I Wanna Dance With Somebody
The sound of my 12-year-old angst was a world-weary woman. Wronged and incensed but still unassailable, she was determined to power on in the face of unrequited love. Whenever I had my family’s house to myself, I’d blare Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay,” Cher’s “Believe,” and Céline Dion’s “That’s the Way It Is,” leaping and twirling and lip-synching through the living room, convening with the higher power of broken but triumphant femininity. Although I was just an undergrown boy still years away from puberty, somehow I was able to identify with a state of being that should’ve been as alien to me as a physical attraction to girls: the experience of adult womanhood.
It was a classic gay boy–meets–Gloria Gaynor love story. Like generations of queer men before me—those who used Judy Garland as a pseudonym at Stonewall in the 1960s, who went crazy over Diana Ross in the ’80s, who today reenact episodes of The Golden Girls for live audiences—I found joy and solidarity in the swagger of no-nonsense female starlets. As a tween in the ’90s, my go-to divas were the middle-aged queens of decades past, extensions of a larger obsession with my mother and her steely commitment to self-expression. A fierce office bookkeeper who worked harder than anyone I knew, my mother made sure her feelings were heard in ways that the grown men around me did not; I admired how she cried when she was upset and spoke up when she was angry, even when others ridiculed her for doing so.
The music my mother loved reflected this blustery effeminacy—and I was inspired by it, too. On weekend drives to and from Long Island strip malls, she would pop Lesley Gore and Karen Carpenter cassettes into the stereo of our Pontiac Grand Am, or pump Donna Summer and Laura Branigan on the radio. In high school, I came to recognize the gifts of my own cohort, the pop princesses of the millennial generation who were emerging into self-assured young womanhood: Britney, Christina, Mandy, Jessica. Packaged inside their bubblegum songs—many of which were written by older men—were declarations of independence.
When I was 19 and in my junior year of college, Britney Spears’s album Blackout was the soundtrack to my life. It was 2007, seven months after I’d come out of the closet to my mom, dad, and older brother. The album’s iconic bangers about retaliation against paparazzi and sexual liberation—“Gimme More,” “Piece of Me”—offered a refuge in the days after I told my family I was gay. Britney’s clapbacks at her haters and her reclamation of her own voice seemed to speak to me directly. Though I didn’t have any haters of my own—my parents had met my coming out with total warmth and support—I identified with the challenge of facing an army of strangers unaware of one’s truth, and deciding to speak out.
It was a classic gay boy–meets–Gloria Gaynor love story. Like generations of queer men before me, I found joy and solidarity in the swagger of no-nonsense female starlets.
Over the next decade, as I entered a PhD program and avoided adulthood, I rode the wild waves of Britney’s breakdowns and comebacks, before moving on to Rihanna’s glorious self-transformations (from “We Found Love” to “Where Have You Been”), Robyn’s lovesick masterworks (“Dancing On My Own”), and Carly Rae Jepsen’s perfect confections (such as “Run Away With Me” and “Higher”).
Yet, romantically, I remained inert. The more dramatic my playlists became, the larger the chasm between fantasy and reality grew. By 2017, I’d been out for ten years and had been sexually intimate with a couple of boys in college and grad school. But I’d never been in a relationship, never really gotten over the residual post-closet shame contaminating my sense of self. I preferred the company of women over that of other gay men. While my female friends weren’t bawdy and commanding like my outsized divas, their fierceness was in their wisdom. They were composed, incisive, savvy. I loved listening to them talk about every aspect of their lives—their work, their relationships, their families—and treasured their patience with a friend like me, who was so reluctant to share his own inner life. I was as withholding as they were generous. I kept them in the dark; all they knew was that I was gay. I told them nothing about my deeper desires and struggles, my simultaneous urge and inability to come into my own, my thirst for queer pleasure, and my sexual repression.
In this way, diva worship wasn’t just a mode of pop fandom; it was also my way of socializing, of experiencing and living in the world. Retreating into the company of open, assertive women, I felt safe and comfortable. I never had to open up my self.
At 30 years old, I had spent seven years of grad school in Michigan, always surrounded by my girls, both sonically and socially. I began to feel eager to make up for lost time. So I decided I would move to West Hollywood—one of the biggest gay enclaves in the country—and go wild. My savings would only allow for a four-month stay, and I didn’t know anyone who lived in California, but I liked that: I wanted a fresh start, far away from friends and family, a spree by and for myself. I yearned to go off the grid in the place where everyone else went to get discovered.
In the sunny, minimalist spare bedroom of a heterosexual couple on the verge of marriage (and subletting to make extra money for their upcoming nuptials), I twirled into delayed twinkhood with my old playlists to keep me company. While my roommates got ready for work, I blasted diva anthems through my earbuds and shook my arms and ass behind my closed bedroom door. I thought about the nightlife waiting for me in Boystown, the stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard with 16 gay bars next to each other, and declared aloud: I’m coming for you. This was, I told myself, the very late beginning to my queer life.
Only, sadly, it wasn’t. During that first month in L.A., I went on some awkward Grindr and Tinder dates, but I didn’t experience the total uninhibitedness and recklessness I expected to encounter in California. I still felt the same self-loathing and fear of fully exploring my sexuality that had kept me repressed in Michigan. But there was one thing that had changed: I began listening to a gay man sing.
I wanted a fresh start, far away from friends and family, a spree by and for myself. I yearned to go off the grid in the place where everyone else went to get discovered.
A couple of months before I’d moved to L.A., I’d started to see gay tastemakers on Twitter praise the video for Troye Sivan’s song “My My My!” They hailed it as a triumph for queer representation, a strobe-lit fever dream celebrating gay love and expression. I’d never heard of the openly gay Australian pop star before; after all, I only ever listened to my stable of Top 40 queens. Troye Sivan was not on my radar, simply because he wasn’t a straight woman.
I became curious enough about him to watch the “My My My!” video on YouTube. In it, Troye, then 23 years old, celebrates the liberation of a passion he was previously suppressing, going from hesitant to ebullient during a late-boyhood romance: “Spark up, buzz cut / I got my tongue between your teeth / Go slow, no, no, go fast,” he sings in one verse. The song’s hook is a paean to adolescent abandon and an urge to surrender to desire: “You like it just as much as me / Now, let’s stop running from love / Running from love / Let’s stop, my baby / Let’s stop running from us.” The song felt like a revelation. This twink, almost a decade younger than I was, had already learned how to articulate his own desires.
That spring in L.A., I stopped listening to divas. “My My My!” became the only song I wanted to hear. Buoyed by my new musical obsession, on the first Friday of April, a couple months after arriving in California, I finally walked the two and a half miles to Boystown, the Disneyland of male homosexuality. I was ready to hit up the bars I’d heard my favorite gay podcasters describe while recounting their Thursday-night hookups and Britney dance parties—those sexual playgrounds with meticulously selected Top 40 playlists. At a neon-lit club with “Hotel California” spelled out in big fluorescent letters and palm-tree decals and Becky G videos playing on the wall, I sipped a tequila soda, made eyes at the three men meeting for an after-work drink, and wondered: What would Troye do?
Before I got buzzed enough to approach the group and find out, a man sat down next to me. He looked about 20 years my senior. I wasn’t attracted to him, but he was kind and chatty and offered to take me back to his apartment so we could do cocaine. I pretended it wasn’t my first time doing the drug, secretly giddy I was finally embarking on my dream spree.
At the older man’s place, I snorted the line he set up for me with the fake composure of a 15-year-old claiming he’d chugged beers before. We talked for hours, and I learned that he was a Jennifer Lopez superfan and a hospital chaplain. We talked some more. At some point he opened a dresser in his bedroom that functioned as a kind of pharmacy, and we popped some molly to keep the party going.
The more I learned about the man, though, the more a sadness crept in. He told me he was still closeted to his family and coworkers. The man he had once thought he would spend the rest of his life with had died of cancer a few years before. As J.Lo blasted from the speakers, we discussed our shared astonishment at the breadth of her cross-medium career and analyzed the set list from her Vegas residency. By journeying into the depths of J.Lo’s life and work, I felt like we’d reached an intimacy more intense than sex. But with just the dance bops and the drugs—and no physical touch—I also felt like I didn’t have the real Boystown experience.
The next morning, I Googled the definition of “chaplain”; I confirmed that the J.Lo lover who’d taken me home and given me cocaine was a priest who visited people on their deathbeds. Worship was at the literal center of this diva devotee’s life.
In the days that followed my first trip to Boystown, I contemplated the end of my years of diva worship. Maybe it wasn’t fair to lay all of my sexual inexperience at the feet of these women. But now that Troye was perpetually on my mind, I decided that I’d spent so much time losing myself in diva music—my night with the chaplain, the months before, my entire life—that I’d missed out on real, queer self-discovery. I worried that dwelling on straight women had held me back from understanding myself, and from falling in love with men.
Of course, queer coming of age is almost always behind schedule. The ordeal of coming out of the closet and the surrounding years of emotional turmoil naturally delay the personal and romantic milestones that most straight kids go through. We queer kids tend to experience our first dates, first loves, and first heartbreaks later than everyone else. And this was part of the divas’ allure: they had experienced all these exciting—and essential—things that I had not. Divas had all the romance and sex that I was denying myself. For much of my life, I had lived vicariously through them.
I wasn’t alone in my fascination with these women. As David M. Halperin argues in his 2012 book How to Be Gay, many gay men have lost themselves in the fearlessness and fabulosity of female pop stars because we relate to how their femininity marginalizes them. Despite their superstar status, they struggle to be taken seriously, sidelined by their effeminacy and emotionality; we find solidarity in this struggle, and a model of resolve and celebratory glamour that faces up to the humiliations of a straight-male-dominated world. Some people, in fact, have gone so far as to suggest that Judy Garland’s death by overdose helped incite the Stonewall riots: anger and grief over the tragic loss of this iconic singer and actress may have been one of the factors that drove the queer community to take righteous action in protest against the police raids of the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, the day after Garland’s funeral.
I decided that I’d spent so much time losing myself in diva music—my night with the chaplain, the months before, my entire life—that I’d missed out on real, queer self-discovery.
Right before Pride season, during the final weeks of my time in L.A., Troye Sivan released a follow-up single—an anal-sex anthem, “Bloom,” that was a celebration of the honor and beauty of bottoming (“Take a trip into my garden / I’ve got so much to show ya”). My own sexual experiences had only been awkward, prickly, and weird; every time I’d let a man enter me, I had felt shame. I decided that, before I left L.A., I needed to fix that.
The weekend of L.A. Pride, at the end of my Boystown adventure—or rather, right after it had begun—I went on a bender. I got so drunk that I stumbled into the parade in West Hollywood, marching alongside a Citi float and writhing toward self-acceptance as Madonna’s “Hung Up” echoed around the streets. That night, I drank further into oblivion, signed on to Grindr, and scored the anonymous sex I thought would give me the pluck of Troye Sivan in “Bloom.” The stranger asked if it was okay if he didn’t wear a condom. I said, “Definitely.” The whole thing was ugly, quick, messy, painful. Afterward, I put my clothes back on, took a rainbow parade whistle out of my pocket, and blew it dejectedly, a one-man walk of shame in the night.
On Monday morning I woke up distraught, and immediately Googled what to do after having unprotected receptive anal sex. I read about PEP, the 28-day drug cocktail that retroactively prevents possible exposure to HIV from becoming a permanent infection, and went as fast as I could to the LGBT Center in Hollywood, where I procured a prescription.
I was disturbed, mortified, and humiliated by my self-destructive behavior, but I felt even more embarrassed by how naïve I had been to confuse Troye’s blooming fantasy with instructions for my own life. It was one thing for a teenager to sing along to pop songs in his bedroom; it was another for a grown man to use those songs as a road map for navigating sex and love.
I left L.A. and moved to New York. Then, a few months later, Gay Twitter—and I—wigged out again. This time, it was over Kim Petras—a German trans woman and pop diva who specializes in addictive songs about heartache, wild material consumption, and growing up.
Back in 2009, Kim became one of the youngest people in the world to undergo gender-confirmation surgery, at the age of 16. Now, as a singer, she playfully takes diva bravado to its limits; her persona is boastful, indulgent, demanding. On singles like “Heart to Break” and “I Don’t Want It At All,” her voice is so pure, her hooks so confectionary, her visions so outrageous, that they don’t seem as if they’re even supposed to exist beyond the realm of fantasy. The message at the heart of her bubblegum pop is that queer people have the unique gift of self-making—the potential and power to fashion themselves into whoever they want to be, on their own terms.
I don’t desire Kim’s designer clothes or her hillside boys or the pills popped in Range Rovers, but she still feels like the perfect queen to worship. She wouldn’t claim to be giving me a road map. Instead, she puts it on me to forge my own path, shaking my ass while I find my way.