I love Diana Ross. I love Village People. I have danced to “I’m Coming Out” and “Y.M.C.A” with the best of them – but I have also cried in the bathroom or under a table while everyone else sings Pride anthems until their voices go hoarse. My goal here is not to decry the classics, but to offer a few queer standards from genres that generally get underplayed around this time of year. I have a complicated relationship with Pride and sometimes Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” just doesn’t feel like me. The songs on this playlist have all offered me something on my journey as a gay man, and if they seem painful or arcane, it is only because we cannot always bring our gayest selves to the party — but that does not make us any less gay.
“David” — The Radio Dept. (David)
This is the way I always imagined my life would go. “David” is a song about two guys who just happen to be gay. They have a casual (but long-term) relationship that feels like it could be something more. I would listen to it in high school while driving home on the freeway and wonder if there was a David for me somewhere in the traffic. It did not occur to me that the mellow, laid-back lyrics of a dream pop band from Sweden might not translate well into my chaotic life. I can’t say the archetype of the cool, noncommittal boy lost inside himself really appeals to me anymore. But “David” is a pretty song, and The Radio Dept. does a spectacular job of capturing a forward-facing nostalgia that has been an embarrassingly large part of my queer experience.
“Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor” — Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Leonard Bernstein edition)
Tchaikovsky is one of the most radically queer artists that has ever lived. As a seventh grader, I would secretly read the love letters he wrote to the men in his life and was struck by how tortured and pitiful they sounded. I’ve always wondered how someone so sad could compose so courageously. Tchaikovsky did not have an easy life, but when I listen to this piano concerto, I’m overcome by its profound joy. It starts with a burst of horns so explosive that it burns off into a rippling piano and a lilt of strings. Until I heard Tchaikovsky, I understood classical music as a sort of exceptionally pretty noise, but his work taught me that music works as cell memory. It holds so much devastation, relief, pride and rage that you come to share the composer’s emotions in a way that even a love letter fails to capture. I have never met a man as good at expressing his emotions as Tchaikovsky, and I doubt I ever will.
“El Hal Romancy” — Mashrou’ Leila (El Hal Romancy)
Mashrou’ Leila is an alt band from Lebanon with a sound and a rhetorical style that makes it one of the leading voices in queer arts activism. Its new releases are glorious, but I wanted to feature a throwback to an older album that remains timely. “El Hal Romancy,” meaning “The Solution is Romantic,” balances a lively guitar and violin with an underlying charm and radicalism. Lead vocalist Hamed Sinno, an out gay man, sings, “تزوجنى و أقرأ أنجلز فى سريرى” — “Marry me and read Engels in my bed.” I was drawn to Mashrou’ Leila for its musicianship, but its lyrics make me feel connected in a way in which more mainstream queer pop music has failed. As I contemplate the corporate displays of LGBTQ+ sponsorship that will subsume San Francisco Pride on Sunday, I cannot help but smile when I think of the line, “حبك كسرة القطاع الخاص” — “Your love broke the private sector.”
“Half Ladies” — Christine and the Queens (Chaleur Humaine)
Christine and the Queens is a French artist who records songs in both French and English. I am drawn to “Half Ladies” because it tackles gender disruption with a grace and smoothness that does not get acknowledged as much as the confusion and pain that can come with the process. I love the line “Pour chaque insulte lancé / Il pousse un grain de beauté,” which translates almost seamlessly into the English version as “Every insult I hear back / Darkens into a beauty mark.” As someone who loves wearing dresses but was deeply ashamed to do so publicly for more than a decade, this song helps me arrange the past into something more livable. Where I always looked for answers, “Half Ladies” offers a quiet closure. I could sit with the song for hours, wearing a pair of pink suede heels and a vintage floral dress, and be overwhelmed each time Christine sings, “C’est passé.”
“Ain’t Nobody Straight in LA” — The Miracles (City of Angels)
The worst Prides of my life happened in Los Angeles. It is an odd twist of fate that LA Pride corresponds almost perfectly with my birthday, a fact I am less enchanted with each year. In 2016, the Pulse nightclub shooting wiped away any desire I had to celebrate. In 2017, I broke up with my first love and stood on Santa Monica Boulevard in a gilt-gold cocktail dress with tears running down the inside of my Jackie O sunglasses, hating every moment of turning 20.
Since then I have grown up a lot, but a small part of me still dreads Pride, dreads my birthday, dreads facing both at the same time in LA. Pride has everything to do with being present, and I am not very good at that. But a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe in the Mission when a song came on the stereo. It sounded like a Motown classic, but it was about being gay in LA. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that something so fun, so out, could have survived the ravages of the music industry. And yet there it was, written and recorded by the Miracles in 1975: a rhythm, a groove, a bass line that makes me glad to be out and alive. And suddenly there is nowhere I would rather be than in a car driving down Santa Monica Boulevard with the windows rolled down in mid-June when the sidewalks look like something out of “The Wizard of Oz” and we are all a year older.