I was fortunate to see the powerful new Broadway production of “Take Me Out” recently.
There is a compelling scene between Mason, a socially awkward accountant portrayed by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Darren, the macho baseball star played by Jesse Williams. Mason shares that because of his nerdiness, he feels that he doesn’t fit into the gay community. Darren echoes that although he’s a hero in the sports world, he, too doesn’t feel like he belongs in the gay world.
As both a former accountant and athlete, I was particularly moved by this exchange. And it got me thinking that my personal experience – struggling to feel I fit in in my own communities – must be more common than I’d thought.
In high school, they jokingly called me Oz, after the sensitive jock from American Pie. Although I was team captain, my football teammates would tease that I was afraid of girls. I dated women because that’s what the guys I spent most of my time with did. But I was clearly awkward about it, and I didn’t really fit in.
I was good at sports, but not a superstar. I tried out for football and lacrosse at Notre Dame; I was cut from both teams. So I focused on school and graduated with honors. Yet I didn’t really fit in with the smart kids, either. I didn’t have the quick wit of the truly bright kids; I had to work a little harder for my grades.
In my early 20s, while working as an accountant in Cleveland, I finally realized that I was gay. Everything in my upbringing had fought to steer me in a hetero-normative direction. But once I was outside of the influence of my family, my friends and my Catholic upbringing, my true self started to emerge. Late bloomer? What can I say?
At 24, I decided that I didn’t want to get too comfortable in my corporate job. So I quit and moved into an apartment with my college band in Chicago. After that band broke up, I headed to Portland to play in a new band. That was the first time I set foot in a gay bar. It was a leather night. I felt very intimidated, and as soon as I walked in… I walked right back out.
Call me boring, I don’t care. I’m not into partying. If I’m going out, I’m in t-shirt-and-jeans, having a beer at a bar while watching a game or listening to rock and roll at a volume appropriate for conversation. Something about the bass-in-your-face of the club scene gives me anxiety.
Throughout my life I struggled to find my footing, and I couldn’t find my place. Not entirely a jock. Not entirely a nerd. Not at all straight. But in my limited understanding of the gay scene, I felt like I didn’t have anywhere to turn there, either. I had moments of great loneliness, so I put all of my focus into making music.
In 2009 I started my first band as the front man, a garage rock trio called Mutts. My emotions resulted in some pretty heavy songs. Most were lyrically veiled and delivered via screams so that listeners could headbang along without really questioning the meaning.
An early Mutts track said, “we float, cigarette ash on a breeze / burn holes wherever we land / some folks got more than they can stand,” about my early, secretive sexual encounters with other men.
But as I opened up to my band mates, and then other musicians, and then some college friends, I began to realize something: I was isolating myself. Nobody was judging me but me.
While on tour supporting our second LP, Separation Anxiety, I started performing as an openly gay man, telling the stories of the songs on stage and in interviews. I wrote those songs in anticipation of the inevitable – coming out to my family. And it remains the most popular record that my trio released.
Interestingly, the more I put myself out there, the more people were responding. When I started performing under my own name in 2016, I decided to go all in, and for the first time wrote relationship songs with “he” pronouns.
Seeing fans singing along at my shows, and seeing new listeners’ faces light up when they heard me deliver proudly gay lines, made my heart overflow, finally, with acceptance.
It took two decades, but I finally realized that this community is the biggest, most colorful tent in the world. No one was keeping me out. All I had to do was lift up the flap and walk myself in. So I did.
There are jocks, nerds, artists and corporate types. There are gays, lesbians, transgender folks, bisexuals and even some straight allies in here.
People of all ethnic backgrounds and races. People who put ketchup on hot dogs and people who think those people are insane. So yes, there are labels in here.
We even have differences of opinion in here. Together we make a powerful noise and say powerful things with music and art and fashion and by living our truths.
And now this quasi-jock/semi-nerd from Ashtabula, Ohio, gets to play on the main stage at Nashville Pride, knowing it’s exactly where I belong. And that’s some sort of miracle that I’m grateful for in the deepest way possible.
For anyone looking for a place in our community: look for the biggest, most beautiful and colorful tent ever imagined, and walk right in. If I can find a home there, I believe you can too. There’s hope for everyone.