Some­one For Me – Whit­ney and Me

Hello Mr. Magazine - - GROW TO UNDERSTAND - By Jesse Koehler

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.

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