Pittsburgh-based rock group, The Show, reached out to the Matthew Shepard Foundation during the summer of 2013 to share their plans to release “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this fall and share the proceeds from the single with us. You can purchase the track through iTunes. Below, lead singer Johnny Saint-Lethal shares his personal story about why he wrote this song and what it means to him.
My Story, My Song*
by Johnny Saint-Lethal of The Show
*The views expressed here are solely those of the author.
I do not identify as “gay” in the way it has become popularized in American culture. I am just a guy who happens to be capable of falling in love with, and expressing love, with another guy. And I don’t feel comfortable talking about it. But I’m going to tell you my story. Of how I first fell in love with another guy and how it made me question every bit of normalcy or everything I had ever written off as a “phase” prior. I’m going to tell you more about me than I’ve told almost anyone.
I understand people bled for that rainbow flag. I understand its meaning. But unfortunately, these things – the parades, rainbow flags and everything – have come, over time, to represent an increasingly narrower band of people who feel they might be defined somewhere within LGBT terms. How can someone identify as “gay” when that word has come to mean a certain lifestyle, that is, in fact chosen. No, I’m not talking about choosing whom you love – I am talking about the clubbing, the shopping, the fashion, the stereotypes, the happy little gays. Where does that leave the punk rock kid in Albuquerque? How does a young black man with “street-cred” friends fit into that? What about the girl in the Midwest who wants to be an elementary school teacher? Doesn’t life create enough extra confusion as it is? And even if these people are hard-core and true to themselves, and go to the nearest big city gay bar once a week, what about the other six days? And to be honest, a lot of homosexuals are not “Proud” to be “gay”. These are terms that a lot of us do not begin to relate to. Pride festivals are good for people who are already in the gay community, but like I said, not everybody fits that mold.
I do understand the struggles of homosexual people before this generation. Today, in many areas, it’s becoming normalized. I understand that the Pride parades are meant to commemorate the Stonewall Riots. But go ask a hundred people at any Pride Parade “Do you know how Pride Parades started?” I bet you’ll get ten to fifteen that know, and most of them will be over forty. And the festivals or weeks that follow or precede the parades are a mess of drunken hookups and throw-ups in the streets with “fabulous” sequins falling off from their beautiful dresses and skin-tight short-shorts hugging every curve. It’s a stereotype that does not further integrate people into the LGBT community. I am certainly not saying “stop them” or “don’t have them,” – I am saying that they are alienating for people who don’t feel comfortable in that environment and “community”. And where does that leave the rest of us that go on lying to our friends and families and colleagues out of fear and/or shame?
Should it matter if I’m gay, or bi, or straight? Or should it just matter that I fell in love with someone? Someone that was too scared to act on the love that he felt for me… And that’s where I find myself now, and why I find myself telling my story.
I would never choose to be gay. Gay – as I grew up with it on network television – meant the happy, self-confident, clean-cut guy who liked other guys. This stereotype waved his arms around when he talked, loved to shop, and listened Cher or Lady Gaga. He didn’t play sports or listen to hard rock. So, if I’m honest with myself, it was easy to dismiss the fact that I had more interest in my guy friends than my peers, because surely it just meant I cared more, right? I wasn’t gay or bi, because I didn’t fit into that model of the “American Gay”. So no, I don’t identify as “gay.”
“Gay” has come to mean something so much more than just “I like the same sex”. And I want to say that I firmly believe that it’s okay if you don’t want to identify yourself as gay. It doesn’t make you less “legitimate”.
My friend, Alice, told me after reading a lot of what I was writing here, “Nothing is as simple as binary. Two shades of red are still red. But they’re different. Sexuality [in this way] is diverse and continuous, like, I dunno, maybe a rainbow! Oh, maybe that’s why that symbol was chosen?” Ok, I see her point. But it’s what is now behind that symbol and what it represents. It would be different if Denny’s and Starbucks would put rainbow stickers on their doors with a tagline along the terms of “We love everybody and serve everybody.” Then, suddenly, that symbol isn’t solely associated with gay bars. I’m not angry with the “gay community” or the people who have embraced the “gay” identity. Not at all – I have the utmost respect for them and am astounded by what has been accomplished by their outspokenness, and shamelessness. And they should be shameless. And God bless them for it.
Let me tell you about the first time I fell in love, which was recently… it happened late in life for me as I am in my twenties. For those of you who have fallen in love, you know that when you fall in love you don’t have to ask “Am I in love?” You just know. Being in love keeps you up at night thinking about the day that just happened and wondering about the next day. It’s the best reason for losing sleep you’ll ever have. It casts a glow on every emotion and everything shines with possibility. Every problem you had before seems so much less daunting. It’s a home you didn’t know existed.
So, I met him on Halloween at his work. After one look, I was mesmerized. But I just thought “he’s cool… he might be someone I’d like to hang out with some day”. Well a few weeks passed and I saw him a couple more times, as he was new at the store I went to. While doing promotions for a concert online, I noticed that he was a mutual friend of a few of my friends. So, I invited him to help with The Show’s street team.
We ended up talking a lot over social media and text messages over the holidays. The holidays and through February were busy for me with The Show’s busy concert schedule and promotional appearances. As busy as we were every day, I couldn’t wait to check my messages. I could talk about God with him and being a Christian, which was important to me. We could talk about music, which obviously is another big must. I just really liked him, and I just couldn’t wait to hang out with him. Finally, at the end of winter, we started hanging out in person. He introduced me to his friends a couple weeks later and I got along really well with them.
He and I talked a lot about both being Italian, so we decided one night over the phone that we would cook a homemade Italian dinner together. The Show had just started working on vocals for our EP, so after a singing session, I picked him up from work and we went shopping together for all the ingredients for our Italian dinner. It was a chilly late-March day in Pittsburgh. We cooked dinner together, had wine – then he stopped and made sure we prayed before we ate. It was around this time that I started to feel an overwhelming feeling that I couldn’t identify yet; but looking back, that was the moment I fell in love with him. It wasn’t just the fact he prayed. He was sincere. The sincerity he had when it was just us was astonishing. His eyes would smoke-over when he was around me, his muscles would relax, like he felt safe.
After dinner, on our way to take him home, it began to snow… really snow. We stopped at a gas station and got a drink and drove around a little more and he began asking me questions like “Do you think I’m attractive? What about me is attractive? What do you like about my personality?” I told him. I was honest and didn’t hold anything back. Really, I knew I shouldn’t say all this but so much had been happening in my head in the few hours since dinner. The more I spoke, the more I realized what I was feeling and the more I thought I was being stupid, that I’d wake up and these feelings would be gone – surely he didn’t feel this same strange magnetic pull. At the same time, I was just as scared he might feel the same way for me.
When he was getting out of the car he looked me dead in the eye, sincerely, and said “I love you.” My blood ran cold, as cold as it was outside. Colder. And it froze my mouth. I ended up smiling and saying “Yeah,” and I laughed. And stumbled some words. And I probably seemed like a jerk. And I drove home, smiling like I had just won the big game. I was smiling like someone just told me they loved me… because they had. And it didn’t matter it was a guy… because I knew I was feeling the same way. Later I found out this hurt him because he had thought he had said too much.
But I didn’t know how bad I had it until my roommate, best friend, and bandmate Brandon came home the next day. He saw me at the computer in the kitchen, across where I sit now writing this, and apparently he had been talking to me for several minutes. Finally realizing he was home and talking to me, I looked up. He just said… “Ohhh, noooo.” To which I replied “What.” And he kept repeating “Oh nooooo.” Finally I was like “Dude, what?” And he said “You fell in love with that boy!”
Yes I had. It took me a week to tell him how I felt.
The next five weeks with him were stunning. They were magic. They were filled with nights that were so happy I felt like we were in a movie. He felt like my other half. It wasn’t all easy. A few days after I told him not only did I love him, but that I was in love with him, he wanted to run. He was scared of what his family and friends would think. He was scared of God. But he eventually admitted he felt the same way and wanted to try to make it work, but he was scared. I was the first guy he ever felt this way about; it was the same for me.
Since God was important to both of us, and something we were both confused about, I stayed up nights listening to The Gay Christian Network Radio. I talked to a priest. I researched the Bible. We talked about it sometimes, but mostly we just really enjoyed each other’s company. I never had felt so alive in my entire life.
He stressed several times that he wanted to keep things on the “DL” and just between us. He knew that my best friend knew. But I respected his wishes and told no one else.
Then one week, things seemed stressful for him. I had heard he was getting a lot of derogatory comments from his father. “Faggot this,” and “Do you even like girls anymore?” He and I talked for a while, on the phone and then by text, and he said, “Johnny, I am scared of my father’s non-acceptance.” I told him that I would be there for him no matter what, standing beside him… and literally. Even if that mean a broken nose or hospital visit. And that he wasn’t in this alone. He seemed like he felt much better about that. And I blasted Taking Back Sunday’s “You Got Me” on repeat because that’s how everything felt. Not Tori Amos or Lana Del Ray. I was still the same guy that was skating around, listening to rock, hating Glee, and taking on the world. So what if now I was in love with another dude? I was okay with it.
A couple nights after his father crisis, we went out to a locally famous chocolate factory south of Pittsburgh and drove around in what was one of the worst thunderstorms in years. We listened to good music, we sang, we talked… about nothing serious and nothing stressful. He affirmed later after we were both home and talking on Facebook that it was one of the best nights he’d had in a long time.
The next day was normal, but by evening he wasn’t speaking to me and was giving me one-word answers when I would text him. We had plans for that Saturday as I had a busy end-of-week with the band. He literally dropped off the face of the Earth. Even when he knew I was having a really hard family situation one evening that week, he still didn’t even ask how I was which was unlike him. Then that day came… that day you dread, you know? You can see it coming if you’re looking for it. And I saw the warning signs, I just didn’t know why.
It was a sunny Saturday, but in my memory it has a gaping crushing cloud in it. I picked him up. We had planned to hang out, go to dinner, and go to brunch the next morning. He had been really excited by the whole thing and I was very much looking forward to it. When I picked him up, he started acting strange, wanting to know how early he’d be home Sunday and he was giving various reasons as to why he had to be home earlier Sunday, even though initially we planned on seeing a movie after brunch. He was giving one-word answers and talking with me like he normally talks with all of his other guys friends and he never talked like that with me. Not even before we were close, not even when we barely knew each other. He felt at ease with me and was completely himself. Once, he told me that there was no one else he was able to be himself with.
Finally, I said let’s go back to my place and have a drink and you tell me exactly what’s up because you’re acting strange. He said, “You know what, I don’t think I can try.” And I said “Well, I saw that coming. But I tell you what; I’m not giving up no matter what. I’m in it for the long run.” And he basically said then he would have to walk away.
But in this almost-typical “breakup” conversation, I learned a lot. I learned that this guy was lying to himself. He was telling me he never said things that I had saved on text messages and Facebook conversations that I could stare right at. But what was stunning was that he actually believed himself. He wasn’t hurtful or mean, which made it worse in a way. But he looked scared, like he was walking away from something he wanted because of what other people wanted for him. I learned that the reason he had suddenly stopped talking to me the past Wednesday was because his pastor looked right at him at church and said “homosexuality is an unforgivable sin.” I asked him if he believed that and he just said, “Yes. I believe it’s wrong.” That hurt, and it stuck with me.
I didn’t hold out hope for reconciliation very long. I knew that I had to move on. So I do what I do as a songwriter to deal with things. I wrote songs. To paint you a picture, I’m not the type of musician who does this for fun. Nor do I do anything for money. I do it because I have to do it. I’m driven to. I never pick up the guitar to “tinker” around or to “try and write something catchy for the band.” I only pick up my guitar when I need to bleed, when I need to express something… when I’m that upset, perplexed, euphoric, or torn. And I had been all in the past few months. I wrote about eighteen or nineteen songs. I had been playing with this line “Don’t ask, don’t tell, but tell me that you think I’m going to hell,” for a couple of weeks after the end of the happiest period of my adult life. The line expressed the hurt I felt when “he” looked at me and told me he sincerely thought that acting any further upon what he and I felt for each other would actually be wrong. But, it didn’t fit in to any song I had been writing. One night I wrote a good guitar part and melody for the line, but nothing else. And it wasn’t strong enough to be a chorus or long enough to be a verse.
One night I was alone at home and was starting to get a bit depressed. It’s bad enough when you’re home for prolonged periods of time and not on the road when you’re used to traveling. And we had been off the road for months. I ended up writing the song that has become “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” in about fifteen minute’s time. It poured out of me. Everything I felt about him and the ending was summed up in three and a half minutes.
But now what… it wasn’t a song that screamed “Hey, I’m gay. I’M GAY!” but yet it still made me nervous because it wasn’t exactly discreet, either. “Don’t ask, don’t tell, but tell me that you think I’m going to hell. I’ll save you a seat, you a seat, right next to me. Whatever made you think you were better than me?” You can figure that out relatively easily. Or most could, anyway. But it can mean whatever you want it to mean to you. Regardless, I showed it to the band and they loved it. We decided to put it out as the lead single from our new EP.
I was skating the next day after I showed the band the tune. It had occurred to me, that just a few weeks later, I was strong. I was doing exactly what I wanted to do. In many ways, I was free, more so than I could ever have hoped to be at my age. I was living my dreams, albeit not perfectly. I started thinking about how many more people like me could be out there, maybe in small towns, feeling alone with no one to talk to and lacking validation for their feelings. How many men love men in the unconditional romantic way but don’t identify as gay? How many women have started a life with a man and a family that leaves them feeling trapped?
Is there anything wrong with love? I had fallen in love with a man but never with a woman. Am I gay? Am I bi? Does it even matter? Should it matter? Should we continue to reduce ourselves to being identified by our orientation? I fully support the fight for LGBT rights and have always supported them. But when we are creating this divide of gay, straight, bi… etc., we blur the common thread that we are all people who just want to love and share our lives with other people and many of us want families whether we are straight or gay.
So, I decided that I should do my part by committing this new song to raise awareness for foundations like the Matthew Shepard Foundation. I could donate money, and time, through this song to help perpetuate an environment of not just “acceptance” but of understanding. I want the song to empower people, to empower anyone who has ever been made to feel as though they are less of a person for who they love or how they love. Yes, it’s an angry song. And I want people to remember they are allowed to be angry when they are judged or spit on by the world. But, please, do something positive with your pain, your hurt, your anger.
Being out in the rock world isn’t exactly popular. I’m sure it’s not as hard as in the country music world or as an athlete, elementary school teacher, lunch lady, or pediatrician. I become scared of being labeled as a “gay” band or a “gay” musician. None of that should matter. But hopefully I can do some good. Hopefully even a handful of people will feel less alone.
Because how lonely must it be “just another guy who happens to love guys”, or a “girl that just wants to wake up next to a girl”, but do not relate to the “gay” world. And yet, there are so, so many of us out there.