Someone For Me – Whitney and Me
She was mine. Mine in a way that others – Donna Summer, Kylie, Gaga – who’ve served similar roles for legions of gays past and present never were or have been since.
Chalk it up to circumstance, timing. On New Year’s Eve 2006, surrounded by a cabal of girls whom I would later recognize as my first group of fag hags, I entered the depths of the Joshua Tree, a straight-as-they-come ’80s video bar on Third Avenue somewhere in the Thirties in Manhattan, and was greeted by Whitney Houston belting that essential interrogative: “How Will I Know.”
The vividness of the memory has more to do with the event’s place in my own life’s narrative than with the truth of anything that happened that evening. I don’t recall when I started explaining it as such, but, for years now, my go-to for a quick response to that inevitable query – when did you know you were gay? – has been: “When I first heard Whitney singing ‘How Will I Know.’”
Like I said, much of it was timing. It had been six months since my friends and I had ended our undergraduate stint together. They were scattered across the country while I remained at university in upstate New York to pursue a second degree. We missed each other in that way perhaps only 22-year-olds can when faced with the reality that, no, you won’t always get to see all 12 of your best friends an average of 6.5 nights a week. During senior year I had cautiously tested the waters of being out – drunken confessions to close female friends, dates with bookish graduate students, businesslike hookups with a know-it-all sophomore – but I still had little more than a foot outside the closet door.
For many of us, our coming out story is more about when we admitted to ourselves than when we knew. By the time I walked into that New Year’s party, emboldened by the laughter and disinhibition of reunion and champagne, I was ready for that admission. The power of Whitney’s anthem as the vehicle for this revelation was its articulation of my own conflicting emotions – a simultaneous fear and euphoria of a character and intensity I’d never encountered.
Sure, there was a boy in particular (“There’s a boy I know…”) for whom my heart was breaking at the time. But, more than that, for a young gay man on the precipice of the closet’s ledge, the song allowed me to embrace my identity while also acclimating to – even being enlivened by – the uncertainty and questions that accompany the coming-out process and, ultimately, our lives as out gay men. How would I know if he really loves me? How would I know if he’s thinking of me?
Whitney became my most reliable companion in the months that followed, as I slogged through snowdrifts and textbooks. She got me out of bed and walked me up the hill to the stacks each morning. She could cure a hangover, and she never protested serving as vocal backup during my daily confrontations with a seemingly inadequate wardrobe. I cultivated a new group of friends (read: hags, take two). Nearly every night we’d end up at the girls’ apartment, with a soundtrack of shameless, sing-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs pop best embodied, for me at least, by Whitney’s dance hits. The indelible mental image from that semester is of all of us jumping and screaming to “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” at some ungodly hour, in that rickety off-campus apartment, well after we’d stumbled down College Avenue from the bars. I had never felt so alive, so fearless, or so loved – loved as the person I knew I was, and was finally becoming. Jesse Koehler is an urban planner living in Vancouver, Canada. Among his increasingly antiquated avocations are devouring hardcover novels and striking up conversations with strangers. You can follow him if you walk quickly.