’Cause I’m Real

Carol Ann Peterson reflects on coming out, finding herself in celebrity culture, and that unforgettable pink tracksuit.

A still from the music video for Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule’s “I’m Real (Murder Remix),” 2001. Directed by Dave Meyers.

Earlier this summer, a man walked into a gay club in Orlando and killed 49 people. Orlando makes me think of going down to Florida on family vacations to stay with my grandparents. Makes me think of when I was 12. There sitting on the carpeted floor with my little brother, playing Rummikub, he told me that, if his kid were gay, he would beat him up. I asked my dad if he agreed, and he said he hoped he’d never be in that situation, which meant he did. I put my new Jennifer Lopez CD in my Discman and drowned them out. It was the first CD I had bought with my own money. I didn’t know then that I was gay, but I knew I wasn’t safe with my family anymore, and listening to J. Lo made it okay for a little while.

I was obsessed with J. Lo. I wanted that pink velour tracksuit from the “I’m Real (Murder Remix)” music video. Her hair, her ass. There is a video somewhere of me as a child, jumping on my best friend’s bed, dancing and singing to her song “Play.”

I was also obsessed with Eve. I watched her “Satisfaction” music video on repeat, and it made me feel good in a way I hadn’t felt before. Those paw prints in her cleavage, wow. But I knew better than to tell anyone about that.

All the girls I was friends with talked about female celebrities. Their hair, their outfits, who they were dating—but I cared more about their boobs. In middle school, we would look at pictures of women we wanted to be when we grew up. In high school, we would say we had “girl crushes” on our favorite celebrities. I knew it was okay to have a “girl crush” but that it was not okay to have a crush on an actual girl. As long as it was fantasy, I was normal.

I never got along with my parents, so I retreated to my room, watching a lot of TV alone. Starting at age 11, I enveloped myself in the Canadian show Degrassi: The Next Generation. One of the stars, Cassie Steele, played Manny on the show. She was the same age as me and not part of the Hollywood set my friends cared about. Years later, she went to a regular high school just like me. I spent hours on the Internet stalking her and eventually discovered her personal Myspace account. I learned about her non-celebrity boyfriend and knew what neighborhood they lived in outside of Toronto. She had an industrial piercing in one of her ears and, a few years later, I did too.

I requested to be her friend on Myspace because I thought that I was as cool as her and that we could be Internet friends. She didn’t respond. I sent her several messages insisting that I just wanted to be friends, but then she blocked me. At the time, I still thought I was straight, that maybe I had an obsessive-compulsive issue. It finally hit me when I got to college and had an IRL girl crush. I wasn’t a weirdo with a celebrity stalking problem—I was a lesbian.

I knew that I could never tell my parents outright, but I wanted to give them hints. I put up Ellen Page posters in my bedroom (years before the actress actually came out) and hoped that my parents would eventually catch on. I cut my nails short and painted them black. I wore a backwards baseball hat. My mom asked if the industrial piercing was a “bisexual thing.” She must have just learned the word “bisexual.”

My plan worked, though not quite like I hoped. I was eating dinner alone in my room, watching The L Word. My mom walked in, and when I paused the screen, Helena and Tina were left in a post-coital embrace. That night, my parents said they didn’t want me anymore. Seven years later, I still don’t have a relationship with them and I live in a country where gay people are attacked and killed—but just the other day I saw Demi Lovato in concert, and I swear, at one point, she was singing directly to me.