I was one of the unfortunates growing up in August of 1980. I was too young, and music was still about four years away from consuming my teenage life, to appreciate the game-changing influence of MTV. To exasperate the situation further, my parents didn’t see cable television as a necessity in our home. Besides, secular music was satanic. That’s not to say music wasn’t appreciated in our household. We attended church three times a week and we started and ended each session with songs written and approved by our religious organization. What’s more, we had our church’s catalog of over one hundred hymns conveniently pressed into a 10-vinyl record collection so that we could practice praising the lord from the comfort of our homes.
My aunt would come over to rehearse weekly songs. She would flip through the record collection, pulling out random records and checking out the back for the track listing. Eventually, she would find the song she was looking for and she would instruct me, my sister and my cousin to sing. The records contained just the music and we would sing the lyrics from our accompanying hymnal book, which was just a book of sheet music for each song.
Being kids and not trained to sing, we always delivered the songs in falsetto even if the song did not call for it. This always infuriated my aunt, who unleashed her rage on me and my cousin. Never at my sister. But, then again, I was male and so was my cousin.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” She would scream. “Sing it like a man,” she barked.
Sing it like a man. At that age of about 8 years old, I had no concept of what a man was. I had an idea, which was drilled into me by leaders of my church, proselytizing from the pulpit, that men did not sleep with men; men did not answer to any woman; that men were masculine and put on this earth to procreate. My aunt was merely repeating the dogma with cultish fervor, never stopping to rationalize how this would affect these young children she was charged to teach praises to the lord.
Even then I already sensed that I was different. Gay is what I was, although the language wasn’t quite there yet. I knew it in the same way that straight little boys also know that when they like little girls, they chase them at recess around the playground and pull their hair as expressions of affection.
It wasn’t until I was twelve that I was able to consolidate the conflicting feelings inside of me. On the one hand, I knew I was gay. On the other hand, I knew it was wrong because I was told all my life that it was wrong. This realization came in the form of a music video. Not from MTV, but from a public access TV station that aired Video One, an MTV-style one-hour program featuring the latest music videos, as well as videos from the recent past.
This particular day, I was home sick watching TV in my bedroom. Even in mid-1980s, the television set was already old—a Zenith black and white model with a 12-inch screen. I turned the channel to Video One and laid my head on the pillow. I loved the weird storylines that accompanied most of the music of that time. This time around, it was a video I hadn’t seen before: A camera panned in on a bedroom. It, then, cuts to a living room. Into the frame comes a hand pushing a vacuum cleaner. As the person is revealed, we get an image of a woman in a tight blouse and a leather mini skirt. But something was off. This woman had a full mustache. Then, that rich baritone voice proclaims, “I want to break free!” This was no woman. This was Freddy Mercury in full drag, shattering my concept of gender conformity. In that moment, I knew, deep down inside that I could not betray who I was. I would have to keep it to myself, but I would eventually break free.
Music has the power to liberate, but the images that accompanied that music brought the subtext to the fore. Video clips such as Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” and “Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show helped me navigate my role in the context of masculinity and my choice to subvert it.