“I talk about being gay — you might have already noticed some of the subtle messaging on the stage. But I’m gay and I talk about being gay kind of a lot. I’m sure some people wish I would shut up about it sometimes. But I have my reasons — you know — and like, some of them are personal because I spent such a long time wishing I wasn’t gay — being ashamed of that. So now it’s like we’re making up for lost time — you know?
But what I wanted to say to you guys was that the only reason that I’m even able to be up here talking about my gay self is because of all the people that came before me that have fought for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people….”
–Olly Alexander, from the Pyramid Stage of the Glastonbury Music Festival, Worthy Farm, United Kingdom, June 30, 2019.
Months earlier, Mr. Alexander said as much at Terminal 5. After accepting a rainbow flag from someone in the audience, he draped it about his shoulders and declared, “Well, I guess you know I’m gay.”
But as the crowd carried on cheering and shouting, he became suddenly sheepish and vulnerable. He held the microphone tentatively before continuing; and, when he did, his words came with a smile as if to ward off rejection. There was no obvious disdain in the crowd; but, in that brief moment of doubt, Mr. Alexander betrayed an honesty so rarely glimpsed: He was an openly gay performer demanding “Take me as I am.” The last time I remember a gauntlet like that being thrown down at a show was back in 2001.
In those days, Tim Daly and Pablo Das used to play the downtown Antifolk music scene as a duo called “Testosterone Kills.” Das once labeled them an “electro-folk/antifolk Indigo Boys.” Others, like Murray Moss, former proprietor of the Moss Design Gallery in SoHo, insisted they were “what Simon and Garfunkel might have been if they fucked each other and grew up on Nirvana and techno and had day jobs at Moss.” Regardless, the band stood out on the circuit not only because its members were openly gay, but because they were the only ones willing to do so among the hundreds of other eclectic regulars. In fact, Testosterone Kills was probably king of the eclectics, more Antifolk than anyone else.
It was a typical Monday night at the Sidewalk Cafe on Avenue A and East 6th Street — otherwise known as Open Mic Night — or, more colloquially, “Lach’s Antihoot.” Musicians signed up for a spot at 7:30. Lach, as host, would have them draw numbers from a hat; and afterward, they’d start performing at 8. Shortly before 10, a duo I never heard of before ascended to the cramped, smoky stage. Tim — the one wearing shades or transition glasses — accompanied Pablo — the one brandishing an acoustic guitar. I can’t remember which, but one of the guys wore a shirt with the band’s name scrawled across President Bush’s face. It made me laugh. I was about to head over to the bar for a beer when their voices emerged. I sat back down.
Theirs was a sheer gust of melody that up to then had been missing. They sang with an exuberance so anathema to everyone else I thought they’d be banned from ever playing Sidewalk again. In bridges, chorus, and verse — in a structured song, no less! — they cleverly hid their challenge. There were lyrics about Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovksy, falling for men, and getting high with a boyfriend — all topics rarely poached for material on the scene. But here they were, revealing the details of their intimate lives. It wasn’t an act. It was Tim and Pablo’s truth. And they were presenting themselves without any comfort of anonymous pronouns. Everything was HE, HE, HE. I want only HIM. I love only HIM. But how would the other patrons in the room react?
As Mr. Alexander dispensed his truth, he had unwavering support. Although not LGBTQ themselves, his bandmates Emre Turkmen and Mike Goldsworthy provided a steady platform from which he could dive. The beats, the bass, and the programming they mined coaxed his body and primed his voice as he fell through the music. From behind their many instruments, they projected as friends, allies, and even good sports when Mr. Alexander had the mind to tease them. It was nearly utopian.
A generation ago, when musicians like Boy George, k.d. lang, Jobriath, and Melissa Etheridge were open about their sexuality, they were often marginalized by the mainstream. They were even sometimes mocked by their peers. But, thankfully today, more and more listeners are welcoming the gauntlet. Whether straight, gay, or somewhere in between, they’re showing they’re up for the challenge. Look no further than reception they’ve been giving for Frank Ocean, Justin Tranter, or Rufus Wainwright; Jake Shears, Hayley Kiyoko, or Olly Alexander.
Photo by Rick Stachura. Mr. Alexander performs with Years & Years at Terminal 5. October 8, 2018.