I was a freshman in high school the first time I heard Fall Out Boy. It was fall 2005, and I was rinsing the Neutrogena acne wash off my face in the shower when "Sugar, We're Goin Down" came on the radio. What is this sorcery? I thought to myself, butterflies flapping in my stomach. Later, I looked up the lyrics and published some on my Xanga, because in the early aughts, web journaling was the answer:
Drop a heart, break a name
We're always sleeping in and sleeping for the wrong team
We're going down, down in an earlier round
And, sugar, we're goin' down swingin'
Emotionally stirred by lyrics I neither understood nor heard correctly, I then posted one I found particularly profound in my AIM profile. While "drop a heart, break a name" secured that prized spot at the time, the line that ultimately lodged itself in my subconscious was, "We're always sleeping in and sleeping for the wrong team."
This wasn't the first time I had heard emo or pop-punk music. Bands like Dashboard Confessional, Say Anything, and The All-American Rejects started filling my MP3 player in 2002, the year I started middle school, and while confusing hormones overtook my body, a seemingly unstoppable wave of emo was overtaking the country. Those hormones began to affirm what I had suspected for years: I'm gay. As a questioning Catholic school boy, I wasn't ready to come out, so I sorted through my identity with the assistance of the pleading voices of emo singers.
Their lyrics captured what I felt while working toward self-acceptance, like "The Kill (Bury Me)" by Thirty Seconds to Mars:
I tried to be someone else
But nothing seemed to change
I know now, this is who I really am inside
In high school, I found myself slipping into the "scene," the colloquial name for pop-punk devotees who often felt "othered" or needed an emotional outlet. The Philadelphia area, where I grew up, was a hotspot for the scene, thanks to local bands like the Starting Line, the Wonder Years, and Valencia. One of my best friends revealed to me after school once that her brother was the drummer in Valencia, which blew my mind, especially because the night before I had watched the band open for Boys Like Girls (ironically).
Like her, most of my friends in high school were girls, which did nothing to dispel rumors that I was gay, but emo and pop-punk did allow me to connect with straight guys for what seemed like the first time in my life. My freshman year, I sat with a group of guys in the cafeteria to blend in—not the jocks but a nerdier group that liked gaming and skateboarding. One of them asked what music I had on my new baby-blue iPod Mini and, bracing for an eye roll, I confessed. "Mostly alternative stuff," I said, "like Motion City Soundtrack and Panic! At The Disco." I waited with bated breath until he replied as all articulate skaters do: "Nice, dude." I felt relieved and, for once, accepted among the guys.
What I came to realize, however, was that the music helping me fit in was actually helping me come out.
Singers of bands like AFI and My Chemical Romance were known for their androgynous style, sporting guyliner, eyeshadow, and nail polish. They not only set an example that it was OK to express your emotions—something men are historically dissuaded from—but they also subverted gender roles, allowing me to feel more comfortable with the fluidity of my own. Seeing straight dudes headbang to guys wearing makeup and skinny jeans? It eased some anxiety that any femininity I exhibited would be met with rejection.
Gerard Way and Frank Iero of My Chemical Romance even kissed on the stage, as did Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz and Cobra Starship's Gabe Saporta. Suddenly, experimenting with other guys was trendy, even if you were straight. It increased attention around Wentz's sexuality that was already heightened over lyrics put forth by his band, like "sleeping for the wrong team" and "he tastes like you only sweeter," despite the fact that Wentz dated women.
Looking back, that homoeroticism was probably a PR strategy to fuel the rumor mill and attract attention, patronizing guys who actually were gay or bisexual. But when I view it through the lens of a closeted teenager who was hesitant to glance at another guy twice, I also see that it instilled a sense of belonging in me when I needed it most. It helped normalize the same-sex behavior I feared would never be accepted. Make no mistake: However pandering, their kisses and lyrics were still revolutionary in the early 2000s.
Not to mention that Fall Out Boy's Infinity on High, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this month as emo nostalgia is on the rise, featured a song titled "G.I.N.A.S.F.S."—short for "Gay Is Not a Synonym for Shitty." It was right on cue in 2007, when saying "that's so gay" was popular enough for the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and the Ad Council to release the "Think Before You Speak" campaign the following year to raise awareness of homophobic language.
Most of all, some members of the emo, pop-punk, and indie bands I listened to actually are LGBTQ, including Kele Okereke of Bloc Party, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, and Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day. I didn't know it then, but I was listening to musicians who were navigating their own queer identities, as if there were an unspoken bond between us.
What finally ushered me out of the closet came a couple of years after high school graduation, when my best friend's brother, the former drummer in Valencia, died in a heartbreaking motorcycle accident. The band, one of my favorites, broke up in the weeks following. While at his funeral, I remember it hitting me: You never know how much time you have. Don't die in a lie. It sounds like a melodramatic emo lyric, but it reverberated in my mind, leading me to come out a few months later.
To commemorate the five-year anniversary of its farewell show, Valencia reunited at the end of 2016. I went home for the Philly concert and stood backstage, watching the band play songs that soundtracked my high school self-discovery, like "Holiday":
At the end of the day
We always need a reason to believe
Love can take you anywhere you want
Belting the lyrics with my closest friends—ones who were beside me both in concert crowds and when I came out—took me right back to our scene days. But this time, my boyfriend was there, too.