The 2000s Made Me Gay

Grace Perry is “Hella Gay”, and it’s all thanks to growing up in the 2000s; or, at least, it didn’t hurt. Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it! (Kind of). Dumbledore was outed! (Kind of). Taylor Swift sang about… well. You get the picture. So, there wasn’t great actual queer representation in popular culture when Grace Perry was growing up, but she was able to make do with interpreting what was obviously meant to be gay subtext and applying it to her own budding internalized homophobia, eventually breaking through into full-blown homosexuality. This collection of essays centers the popular culture from movies, to music, to TV shows, to memes, which informed Perry’s sexuality. In part, it’s also a memoir of growing up Catholic in the Midwest and coming to terms with an identity which wasn’t openly discussed, portrayed, or accepted in the way it is today.

If you’re not fairly familiar with early 2000s pop culture yourself, there will be a bit of a steep learning curve when you first begin this book, as Perry throws at least two dozen references into the introduction, setting up an expectation of what is to follow. She also sets a tone of lighthearted reverence, making clear that her attachment to early 2000s pop culture is real, and truly informed the person she grew up to be—but also that it can be a little ridiculous: binge watching shows, crying over the same songs on repeat, or modeling yourself after that boy who just seems so sensitive and sweet. Pop culture is far from perfect, and the criticism which has been directed at various phenomena may have had their merit, but Perry isn’t here to engage with the naysayers and haters. Perry is here to tell you the ways in which the souvenirs of those vacations into pop culture fantasy have reverberated through her life, eliciting memories both fond and cringe-worthy, and refusing to back down from any of it.

Perry starts every chapter focused on one example of early 2000s pop culture, widening her scope from the opening paragraphs to explain both the example itself as well as its relationship to her own life, but then halfway through a shift happens. A reference which seems perhaps superficial and personal opens into a wider conversation about something else entirely, weaving together the threads of what exists in the popular consciousness with the stirrings of more queerly intellection thought. A chapter which begins expounding upon the enjoyment of the song “Pussy is God” by King Princess, for example, becomes a way to have a conversation about the etymology of the phrase “coming out” and how it perhaps fails to represent the current experience of “out” queers. In another, The MTV reality shows “Real World” and the spinoff series, “The Challenge,” begins as an exploration of the few openly lesbian women Perry ever saw on screen, which then shifts to speak about gender essentialism and the potential harm perpetuated by feeding into masculine and feminine stereotypes. Or, say, J.K. Rowling’s retconning Dumbledore begins as a way to vent some personal feelings about the situation, then delves deeper into the motivation of straight writers to include queer characters in their art (book, show, movie), often leading to flat or caricatured characters with no real value, nor an understanding of how they affected the young queers who were engaging with that media. Throughout, Perry maintains a levity about what she’s discussing, but the topics are substantive, and the critiques well-considered.

Photo: Grace Perry, essayist, journalist, comedian

“The 2000s Made Me Gay” is not only a way to situate pop culture in the larger scheme of queer existence, but also a way for Perry to introspect about her own experience with discovering her sexuality, and how the pop culture she consumed informed and reinforced her own sense of self. From considering herself straight even when she was kissing her female Catholic school-mate, to searching desperately for a woman to have sex with as a way to prove her sexuality, to ultimate acceptance of her lesbianism and all that being out entails, Perry uses what she was viewing in pop culture at the time to contextualize her own experiences. She recognizes this as a strategy she used “to be a passive observer in [her] personal journey,” rather than “participate in [her] own life.” Perry wanted coming out to happen, without having to seek it out or actively engage in the process. Part of her reluctance to do so was modeled after the way she’d seen pop culture icons exhibit homosexuality and then qualify it away, as in the cases of Lindsay Lohan or Katy Perry (early 2000s Katy Perry, remember.) To see the way those flirtations with queerness were portrayed and mocked, contributed to an internalized homophobia that Perry concedes still lurks inside her.

“Internalized homophobia is a sneaky thing,” she writes. “It crops up at inconvenient times, making our insides feel icy and our heads briefly disassociate from our bodies. I feel pangs of it when I opt to wear a dress to a family wedding instead of a suit, or when I kiss a girl on a busy street, or when I insist that I don’t want to chop my hair off because ‘I don’t have the face for it.’ It sits inside me. It’s that gross part of me that feels validated by straight girls crushing on me, valuing their straightness over others’ queerness.” It is in these moments of personal and honest reflection that Perry is most endeared to a readership that will recognize those feelings, even if they don’t share in their origins.

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For everything Perry does well in this collection, there are some instances where the very nature of addressing things – which everyone has their own experience of – makes for points of contention. Having so many almost-queer content to choose from, there is a natural sense of “Yes, but what about –” which queer millennials will certainly feel, as they remember their own cultural touch-points. For every nostalgic jolt provided by remembering “Cadet Kelly” for the first time in years, there will be an absence of say… “Kissing Jessica Stein.” There is also a sense that these essays are a long game of the chicken or the egg: did she learn from queer-coded culture how to shape an identity, or was she simply more interested in those things which she already recognized in herself? She never quite answers the question, providing ample evidence for both possibilities, and passing on the question to other millennials who have played the same game.

In a tone that is both indulgent and critical, Perry’s examples and reflection on the role of pop culture in shaping identity and informing societal acceptance of queerness ends on a note both hopeful and resentful. Young queers today, she posits, have so many more models of queerness to choose from, have eschewed the narrative of living in darkness and repression before their personal enlightenments, and have every option available to them. Of course, the world isn’t a perfect place for queer individuals, but it’s a better place than it was in the early 2000s. Queer millennials sit in the middle of a rocker which teeters from the memories of representative famine to futures of queer abundance, and while that has the potential to fill the coffers of optimism, it also allows for a precarious mental exercise. “It’s not about things getting better in any linear fashion,” Perry concludes, “but holding a painful past and an optimistic future together, one in each hand, at the same time.”

“The 2000s Made Me Gay” will be released in June 2021. This gives you plenty of time to re-binge all your queer-ish favorites, crank the Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, and get caught up with the reboot of “The L Word” while complaining about all the things the original show did poorly (even while being able to quote large sections of it verbatim), before reading Grace Perry’s always-entertaining takes on them. If you’re engaging in the same balancing act as Perry, perhaps this will give you a chance to set down that burden to crack open this book instead, and revisit all of your favorites through someone else’s eyes.

About this book

  • ISBN:9781250760159
  • Price:16.99
  • Page Count:288

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