Written by: Caitlin Taff
“She had written something that felt like I could have written it, except I knew I couldn’t have,” I once read in the book Daisy Jones & The Six. “Which is what we all want from art, isn’t it? When someone takes a piece of your heart out and shows it to you?” Music has always been that to me: a visceral feeling in my chest, lyrics that are entangled in my brain forever. Emotions are so intricately complex, yet somehow just one line from one song can come along and make you feel as though someone has foraged through your mind and said everything you could never find the words for before.
On car journeys with my family, I used to bring a collection of CDs in the hopes that they would listen to the lyrics and understand what I was going through in that moment. Usually, the speakers would blare out something along the lines of Pierce the Veil’s “what’s so good about picking up the pieces?/None of the colors ever light up anymore in this hole.” Words that, in retrospect, were a tad dramatic for a 14-year-old who was simply sick of going to school.
It was around the age of Kerrang!-poster-wallpaper and band-logo-rubber-bracelets that I started to realize that I was most definitely not straight. A girl complimented my All Time Low shirt at school one day, and so I inevitably became obsessed with her. It was an exciting, terrifying, and isolating time. Walks home from school were soundtracked by State Champs’ song “If I’m Lucky” imagining what it would be like if a woman was singing the chorus — “I’m just trying to find my place in this world/And I know it’s not so right to feel this way about a girl” — instead of a man.
If you search hard enough, there have always been LGBTQ+ musicians. Back then though, my music taste tragically came only from whoever was on the cover of that week’s latest rock magazine issues. And, yes, most of those artists were heterosexual men.
Even now, the music industry feels like a boys’ club. It’s hard to find somewhere that isn’t, really. For five whole years after the realization that I’m not straight, I never even considered that I could be a lesbian because of the patriarchal pressures of society; we are brought up to believe that men, in whatever way, are fundamental to our existence. It’s not a conscious thought but I have noticed the ways in which it manifested itself in my own mind — my crushes on men usually began with the thought “My parents would approve of this man if I brought him home” instead of, you know, I would actually like to be with him. “Compulsory heterosexuality,” often shortened to “comp-het,” is the term used to describe this. It’s experienced exclusively by lesbians, though is ironically what can stand in the way of us actually realizing we are lesbians. Sometimes it exists in the form of crushes on celebrity or fictional men (because they’re completely unattainable, and therefore safe to pine over when you know nothing will ever come of it), or sometimes just in dating men before eventually coming to terms with the fact that it doesn’t feel quite right.
In April earlier this year, 26-year-old singer Kehlani made the announcement that they “finally know [they’re] a lesbian.” I can’t even begin to imagine the impact that reading popular artists speak out about their own experiences could have had on me when I was younger. It’s obvious now, but it never occurred to me when I was actually going through it, that discovering your sexuality is a journey, and you don’t have to stay with the same label if that label starts to feel like it doesn’t fit you anymore.
With the way music is currently, I’m almost envious of the kids who get to grow up in this decade. In just the past few years, so many amazing women and non-binary musicians have taken the world by storm at award shows, in the charts, and headlining festivals. Of course, there’s more information at our fingertips than ever, but I think along with that there is more acceptance than I have ever seen before too. It feels as though I’m seeing singers and actors come out to the world as who they are almost weekly — it’s wonderful.
I wanted resonance, not just acceptance.
For all my envy, I’ll never know if I’d have actually found it any easier if things had been the way they are now. The emo-trinity-era (a fan-made Tumblr-ism that consisted of Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance and Panic! at the Disco) was led by men, and no matter how inclusive that scene was, it definitely impacted my personal experiences with compulsory heterosexuality. LGBTQ+ rights were usually covered in articles similarly to Macklemore’s “Same Love” (“I might not be the same but that’s not important/No freedom ‘til we’re equal /Damn right I support it”) rather than individual experiences. I wanted resonance, not just acceptance.
My favorite thing about music has always been the way it makes me feel. The lyrics of bands I liked always resonated; the words were always taking a slice of my heart out and presenting it to me in beautiful poetry and catchy riffs. But the music I’ve been listening to lately is taking pieces of my heart I have never been shown before. From the alt-pop perfection of ZELA’s “Sleep Real Bad” (“That boy don’t treat you right/And I want to be your girlfriend”); to the hauntingly beautiful “God is a Woman” by Rett Madison (“She kissed me while the moon was sinking down/In that holy hour, I felt an angel’s lips against my mouth”); to “Green Eyes,” the laidback indie-pop tale of being in a relationship with someone closeted by Arlo Parks (“I wish your parents had been kinder to you / they made you hate what you were out of habit”). People that think like me and feel like me are winning awards for expressing those thoughts and feelings. We have miles to go — I still sigh in despair as I watch major festivals announce lineups dominated by cisgender heterosexual white men — but I’m optimistic for the future of the music industry. There is such an inner peace that comes with knowing who you are. Watching more and more artists find that inner peace and share it with the world is what fuels my hopefulness.