What were you watching, reading, or listening to when you first came out? | Feature | Chicago Reader

What were you watching, reading, or listening to when you first came out? 

Twenty-two LGBTQ+ Chicagoans share their personal touchstones.

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Raziel Puma

It's Pride month, sinners, and with that comes a melange of rainbow-slathered everything. Yay, love! Yay, parades! As queerness becomes more marketable, however, it risks becoming more whitewashed. So! To keep the "homo" out of homogenization, we spoke with the city's queer and creative about the media that influenced them most as they were coming out—a reminder that there's no one right way to forge an identity.

click to enlarge Joe Lewis - RAZIEL PUMA
  • Joe Lewis
  • Raziel Puma

Joe Lewis, drag performer

32, he/him/they/them

There was this online publication called Curfew that [was] all about the party scene in D.C., and I used to read the hell out of it and image the exciting gay life I'd escape to. I had to hide my sexuality in the beginning, so I would pilfer through my mom's CD collection—she had all the Celine Dion, and she also had some KD Lang stuff. When I really want to get in touch with my gayness, that's what I put on.

click to enlarge Devlyn Camp - RAZIEL PUMA
  • Devlyn Camp
  • Raziel Puma

Devlyn Camp, creator of the Mattachine podcast

26, they/them

As I was coming out, I was simultaneously wrapped up in my first relationship. He was the lead of our county summer musical, and we were bonding over Moulin Rouge—a story about a forbidden romance between a writer and the star of a musical. Right on the nose, huh? I knew I was attracted to men physically, but not quite ready to accept that romance with them was real. The first line of the climactic song "Come What May" really made my feelings for him sink in: "Never knew I could feel like this / Like I've never seen the sky before." It's camp, but the stakes are serious. With one foot grounded in painful drama, the absurd moments are even more hilarious. What's queerer than that?

Liz Dumler, activist and nightlife host

28, she/her/they/them

Dolly Parton as a whole entity was very important to me growing up. There are few country icons who are both meaningful to queers and traditional Appalachian families. Dolly Parton was that crossover for me. I could sing along to her songs with my country-proper grandpa and nothing about it felt strange or forced, and I knew it was meaningful to both of us. I remember seeing Dolly playing the banjo with inch-long acrylics, and my country femme idol appeared just like that. Being a high, hard femme from the country (or what I lovingly call a "dirt femme"), I try to show that there are more dynamics to us Appalachian queers while still doing work to support my home, even from a distance—I learned that from Dolly.

Sky Cubacub, owner-operator of Rebirth Garments

26, they/them

Xena: Warrior Princess has always been the most important piece of media to my queerness. I watched it when it aired on TV originally, and I have rewatched it many times (four full times in the past year alone!). I can't believe people minimize Xena and Gabrielle's relationship, especially when Xena literally introduces Gabrielle as her "soulmate" to Xena's former female lover's ghost—and they also have a baby together! It was very important for me to see these amazing queers dress whatever way they wanted—and it is for themselves and not for others—while kicking some serious butt.

click to enlarge Brendan Fernandes - RAZIEL PUMA
  • Brendan Fernandes
  • Raziel Puma

Brendan Fernandes, artist

39, he/him

We didn't have the Internet when I was coming out, so things like Bikini Kill and riot grrrl zines were so important—they gave me the sense that other people were out there, which was so empowering. I was living in the suburbs of Toronto, but I would write letters and then get a zine in the mail.

Alex Grelle, Shelley Duvall impersonator and cocurator of Ordinary Peepholes

32, he/him

I'm embarrassed to admit this because the show has turned into trash, but the Real World on MTV had a huge influence on me. I was only supposed to like girls, but when Danny from Real World: New Orleans was introduced to me in my early high school years something clicked. I knew I was gay and OK with it. I'm still hoping Danny and I can get married.

Morgan Martinez, editor in chief of Hooligan Mag

23, she/her

When I was younger, it was a lot of Paramore, a lot of Bleached, a lot of Tegan and Sara—old Tegan and Sara—it was a very pure time. Back then I just listened to whatever made me feel good—I'm a lot more conscious of what I listen to now, but I think I just really needed that in the moment.

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  • Rivka Yeker
  • Raziel Puma

Rivka Yeker,
cofounder and managing editor of Hooligan

21, she/her/they/them

In high school, I started listening to a lot of feminine punk bands and emo music made by nonbinary folks and noncismen. I'd internalized so much misogyny when I was younger and had just dismissed womanhood, so that was a way for me to reengage.

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  • Pidgeon Pagonis
  • Raziel Puma

Pidgeon Pagonis, intersex activist, educator, and filmmaker

32, they/them

My mom told me that she used to put on Michael Jackson's Moonwalker tape when I was little and I would just watch it over and over again. There's a queer aesthetic to Jackson's performances and his way of being. He was an adult who preferred to live in a world of childlike fantasy, which is queer in and of itself. Living in place called Neverland with a chimpanzee? That's the queerest thing ever to me.

Vicente Ugartchea, artist

28, he/him

The core of horror films rests in the fear of the abject and the unknown, so women's bodies, queer themes, and biofluids are forefronted in many films. I gravitated to the horror genre for this very reason. I remember watching Sleepaway Camp when I was around eight years old and while my family was absolutely repulsed by the film, I sat there marveling at the protagonist. Here was a trans girl trying to navigate a world that was constantly assaulting her, citing essentialist notions of womanhood which reflected real-world trans experiences. However: She. Fought. Back.

Sean Estelle, national network coordinator, Power Shift Network

26, they/them

The single most important piece of media to me as I was coming out was Angels in America. It was my freshman year of college, I had just landed a part in an ensemble of mostly graduate students putting up Chekhov's The Seagull, and I was going through a crisis of self because of the desires I was feeling and the humanity of the queer people I was coming into relationship with. Eventually, I came out to the whole cast, and one of them handed me the text of Angels and told me to read it. The play resonated in a deep way—it was trying to tell a story at the same mythological level as the Bible stories I was raised on. And it worked!

Brittany Meyer, founder and producer of Strip Joker

27, they/them

One of the biggest pieces that influenced me was Ellen DeGeneres's The Beginning. At the top of the hour, she does an interpretative dance of what it's been like since coming out—it was hilarious, and sad, and uplifting, and perfectly kicked off her doing an hour of comedy, almost entirely unaffiliated with that. The first time I watched it was with my homophobic half sister—she's the one who put it on for us. It was odd for me to see her enjoy Ellen's comedy while hating her sexuality—in retrospect, I was very conflicted. Why is it that she gets to enjoy her jokes but vocally disapprove of her sexual orientation, to actively vote against her? To relate to her so much to laugh, but refuse to let her marry another woman and be against her living her life openly gay?

Gnat Rose Madrid, fetish-wear designer and manager of Duro Latinx dance party

27, she/her

My root is definitely Ursula from The Little Mermaid: She was a voluptuous femdom drag queen, and that excited me. When I came out to my family, I watched an MTV documentary about AFAB [assigned female at birth] nonbinary folks called Gender Rebels. This resonated with my own desire spectrum and helped me understand my queer attractions and personal gender journey.

click to enlarge Mika Tosca - RAZIEL PUMA
  • Mika Tosca
  • Raziel Puma

Mika Tosca, climate scientist

33, she/her

One of the most influential movies for me as a child was Ferngully , which propelled me to become a climate/environmental scientist. The protagonist is a female fairy and even though I was assigned male at birth, I always imagined myself as her—fighting corporations and being a badass chick. I'm still inspired by the concerted effort to save the rain forest.

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Mark Joseph Jeffery, artist, professor, and choreographer at Atom-R

45, he/him

Right now, I am obsessed with Borderline, Madonna's first album. The guy who produced that album and started her career, Reggie Lucas, just died. Those songs are really extraordinary and beautiful.

Joseph Varisco, program director of Queer, Ill + Okay and Salonathon curator

33, he/him

I came out early in high school and faced all the standard retaliations from classmates, loss of friends, estrangement from family, and abandonment from the church I had so long been involved with. I found myself going to see plays such as Machinal by Sophie Treadwell, which is about one of the first women to face a death sentence by electric chair. The last scene still provokes me: the character sits at the end of the stage, hair shaved off, strapped down to the electric chair crying out to anyone to help her. I also filled my days with sci-fi series—I loved watching Quantum Leap with my dad—Scott Bakula shirtless was not to be missed. Watching his character inhabit so many different bodies illuminated an early fascination with queerness.

Scott Cramer, cofounder of A Queer Pride, a Pride month event planning organization

36, he/him

Deee-Lite: the music, art, and intersection that the band and Lady Kier created in the

The 90s meant so much to me. It got me to dance, made me feel good about who I am, and gave me hope at times when I struggled. The music is also timeless for me—I can put it on today, and it still takes me back to the first time hearing it. Over the years I've had Lady Kier out to DJ and perform at a number of events including my 30th birthday.

Abhijeet, cofounder of A Queer Pride

25, they/them

I grew up in Mumbai, India, where I lived for 19 years before moving to Chicago for school. I wound up consuming a lot of Western pop culture, and Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk was instrumental in forming my trans identity before I figured it out. I read it when I was 16, and it introduced me to characters who were trans and nonbinary, who were flawed and struggled, who made ends meet and were resourceful. It helped me understand that wanting to change your body is body positivity but also that there aren't any rules to understanding or accepting your body.

Melissa Hespelt, cofounder of A Queer Pride

21, she/her

When Ariel from The Little Mermaid whined, "I've got gadgets and gizmos aplenty. I've got whozits and whatzits galore. You want thingamabobs? I've got 20. But who cares? No big deal. I want more," my five-year-old self felt it deep in her glamour-queen soul. Beyond that, the videos and images I discovered of icons like Amanda Lepore, Lil' Kim, Madonna, and Dolly Parton solidified my own ability to play around with high femme presentation while maintaining control and enjoying my own self-expression.

J Wilson, cofounder of A Queer Pride

25, they/them

When I was first coming out, I was listening to the Scissor Sisters constantly. Their wild, provocative sound and Jake Shears's story of escaping his religious family to travel to New York City resonated with me like nothing had before. Their album Night Work gave me a road map from an adolescence filled with video gaming and self-denial to a glamorous, gritty life among society's outcasts where people survive on what they can.

Albert Williams, associate professor of theater, Columbia College Chicago, and former editor of GayLife and Windy City Times (and longtime Reader contributor)

"No way," he/him

The literature that most influenced me when I was coming into a sense of my gay identity, as a teenager in the 1960s, were Gore Vidal's novels The City and the Pillar and Myra Breckenridge, Patrick Dennis's novel Tony, and the 1968 play The Boys in the Band.

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  • Kristen Kaza
  • Raziel Puma

Kristen Kaza, cultural producer at No Small Plans, Slo 'Mo, and Reunion (and also former Reader director of marketing)

32, she/her

My dad got me a BMG music subscription, and he'd let me pick whichever albums I wanted as long as two were Christian. This was one of those deals where you bought a CD for $20 and then got, like, seven free. I fell into obsessions with the Lilith Fair era of Sarah McLachlan, Tracy Chapman, and Tori Amos, as well as the 90s era of R&B powerhouses like Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah, and Toni Braxton. And while most of these artists aren't gay per se, it was through music that I discovered and explored my sexuality and sense of identity, inspired to be strong, independent, sensual, and proud like the women I listened to. I had insomnia as a teen, so I'd stay up all night listening to music, making mixtapes and writing poetry about people I was pining for. Like, what's more lesbian than that?   v

Correction: Joseph Varisco's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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