Pride Month 2020: Sufjan Stevens’ music resonates with the queer community, his sexuality matters not
That his music makes queer folks feel heard is a beautiful thing but does it matter if he is straight or gay? And more importantly, do we deserve to know that?
For fans of Sufjan Stevens, the question of the singer-songwriter’s sexuality remains unanswered. Reddit threads, questions on Quora, and even the Facebook pages called “Is This Sufjan Stevens Song Gay Or Just About God?” and “Heteros Desperately Trying To Interpret Sufjan Stevens Lyrics As Platonic” seems to have found no answers.
The 44-year-old musician is unique in many respects. Stevens’ songs are ethereal -- sometimes maximalist electronica, sometimes folksy, sometimes minimalist indie -- and full of rich, heartbreaking stories about flawed and broken people. They encourage a strange kind of vulnerability, unlocking a storm of deep, unsettling emotions. In a way, his music is a kind of religious experience. It’s always intimate. It’s always personal.
For many, however, Stevens’ music is also wholeheartedly gay. While there is nothing discernibly queer about the ‘Chicago’ singer’s work, the ambiguity of his lyrics often makes for a good cover for queer emotions and thoughts. Take, for example, the song ‘The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!’ from his 2005 album ‘Illinoise’.
The lyrics go: “North of Sylvanna we swim in the Palisades/I come out wearing my brother's red hat/There on his shoulder my best friend is bit seven times/He runs washing his face in his hands/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.”
There is always the possibility, as is the case with many of Stevens’ songs, that he’s lending his voice to a character (real or fictional) here. Still, for queer fans of Stevens, this song has held special meaning for long. For many, it was a vindication of their long-held belief: Stevens is gay.
For others, proof also came in the form of the two original songs he composed for Luca Guadagnino’s 2017 coming-of-age romantic drama film ‘Call Me by Your Name’, based on the 2007 novel of the same name by André Aciman. Stevens’ songs ‘Mystery of Love’ and ‘Visions of Gideon’ bookended the relationship of 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and 24-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer). Guadagnino may not want to call his work a “gay film” but that doesn’t make it so.
Adding to this overwhelming pile of circumstantial evidence is also Stevens’ Tumblr post from 2019 during Pride Month, where he wrote, “To love yourself, you must know yourself. And to know yourself, you must love yourself. Love then is a sublime and universal understanding of self and of others. Love is a discipline of one’s own self-consciousness. Love is beautiful. Love is just. It must endure, it must evolve, it must expand, it must be born-again.”
He further wrote, “If loving others means loving and knowing yourself, then the failure to love is a failure to be oneself, a failure to be human; an inexcusable and unforgivable crime, and an offense to your humanity. It’s no secret that human history is an incriminating record at times entirely absent of love. We divide and conquer, disenfranchise, enslave, ostracize, oppress, debase, diminish, destroy, and utterly annihilate on the basis of superficial distinctions among us.”
“It’s astounding,” wrote Stevens, “how much of our world still continues to teach us to feel shame. For the color of our skin. For our poverty. For our wealth. For our education. For our religion. For our privilege. For our special need. For our sexuality. For being naked in a garden.”
For fans, Stevens’s music is as gay as they come. Perhaps it has something to do with the private nature of them, the longing in them. Whether or not his songs are about queerness or about Christianity (yes, Stevens is deeply religious and his songs document this, sometimes through devotion, sometimes through shaken beliefs), the question of Stevens’ sexuality is one we should retire now.
That his music makes queer folks feel heard is a beautiful thing. But does it matter if he is straight or gay? And more importantly, do we deserve to know that? It’s his prerogative to remain private about it. What is important is that his music touches people. What is important is that his music makes people feel things that they would otherwise be able to articulate. It doesn’t matter if Sufjan Stevens is straight or queer.