Darkness, Spikes, and Studs:
How Metal Music Helped Me be Gay

An eardrum-shattering path to finding my identity in high school.

All 5 feet, 2 inches of me was pumped — almost ready to thrash my 115 pounds into the feverishly expanding mosh pit before me. This was 2005, at Recher’s Theater in Baltimore; I was finally about to see one of my favorite bands ever for the first time — the Brazilian metal band Soulfly. At that moment, though, the hardcore band Throwdown was onstage, and I was contemplating, after four to five years of going to metal shows, diving into my first mosh pit.

My widening eyes and tremulous brain just had to be convinced to follow suit …

1. A Metal Primer

During my senior year of high school, my friend Dan and I took courses at a nearby community college during the latter half of the school day. As Dan was always the one in the driver’s seat when we went, he got to select the music — only fair — and Dan was (still is) a full-on metal fan. I had heard Dan’s metal/hardcore band in the school talent show the year before, and I liked it. I was always up for new music, and discovering there was rock music that was harder, faster, and darker than Ben Folds was something thrilling. But oh, I had no freakin’ clue what I was getting into.

In an enclosed car, for 40 minutes a day, my ears and mind were blown apart and put back together in a spiky explosion. Beforehand I thought metal music was “loud wolverines screaming” (as a college roommate later described it, one night when I put on Sepultura while writing a paper) — pretty much every stereotype of a pissed off, serious-as-a-stone, devil worshiping cliché that every politician can dream up. And yes, while there is a darkness and seriousness to much metal music, there’s so much more. Like every other type of music, metal music can be extended out into varying branches.

You can have:

  • Metal: Black Sabbath (Ozzy Osbourne before he became a product unto himself), Metallica.
  • Nu-Metal: The new millennium melding of metal/rock/rap. This gave us the Deftones, one of the best bands ever its the poetical intensity and warped dark angel vocals, and Linkin Park, likely the most mainstream-successful of nu-metal bands, offering us music that melds metal and artsy pop, plus soundtracks to watch giant robots beat the crap out of each other by. Sadly most of the rest of nu-metal can be summed up in two words: Limp Bizkit.
  • Hardcore/Speed/Thrash Metal: A triad of different metal sounds that also tend to blend together excellently. Hardcore is composed of a more aggressive style, linking in heavy backbeats and breakdowns, while adding the looser aggression of punk to metal. Speed is, well, speed-playing (specified but not limited to the guitarist and bassist, with a more pounding, double bass speed drummer) at a faster, faster, harder pace. Thrash is a culmination of hardcore and speed — the offspring of both — with more intense instrumentals at a brutally quick pace. Many bands, from my initiates into metal — Minion, Margret Heater, and Apathy — to Sepultura, Soulfly, Fear Factory, Bloodsimple, Devildriver, Throwdown, In This Moment, and more, fall under one or all of these banners.
  • Screamo (Emo Metal) adds emotional, melodic vocals and heart-on-the-sleeve lyrics to metal and includes such bands as Far, Thursday, and Jawbox.
  • Soul Metal: Coined by Sevendust vocalist Lajon Witherspoon, it’s a melding of the intensity of metal and the passion and spiritually searching lyrics of soul music.

See? So, so much metal, so little time!

2. Now It’s Personal

So metal music seems dark and dangerous; as any fanatical fundamentalist will tell you, it is metal music that has been destroying American youth for decades. There is a sinister, secret intent behind it; any day now, metal music is going to lead to ruin … any, um, day now …

I, though, did have a hidden secret as I was getting into metal — one of those sporadic life yings and yangs, counterbalances. I was having thoughts of upheaval that seemed to come out of nowhere. An alien consciousness, manifesting itself as myself, telling me I had always not been who I thought: I. Am. Not. Quite. Straight. It was confusing, scary, and made me feel small and uncertain. The whole “I might be gay” thing felt, unfairly, a tad bit much to handle when I was already facing the “not being different trumps all else” ethos of suburban high school. This was going to be very different.

Going to my first metal show, my second live music show ever, would also prove to be a very different experience. I’ve always described myself as a “Jason Mraz metal fan”: I love the music, but I tend to be pretty mellow in my physical response: Very slight head banging here and there, but no spastic slam dancing or moshing for me. Thrashing out in my head only. In those early days, I was a frightened chipmunk, ears alert but feeling like I was about to be devoured by something much bigger. Metal audiences are a very dedicated group, following bands with a fervent drive and fully getting into the music — rather than getting hung up on differences between the various metal sub-genres (unlike, say, punk fans — try getting a hardcore punk fan in a locked room with a pop punk fan and watch the fur fly). As I heard Dan tell a friend, metal fans tend to be more loyal, and take it very seriously. I was intimidated at first.

Woods Holy Ground, in Severna Park, MD, was a local church whose community center was a thriving performance space for local bands and musicians. Hardcore metal + church = who could be unhappy? Well some of the church organizers, for starters. Well into the band Margret Heater’s set, kids in black clothes, piercings, and spikes were getting into a joyful music frenzy, while middle aged adult chaperones (church property damage control) looked on blandly, not thrilled. When one kid was pushed up by others, crowd surfing his way across the barely 30-person-wide mesh of bouncing fans, that was apparently a No-No. On being deposited back on the ground, he was promptly grabbed by the adults and taken outside.

Boos and hollers of disappointment started up from the crowd. And then Margret Heater slowly, hazily stopped the song they were in the middle of and led the crowd in a chant of “Let him back in Let him back in Let him back in!” Nervous at first, I started yelling alongside my friends and everyone else a few seconds later, and the place erupted when the kid bound back inside (in adult retrospect, I’m sure he only got a light talking-to) and the music pounded on again. My first taste of youthful rebellion, in its entire crazy, ledge-teasing wonder.

More would follow. The first fully-fledged argument with my parents about going to a show on a school night. (I didn’t win that one.) Being asked by my dad, after apprising the black clothed, spiked, and pierced crowd of kids at a show, whether I was “becoming a Goth.” Wrong genre, Dad, wrong genre. No, the skull ring you found on my desk didn’t mean anything — it was a free promo for a movie (“The Phantom.” Yeah, I don’t remember it either.) Then there was the utter, utter teasing I got from every member of my family — parents, brother, visiting cousins — when I went to see Apathy and Age of Ruin play in a very small concrete building. “You went to a show at a garage!” was ALL I heard for the rest of the weekend.

After furiously trying to explain the awesome nature of a really loud show in a very small venue for a few minutes, I gave up. It was an epic night anyway: Age of Ruin with its apocalyptic lyrics; dancers in skeleton costumes and fire twirlers; the closing chorus of the Apathy song “When I Tried to Live,” when Dan, his brother Dave, and half a dozen other people clambered next to, around and on top of the lead singer, screaming the lyrics along with him. (“You took the light away from me. You’ll never know. You knocked me down in the sunlight. Fearing your eye. I stand alone. That’s when I tried to live.”) It was lighting-fast; I only stood back, awestruck.

Coming out as I did in college, on the edge between the post-Stonewall Riot “Embrace all your gayness!” and the new millennium advent of the “Post-Gay: Embrace all your gayness but always don’t embrace it,” it took me a few angst-filled tries to find a happy personal medium. Now I quip about my favorite sport being figure skating, my addiction to hair gels/creams/pomades, and my love of trance music and Lady Gaga (I’m slightly more reluctant convert to her performance art-musical domination of us all.) Yet back in 2001, when my sexuality was a murky idea about to throw my heart and brain into chaos, it was metal and hardcore music that guided me through it.

Buying Deftones “Around the Fur” CD and thinking both “This album is amazing!” and “I have no feelings at all about the hot chick in a bikini on the cover … uh oh,” was an early clue. Feeling confused on the new feelings of attraction I was having, I needed support and community. Instead of wacky trips to a drag bar or high school night at a techno pulsing gay club, I got it from an aggressive, ultra masculine genre of music.

Amidst other supposed outsiders — united outwardly by our dark clothes and piercings, more subtly by the all-encompassing stress of parents and peers not getting parts of us — I ended up feeling not so alone in my own hidden outcast status. I was hanging out with different people than I had known before, and I was taking that first little step into truly being different.

In the end though, it all came down to the music. In church meeting halls, tiny concrete buildings, metropolitan clubs, or stadium lawns, the music fills you like a heartbeat, erasing every mental concentration on life complexities, worries, or stresses. In a music that slammed into my head, expressing pain, angst, life, death, darkness, hope, light, I found all my worries about being attracted to guys and what it meant for myself, my future, pushed out of my head. There was nothing but the music.

Metal may not be the most traditionally liberal of music environments, but I met amazing, non-judgmental friends in that scene. And with a little digging, you can find the openly gay metal icon Rob Halford of Judas Priest and the terrifyingly awesome, badass “Menocide” song by openly lesbian metal singer Otep Shamaya, about how the male species is a viral scum that should be squashed — a sentiment any woman or gay man could sometimes agree with. And while I did not have to be worried about being attracted to many overly pierced, hefty, bearded guys in the high school shows, I did learn an appreciation for black nail polish and eye liner that continues to this day. (Try ignoring a six year old blurting out “Mommy, that man has nail polish. Boys don’t have nail polish!” at work.)

So there I was in 2005, totally out as gay to my family and friends, including Dan (that was a hilarious, nerve-wracking coming out). Later that night, after Soulfly got off stage, I would be bounding up and down in front of Dan, exclaiming in a rush about the fuckin’ PRIMALNESS of their performance. But first I was working myself up for my first mosh pit plunge — something most other metal kids take to like a duck to water.

I leaped into the swirl of bodies, slightly lashing my arms out, within a second being impacted by another body … and flying back like a rag doll a good three feet, landing with on my back and elbows. The most short lived mosh dive in history, or an awesome take out from “The Matrix”? You be the judge.

Ruefully looking up at Dan, I got up and took a few steps back and went back to doing it my way — occasionally pulsing my head and enjoying the show.

Article © 2010 by Chris Herrmann