I celebrated this past Pride Month in a very personal way: by going to see Belle and Sebastian at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. Perfume Genius and Frankie Cosmos opened and LGBTQ couples and rainbow gear abounded. It was fabulous. The extra queer vibe I detected might have been largely because of Perfume Genius, who is very openly gay, but, at the time, I chose to believe the whole bill made for the perfect big, gay storm. Either way, it seemed entirely appropriate to me as I reconnected and reckoned with the headliner, my official all-time favorite band. More than any other factor in my life, the long-running Scottish indie-pop ensemble has helped me accept and love myself for the queer weirdo that I am.
Today, I identify as bisexual or, more accurately, pansexual, but it’s taken a long time for me to accept that about myself. I’ve alway known I was attracted to women, but the bi-phobia (from both gay and straight people) and lack of representation that I encountered growing up in the 1990s made it hard to face the truth, which is that I can’t even imagine what it is like to only find one gender attractive, because my brain isn’t wired that way.
In high school, after briefly attempting to come out as bisexual in middle school, I identified as a lesbian. That seemed somehow safer and less lonely, plus my interest in men was negligible. “Lesbian” was at least a designation most people understood and which some people felt compelled to respect. Being bisexual, or pan- or polysexual, or queer has an ambiguity to it that makes all sorts of people uncomfortable. A friend who is a lesbian mysteriously disappeared from my life when I told her I might be interested in men, meanwhile a guy I was seeing broke things off when I told him I was attracted to women. Some straight female friends did the slow fade. To this day, coming out as bisexual invites awkwardness and innuendo from all sides.
With nowhere I could safely express this part of myself, it became submerged. As a consequence, I found almost everything around me just slightly alienating. I was depressed and withdrawn for a long time, but I didn’t realize what was happening or why. All I knew was that the first time I put on my college roommate’s Tigermilk CD and heard “She’s Losing It” was like waking up from a deep sleep. (This was the year 2000 or 2001, after the band released Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant.) I identified immediately and intensely with Lisa, the song’s angry, disillusioned female protagonist, and her rule-breaking relationship with Chelsea. I’d never experienced anything like that before.
I loved music, but I hadn’t heard anything I related to the way I related to Belle and Sebastian’s strings-laced, ’60s-inspired pop songs, each one like a short story set to music. By the early 2000s, there were plenty of inspiring radical queer figures in indie music, but I didn’t feel radical. I felt sad and isolated, and idolizing Peaches wasn’t going to change that—though I did once meet a really cute girl at a Le Tigre concert. It was only in Belle and Sebastian lyrics (with honorable mention going to The Magnetic Fields) that I found a reflection of my own experience of sexuality and gender and a kind of absolution.
Sure, the majority of Belle and Sebastian’s material follows a sweetly heteronormative boy-meets-girl pattern, especially the more recent albums, but their songs about troubled queer youth were enough and exactly what I needed at the time: The bullied school boy “Lord Anthony,” the “mess in a dress” from “Photo Jenny,” the sexually fluid rebel of “Lazy Line Painter Jane” and, of course, the abused heroines in “She’s Losing It,” to name some favorites. The way their stories blended in easily with the other disaffected but scrappy kids in their songs just meant the music mirrored my own experience even more closely. In the songs’ ambiguity, particularly in songs like “Seeing Other People,” which is most definitely, though never quite explicitly, about an unacknowledged same-sex relationship, I found safety and familiarity.
The spectrum of gender and sexuality in Belle and Sebastian’s music bleeds, in the softest shades of gray, from boys and girls in actual gay relationships, or who may or may not be transgender, to boys and girls who are merely rumored to be gay or who simply do a poor job of performing their assigned gender roles: “He’ll take a guy like me and put him in the army/ ’Cause he thinks the army makes a man of you” (“Me and the Major”), “If you’re looking at me to start having babies/ Then you can wish because I’m not here to fool around” (“Family Tree”). Then there are the general sexual deviants of “Stars of Track and Field” and “If You’re Feeling Sinister” to round things out. These characters became my friends, my imaginary queer community in the absence of a real one.
Through their messy lives, I could finally see myself and start to grant myself some of the self-acceptance I hadn’t even realized I was denying myself. (Also, with Belle and Sebastian being a fairly popular band there was finally something I liked that I could talk to other people about.) And, as it turns out, things do get better. You meet people who love you for exactly who you are and stop caring about the people who don’t. It helps if you can start by loving yourself, but it’s easier if you can see (or hear) something that suggests you might not be so strange after all.
Belle and Sebastian singer and principle songwriter Stuart Murdoch is straight. He’s said that he is, in fact, “straight to the point of boring myself.” He’s not only straight but a practicing Christian—albeit of a certain kind of Scottish socialist-leaning Christianity. Still, that, and the fact that Stuart Murdoch is about as far to the left on the Kinsey scale as one can go, makes him an unlikely candidate to be anyone’s gay icon. As a queer person who feels harmed by religion and who could take issue with someone portraying queer experiences that are not their own, you might think I’d find this knowledge disappointing. I don’t. And if any number of mainstream heterosexual pop stars can be gay icons, then Murdoch can be mine. He has spoken out in support of gay rights.
More complicated things about me: Around the time that I was old enough to have faith in a religion my mother joined the Baha’i faith and so did I. The important thing to know about the Baha’i faith is that it is an organized, monotheistic religion, and like pretty much all of those, it regards homosexuality as a sickness. I knew for sure that I was some kind of queer around the same time that I learned this about my religion. To make a long story as short as possible, I didn’t struggle anywhere near as much as some people do to break off an unhealthy relationship with an institution that couldn’t accept me as I was. It left a hole, but, like a lot of people in my position, I found underground music and its attendant community to fill it.
It may actually be the peculiar spirituality in Belle and Sebastian’s music that made it so healing for me. The early lyrics especially often deal with religion in a humorous and honest way. (“And so I gave myself to god/ There was a pregnant pause before he said OK.”) In particular, there is an appealing tension between faith and a certain kind of alienation, with feeling sinister as it were.
More to the point, even today, the music is informed by an odd spirit of grace, but grace as understood or hoped for by the scapegrace’s of the world. Belle and Sebastian’s songs offer solace and understanding to those who are so rarely extended such things: the delinquents, the under-achievers, the sexually precocious, the too-smart-for-their-own-good, the hard cases, the consistent disappointments. Murdoch might make some wry observations in his lyrics (“Tony, you’re a bit of a mess/ Melted Toblerone under your dress”) or gently chide a character now and then (“Being a rebel’s fine/ But you go all the way to being brutal”), but he doesn’t judge.
If anything, I’m annoyed that other people near me and more similar to me could be so distant and uncomprehending, when someone so different could make me feel seen and acceptable without knowing me. It’s not surprising that he was able to write songs in which I could see myself. Whatever their medium, a good writer or storyteller should be able to imagine themselves into the life of another person—and Murdoch is very good.
It’s possible that my love for the band is unconditional, an unforgivable failing in a critic, I know. More likely, having received so much grace from one source, I can’t help but grant Murdoch the same, without judgement and in the same amount and then some, indeed, without limit. The gift of self-acceptance (which we are all supposed to be able to somehow give to ourselves, even if we’ve never experienced acceptance from any other source before) has value beyond measure.