a classic rock cover band he formed with a couple of his brothers. Neil Young’s album, Harvest Moon, could often be heard in the background over family dinner. So while my hometown might have been filled with people that were conservative, I grew up seeing music as a life-line to the world outside the one where I lived.
I realized I was gay when I was about 13-years-old just entering middle school. Like most people, I think I "always" knew, but didn’t understand what those feelings I had meant until I started going into "gay" chat rooms on AOL and began talking to men who were probably two to three times times my age, as I pretended to be a totally-comfortable-with-himself sixteen-year-old from Kansas (because at that age, sixteen seemed ancient, and Kansas felt safely distant from where I actually lived). In all seriousness, it wasn’t as creepy as it sounds (for the most part), and they respectfully (for the most part) answered a lot of questions I was having about myself (thanks, internet!).
Coming to terms with my sexuality was the first time I dug into music as a means of helping me cope with a serious issue in my life. I felt like nobody in school or around me understood what I was going through. Granted, everyone in middle school is generally pretty insecure and insufferable. I once had a music teacher in high school tell me that he thought all teenagers should be shipped away to an island from the ages of 13-15, and could only come back when they were not "awful" anymore. So, for the first time, I used music as that outside life-line in the form of the band, Green Day.
I fell hard for their album Dookie, gifted upon me by an uncle after sifting through his music collection one day and asked if I could take it home. To be honest, I think the only reason why it stood out to me was because that name, as an immature 13-year-old, caught my attention and made me laugh. As a person discovering music on their own for the first time, and one that was feeling pretty isolated and angry at the world around him, their rebellious and apathetic attitude had some major appeal. They sang about being unhappy and bored with their surroundings, and longed for something more, all too relevant to a middle school hormone ridden suburban gay boy.
"Bite my lip and close my eyes, take me away to paradise
I’m so damn bored I’m going blind, and I smell like shit,
sit around and watch the phone, but no ones calling
call me pathetic, call me what you will
my mother says to get a job, but she don’t like the one she’s got
when masturbation’s lost its fun, you’re fucking lonely"
I ate up every single word Billie Joe Armstrong sang and he pretty quickly became my first "real" crush on another guy. He wore eyeliner, painted his nails, and was rumored to kiss a boy before every show for "good luck." He was the first person I encountered who started to blur the lines of gender and redefine for me what it meant outside popular gender norms to be a "man." Needless to say, within the first year I discovered their music, I began buying all of my clothes at Hot Topic (lol) and started growing out my hair.
When high school hit a few years later, I made the decision to join the marching band. I figured it’d be a good way to meet people before freshman year started, since practice began during the summer and I’d be surrounded by other musicians. I lucked out and was immediately taken in by a group of upperclassmen who were thoughtful, witty, and also shared my deep love for music. We dubbed ourselves "The Crew" (original enough for Indiana, right?) and spent just about every waking moment together outside of school or practice. That first year was all self-discovery through music.
Just after that summer ended, I was introduced to the next band that would forever change the way I thought about music, Neutral Milk Hotel. I still vividly remember the first time I listened to their record In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I was spending the night at my friend Kevin’s house, and his older brother Andy took us out for a drive since neither of us were old enough yet, and that is what underagers in Indiana do on a Friday night. It was early September where it was warm enough to drive around with the windows down and the air carried that heavy smell just before it rains. He slid the CD into the disc player of his car and…as dramatic as it might sound...my life changed.
From the moment Jeff Mangum sings out the first line in "King of Carrot Flowers Part 1," he had drawn my full attention. This is a dude that sang with such tenderness and earnestness, but played it as strength. He drew power from being vulnerable in a way I had never experienced before. It made me feel like all the feelings I had kept bottled up inside me for so long were validated, stories that were dark and poetic, sad and hopeful.
My mind was buzzing. I felt high. There’s a line from a Freaks and Geeks episode where Lindsey is talking to the "dead heads" in the cafeteria at school after they notice she’s holding a copy of American Beauty by the Grateful Dead and they tell her they wish they could listen to it again for the first time because of how life changing it had been. That’s exactly how I feel about In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. It’s like it unlocked a part of my brain. It let me know that all the parts of myself I considered weakness, could be used as strength, could be celebrated. He wasn’t hiding these feelings, he was serenading an entire generation with them. He was liberated. He was free.
"Blister please with those wings in your spine
Love to be with a brother of mine
How he’d love to find your tongue in his teeth
In a struggle to find secret songs that you keep wrapped in boxes so tight
sounding only at night as you sleep"
I’d like to say that after hearing that album for the first time, I instantly lost all insecurity, said, “FUCK YOU!” to everyone at my school and came out of the closet, but that wouldn’t happen for a couple more years (the coming out part, at least), and I was still working on being comfortable with who I was as this sensitive, introspective, queer boy. Though now, each step became a little easier, and I didn’t feel quite so alone anymore.
Ultimately, this is what I wish to accomplish with my music. To give back to it what it gave to me at a time I was feeling so lost and alone: a feeling of connection and hope. That someone else out there understands what you’re going through and that what you’re feeling is completely valid. That regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, race, education, where you call home, etc. all the feelings you feel belong to you. No one can take that away.
I truly believe that if our society wasn’t so obsessed on creating labels and boxes categorizing ourselves, a large majority of our problems would slowly fade away. Men become aggressive and violent because they’re emotionally repressed over years of being told they need to "man-up" and essentially bury their feelings. Women are treated as less than, because they are perceived as being "needy" and "weak" for actually being in touch with their emotions. If we could all see gender as a spectrum and not just the colors pink and blue, I think we’d all be a lot happier.
So I’m going to keep writing songs that turn me inside out. That expose the deepest parts of myself, because I’ve already spent the first half of my life hiding.
The door is wide open and it’s going to stay that way.
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