I had to fall in love with someone else to learn to love myself.
John and I met not long after I’d arrived from Miami to New York City with two suitcases and the eventually-realized dream of working at a fashion magazine. Our connection was instant. We bonded over growing up in Florida and watched Scream during our first date at his apartment (Grindr was the mutual friend who introduced us). Within weeks, we considered each other boyfriends. Within months, I was spending more time at his apartment than my own. We’d blast Lady Gaga songs so loudly, the neighbors would knock on the door to complain. Her music was the soundtrack to our love, but even then, I had no idea that Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” a bona fide LGBTQ anthem, would play a major role in my coming out.
Eventually we moved in together, and two years into our relationship, the elephant in the room grew too large to ignore: I’d yet to come out to my family. By 2015, John’s mother and I texted frequently, and I was fond of the mashed potatoes she made us at Thanksgiving. Yet when I called my own mom, John may as well have not existed, which frustrated him. My mother and I had perfunctory phone calls about work and the cost of rent and whether I paid my student loans on time—never about who I dated. When you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community who’s in the closet, you become quite skilled at keeping secrets.
2015 brought about a lot of change. On a Friday in June, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed gay marriage legal in all 50 states, immediately lifting the heavy weight of the big secret I kept off my shoulders. John and I scrolled through Instagram and watched hundreds of LGBTQ+ Americans kiss and cry and gather outside the White House, beautifully lit up in the colors of the rainbow Pride flag. I felt liberated, grateful for the queer activists who fought to cement my right to live freely. At the (very slow) flip of a switch, I began to find confidence in my own sexual identity, and validation in knowing I wasn’t the only gay person thrust onto the fast track of self-acceptance.
That night, John and I celebrated at clubs across New York City. Our hands flailed to the rhythm of gay anthems like Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” With each thumping beat, I became a reborn, proud version of myself I almost didn’t recognize. Sweat gathered around my neck as I danced. I closed my eyes and imagined how my mom would react if I called her and spoke my truth that very moment: “I’m gay.” Still, the thought of doing so was overwhelming.
But then I heard a song that instantly struck a chord when it blared through the speakers: “Born This Way.” The lyrics to Gaga’s defiant, joyous anthem about loving yourself wholly felt as though they’d been written exclusively for me, as a guide to my own coming-out journey. Phrases such as “Don’t hide yourself in regret, just love yourself and you’re set” sounded like a sermon from above. Come out, Jonathan. It’s time. The stomp of Gaga’s electro-pop rock ‘n’ roll record pierced right through all of the shame and fear, the emotions I’d kept bottled up while pretending to be happy in a heteronormative world.
Of course, “Born This Way” was a song that had already been permeating pop culture for years. However, when it was first released in 2011…I sort of hated it. Its lyrics were like a mirror held up to the queer identity I had not yet embraced, and singing it felt like setting off a weapon against all that kept me from being honest with myself and with my loved ones. At the time, as a closeted gay man in college, Gaga’s message of self-love and self-actualization was lost on me entirely.
I felt uncomfortable when I heard her declare, “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I’m on the right track, baby, I was born to survive.” In retrospect, her song made me feel like I was the main suspect responsible for committing the crime of being gay, like the coming-out police were seconds away from knocking on my door. So I ignored it, tucking it at the bottom of my playlist beneath “Bad Romance,” “Just Dance” and her other, more tolerable hits.
Still, the song was inescapable. According to Billboard, it was the fastest-selling single in iTunes history at the time and sold over 1 million copies in just five days. It also hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100. “I do believe that the LGBT community was born this way. I don’t believe it is a choice. I don’t believe that those in that community should be treated as less valuable by the government or by religion,” Gaga told Fuse in a 2011 interview when asked about the song. “It’s not just about the gay community—it’s about everyone. Equality cannot be reached if it’s fought for in a divisive way,” she said.
Like it did for so many, “Born This Way” also gave John the push necessary to come out of the closet back in 2011. I knew the song had been his favorite for years, and I bopped to it accordingly when we listened to it together—even though it presented a reality I was unwilling to accept. But no two coming-out stories are alike. And for me, it took a relationship, U.S. legislation and the help of a pop smash to finally come to terms with who I was.
Back on the dance floor, with John by my side, I thrust my hips and felt my heart pulse to the loud crash of the “Born This Way” chorus. I danced in a sea of people all courageously being themselves. We sang in unison, “No matter black, white or beige, Chola or Orient-made, I’m on the right track, baby, I was born to be brave.” The energy made me think of my mother once more, of how happy she’d be if I told her I’d fallen in love.
The next morning, I gave her a call.