LGBTQ+ Teens Are Finding Solace Through This Gay Musician
Being anything but straight in high school is really hard. Or so I assumed, thanks to my personal experiences of attending a conservative school and being deep in the closet until I literally moved to a more liberal area. I didn’t even know it was possible to be an out lesbian in my teendom, as I was only surrounded by a few white, cis gay men, all of whom were of course in my friend group. Being a gay woman was an entirely different story, where most of us were simply silenced out of existence because we were always assumed straight.
This was my experience—I didn’t even have the privilege of acknowledging I was a lesbian due to this toxic environment. Other people that I later found out were also queer had similar narratives; they either didn’t begin to explore their sexualities until the minute they graduated, or they dealt with other traumatizing experiences, like being out-ed by their former best friend thanks to a good dose of biphobia. Yet, I think of these memories as formative ones; they had to happen for me to fully understand my place and positionality as a queer person.
But . . . what if I did figure it out sooner than I believed I had? I like to think that my “journey” of accepting and loving my lesbian identity wasn’t that convoluted, but I still didn’t have the emotional ups and downs of being gay in grade school. I remember that I would always attempt to process my high school crushes on boys with sad, indie music that was always, without a doubt, straight. Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism was my soundtrack for pseudo heartbreak; Ben Gibbard’s yearning lyrics about the inevitable doom between a man and a woman who once were in love felt like an extension of the heterosexuality I held onto for dear life. I’ve luckily grown from listening to only straight dudes, as I now find it impossible to enjoy any musician that isn’t a woman, or more notably, a queer woman.
Yet, I feel nostalgic for the memories I never had of feeling all the things that are associated with being a gay teen—the crushes, the relationships, even the heartbreak. While I finally was able to experience these formative feelings with and about other women come college, I so desperately wanted to experience them in place of my adolescent compulsory heterosexuality. I was jealous of my straight friends who dealt with their first breakup in high school, but I was even more jealous of the few queer friends who also experienced these moments.
This nostalgia for what I never had peaked when I found myself in two situations of being surrounded by queer teenage girls. The first occasion was nine months ago when I attended a King Princess concert and soon realized I was older than a majority of the die-hard fans, as well as the musician herself, that stood next to me near the front of the crowd. Not only were they younger, but they were also very, very queer, thanks to their posters confessing their love for Mikaela and the literal bras they threw on stage. I was amazed, astounded, flabbergasted! I could never imagine myself at 16 being not only so certain of my gayness but flat out also flaunting it at a concert, where the musician was also explicitly singing about pussy and how hot women are.
The second was a similar scenario, but instead a few weeks ago but at at the concert of girl in red concert, a young Norwegian artist who had gained a large gay following after releasing the lesbian anthem of “girls” last summer. Also younger than myself, Marie Ulven’s fans were primarily high-school aged and most definitely gay. While King Pinrcess’s teenage fans showed their queerness through lusting over the artist, it felt that girl in red’s treated the singer-songwriter like some lesbian savior whose songs made them realize some very important things about themselves. Being in a sea of lesbian teens scream-singing the explicitly queer lyrics of “They’re so pretty with their button-up shirts” from “girls” or the details of a hot but regretful hookup in “bad idea!” was like some gay religious experience. Hearing a fan yell “I’m so gay!” during one of Marie’s songs confirmed that the space was, in fact, queer, and not just because the musician sings about her sexuality so openly.
I realized it was not just about the relationship between musician and fan, but the relationships between the fans, whether realized or not, that held significance. Having the privilege of witnessing gay teens interact with each other, whether that meant making meaningful queer connections or, on a simpler level, singing gay lyrics together, only made me wonder: where were my queer spaces when growing up? Is it only possible to exist as shamelessly queer as a highschooler due to this influx, or dare I say popularity, in queer musicians who offer the space, both literally and figuratively?
It was quite obvious that these younger fans were finding some sort of queer solace through the space that girl in red provided, whether through observing two girls kiss between songs or the by that aforementioned proclamationiming of “I’m so gay!” But were they only “so gay” in this space, or did they take this same attitude to other spheres? Were they only unabashed in their queer desire because the lyrics they were singing along to facilitated those attitudes?
From talking about these topics with the teens themselves, I quickly realized that gay kids do have spaces to be their queerest selves, and that the phsyical space of girl in red’s concert acted as a prime example to unify diverse LGBTQ+ experiences in one promising room. Although I felt similar gay emotions (and possibly tears) from her performance, I had found the artist way past adolescence and a bit past my baby gay phase. What did her space mean for the baby gays themselves?
While it may not be accurate to call every queer highschooler a “baby gay,”, as some have known their entire lives, it was evident that the artist’s music can help clear the air for those that are experiencing the emotional rollercoaster that is early queerness. Alex, a 15-year-old lesbian, told me, “When I was a baby gay looking on Youtube for lesbian songs, girl in red’s ‘girls’ was one of the first I found, and I’ve been emotionally attached [ever since]. So naturally, I cried when I saw Marie sing it live. Because, like, fuck yeah, they’re so pretty it hurts, and fuck yeah, I’m talking about girls!” Her experience was one that felt collective for all queer girls or women listening, either through their Spotify accounts, Youtube channels, or local concert venues. Being able to hear a talented musician sing about the intimate and nuanced feelings of realizing you also like other girls is a rare moment, making any exposure to this kind of music so special. I understood here why her music is so formative for gay teens rather than adults; instead of singing about queerness in a highly-politicized manner (like Janelle Monáe, most admirably for example), she gushes about the typical teenage feelings that surface when you finally understand your non-normative desires—being obsessed with how “pretty” they are, wanting to fall in love with a cute girl in October, yearning for someone you can’t have.
Alison, a 17-year-old senior in high school who identifies as a lesbian, also listens to girl in red’s music out of desire to relate to lyrics about her sexuality. She says, “Not many LGBT musicians make their sexuality public, so girl in red’s music lets me embrace who I am, where I can feel loved and accepted without any fear. This was important to me, especially being a young adult, which is a time where you are still figuring out who you are and [how] to make your way in the world.”
Although it may be difficult to find the political significance of a 20-year-old woman singing about her infatuation and hookups with other women—, and maybe Marie doesn’t even wish to be that radical—, it’s still a radical act in itself to be that shameless and public about queer sexuality, and to It is to ultimately make young, gay women feel more comfortable in their skin. So what’s the big deal with live performances, then? Alison continued to say that the small venue made it an intimate concert, making her “feel united with the people around [her], … without any judgement surrounding [her],” a scenario that’s only possible through the shared interest of her music.
Marie Ulven didn’t only create a queer space, but she normalized queerness through her performance (whether intentional or not) for her young fans. Julie, a gay 17-year-old junior, felt this normalization, too. , and she told me, She said, “Seeing girl in red, someone who I have related to for so long, felt very comfortable because it was all an audience of people like me, with similar [gay] experiences. But even if she’s an LGBT artist, what stood out to me is that she didn’t just talk about being gay in the pauses when she made connections with us. She made it normal[ized], but still special.” This fine line between being both normalized and special is a concern many queer teens grapple with; while they wish to feel just like everybody else, they also want their unique experiences to be vocalized by others besides themselves. A concert such as this could facilitate those two wishes, where queer desires are automatically normalized by being in a crowd where almost everyone feels those desires, too.
Simply being surrounded by other queers is powerful in itself, but being able to sing along with them about their queerness is what I would call an ethereal experience. Alex notes this when she says, “[Before the concert] I had never really been in a place filled with WLW and dedicated to singing about how beautiful it is to be a woman who loves women.” It could be argued that girl in red’s show was queerer than most Pride parades, where the rainbow flag Marie brought out in the middle of her performance was most definitely not the gayest component. What stood out to me the most, through my own experiences at the concert and through talking with these young women, was that although everyone came from diverse backgrounds of queerness, ranging from how “out” they were to their relationship status, there seemed to be a general theme of ultimate love and support from both the musician herself and her swarm of fans.
It’s necessary to not assume that not everyone at the show was fully and publicly sexually liberated, even if most were unashamedly queer in the physical space. Instead of perceiving the concert to merely be a site for fans who seemed to be out and entirely sure of themselves, I instead saw the concert as a form of solace, whether that means out teens seeking more queer community and experiences, or closeted teens in search of support that they couldn’t find in their other circles of home, school, or elsewhere. A touching highlight of my experience at the show revealed this aspect of support, where I witnessed Camby, a bisexual 15-year-old, being brought on stage by Marie herself. I had the fortune of being able to speak with her a few days later, and she told me, “One moment [of the show] that really stood out to me was when I was called up on stage [by Marie] after explaining to her that I was kicked out [of my home] and how her music truly helped me through the tough times. Being in a queer space with others like me and that can support me made me feel safe, it made me feel as if I can be accepted for who I am and not have to worry about being judged for who I love.” She understandably says that the show was “one of the most amazing experiences [she’s] ever had,” and obviously not just because she’s a fan of the music. Fortunately, her living situation has gotten better, and she was also able to experience the concert with one of her bisexual friends who also uses girl in red’s music to get through the struggles of living with homophobic parents. Her concert both provided comfort on an individual and collective basis, where teens went alone, with their queer friends, with their girlfriends, or even with their siblings.
But at the end of the day, no matter how diverse everyone’s identities, experiences, and ages were, girl in red was able to unify the crowd in their queerness, even if only for an hour. I saw the same happen at King Princess, and also at other shows that hold slightly older LGBTQ+ audiences, like Adult Mom, Snail Mail, or even Charli XCX. I continue to listen to a majority queer musicians for this exact reason, as even listening to these artists on one of my many Spotify playlists feels like an act of me validating my lesbian identity. And maybe, just maybe, it’s also an act of me attempting to make up for my lack of queer high school experiences.
This influx in queer music doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is rainbows and sunshine for us queer folks, and particularly for queer teenagers. Rather, it acts as an outlet for those that need it the most, giving them the space to be outwardly queer and audaciously sing “I wanna kiss you until I lose my breath” about their girlfriend, their crush, or their future wife they haven’t met just yet in the midst of a scary, heteronormative world.
About the Author
Natalie Geisel (she/her) is a senior at The George Washington University studying women’s, gender, and sexuality studies with minors in English and communication. Her love of writing sprouted from starting her fashion blog in high school, and her current written work focuses on topics of LGBTQ+ content, culture, and identity. Launching and managing Camp Thirlby was out of interest in intersecting gender and sexuality into the world of youth and wellness, hoping to add marginalized voices, like her own queer one, to an underrepresented community. When she’s not writing, she spends her spare time at dance rehearsal, attending local indie shows in the DC area, or finding the best cafes that serve oat milk. She’s passionate about inclusive sex education and sustainable fashion and thinks everyone should be, too. You can view all of her written work on her website.