Why Sufjan Stevens Matters to Queer Folk

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The first time I heard of Sufjan Steven’s was in my dad’s car, going 90 down the freeway. We were on our way to a movie, my sister home from college for winter break.

“There’s an artist writing an album for all 50 states. There’s even one for Michigan.” *

Toward the end of the month, we exchanged Christmas gifts — I gave her a mixtape, DIY-style. I made the album artwork myself, two badly drawn cats cuddling, their tails forming a heart.  The CD had three different Bright Eyes songs, back-to-back. She gave me Sufjan Steven’s Presents. . . Greetings from Michigan, The Great Lakes State.

There’s a few small moments in time when an artist changes your life. Sufjan Stevens is that moment for me. “Should Have Known Better” was released when I was on a road trip to Wisconsin with my four best friends from high school. In a gas station somewhere in Indiana, while the newly released Carrie & Lowell tune blared, I cried. For him, for my friends, for god-forsaken Indiana, and for me. I’m not close with those friends anymore, but, hey, Sufjan taught me “The past is still the past, a bridge to nowhere.”

When I tell someone about that Christmas that changed how I think about music, or that Sufjan soothed me when I grew apart from my best friend’s as we went off to college, I’m met with validation. People understand why the sincerity and wonder in his lyrics are comforting. But, there’s even more moments when Sufjan has reaffirmed my identity, his songs encoded with queerness. This is where people stop validating my feelings — how can a singer-songwriter who dresses like a frat boy à la folk have gay songs? Too often straight people want proof. They want an interview where he points to lyrics about boys loving boys, where he comes out. But we aren’t going to get that. If he came out tomorrow saying he was straight, that wouldn’t change how his songs speak to my experiences navigating the messiness of coming to terms with being queer.

The vagueness of his “love” songs allow them to be for us. For once. He doesn’t use queerness as exploitation, attempting to sell more records (see Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”), but rather as a way to work through love and loss.

Here’s a list of songs that help me daily. It isn’t meant to be proof for people that post “this song isn’t gay, it’s about Jesus” comments on Sufjan’s Youtube videos. This list is for the queer kids who need an artist to tell them it will all be okay. It’s for me 5 years ago.

“To Be Alone With You”

At first listen, “To Be Alone With You” is about god. But, when Sufjan croons, “You gave up your wife and family … to be alone with me … I’ve never met a man who loved me,” it adds layers. This song pairs well with another from the album, “The Dress Looks Nice on You,” in which he sings about a person wearing a dress. For me, this is an act of solidarity for those that want to wear dresses regardless of gender.

Lyrics that help:

When the world looks back, when the face looks after that / I can see a lot of life in you, Yes, I can see a lot of life in you.

“The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades is Out to Get Us!”

Falling in love with your best friend at summer camp? It definitely happened to me.

Lyrics that help:
Oh how I meant to tease him, Oh how I meant no harm / Touching his back with my hand I kiss him, I see the wasp on the length of my arm.

I can’t explain the state that I’m in, The state of my heart, he was my best friend / Into the car, from the back seat, Oh, admiration in falling asleep / All of my powers, day after day,  I can tell you, we swaggered and swayed / Deep in the tower, the prairies below / I can tell you— the telling gets old

My friend is gone, he ran away. I can tell you, I love him each day.

“The Owl and The Tanager”

I like to think of this song as the precursor to the more famous (and next on the list) “Casimir Pulaski Day.” There’s a predatory aspect to this song — Sufjan fell in love and his friend told everyone about it. What follows is a crucifixion. Loving someone and being outed by them is a burden I hope no one has to bear.

Lyrics that help:

All I was wrong trembling in the cage, I was diamonds in the cage / In seven hours I consider death, And your father called to yell at me / You little boy, you little boy.

You touched me inside of my cage, Beneath my shirt your hands embraced me / Come to me feathered and frayed / For I am the ugliest prey,  For I am the ugliest prey / The owl, the reckless reckless praise

“Casimir Pulaski Day”

Sufjan lost a friend at a young age to bone cancer. This song is about questioning how god could be so cruel.

I went to middle school at a Lutheran church in small town Michigan. One night, as I thought about this girl I really loved, I went to my parents crying. I was so worried that when they got to Heaven, god would tell them I was gay and they wouldn’t love me anymore. Faith is hard to hold on to.

Lyrics that help:

All the glory that the Lord has made, and the complications you could do without when I kissed you on the mouth.

In the morning at the top of the stairs, when your father found out what we did that night, and you told me you were scared.

All the glory when he took our place, but he took my shoulders and he shook my face, and he takes and he takes and he takes.

“John Wayne Gacy, JR.”

How can a song about a serial killer comfort the queer soul? The Illinois killer, John Wayne Gacy, was closeted. Here, Sufjan compares himself to him — this song is about hiding burdens, something terrifying.

Lyrics that help:
“On my best behavior, I am really just like him. Look beneath the floorboard for the secrets I have hid.”

 

*Sufjan is not writing an album for all 50 states. He currently has 3 albums based around states.

Greetings from Michigan
Come on Feel the Illinoise
Carrie & Lowell — surrounded in Oregon themes

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