Because I am a gay millennial, The 2000s Made Me Gay: Essays on Pop Culture caught my eye immediately. Like author Grace Perry, my coming-of-age years neatly overlapped with the 2000s, I turned 10 in 2001 and 18 in 2009. I acutely remember the pre-smartphone days of the internet — chatting on AIM, filling my iPod knock-off with illegally downloaded music, reading print magazines, and poring over niche blogs and forums.
Despite being close in age to Perry, I was skeptical that I would find this book relatable because — the 2000s definitely didn’t make me gay. I didn’t even realize I was queer until 2011! But as I started reading, I discovered that Perry didn’t realize right away either. The book examines 2000s pop culture partly through the lens of her younger self, who was at first so closeted that she didn’t even know she was in the closet, just like me. Perry’s essays also offer layers of wise hindsight, exploring how certain pop culture tropes contributed to how closeted so many gay millennials were — and how they influenced what kind of gays we would eventually grow up to be.
As Perry notes in the introduction, it is obviously impossible for pop culture to truly make someone gay, but pop culture can “shape our responses, internal and external, to such preexisting gayness.” And as she describes, some quintessential pieces of 00s pop culture — like Mean Girls and The Real World — lodged little nuggets of misogyny and homophobia into young queer brains. They taught us that men determine a woman’s worth, and that “lesbian” is an insult — a term for a woman that no man wants to date and no woman wants to share a pool with.
Pop culture wasn’t the only source of such lessons, but it was influential, in ways that are easy to miss or write off. As an adult, I more often think about what I didn’t get to see in pop culture as a kid (namely, openly gay Black femmes) than what I did see and how it impacted me. Perry touches on this invisibility too, along with the ways that 2000s pop culture offered up lessons on other parts of growing up, like how to be a girl, how to have sex, and even how to dress.
The 2000s feel like so long ago now, they have been reduced to a nostalgic aesthetic (hello, “Y2K” fashion) by the current young queer generation. But The 2000s Made Me Gay is filled with visceral blast from the past reminders of what those years were actually like. Some of the details, like AIM away messages and the intricate rules of The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, made me feel like I was time traveling. I can’t remember large chunks of the 00s, thanks to trauma and what Perry calls “Closet Brain,” and there is a lot of guilt, shame, and regret associated with having been obliviously closeted for all those years. Yet Perry’s essays reminded me why I was so damn scared of queerness in the first place: “We went to high school when f*ggot wasn’t even considered an F-word.”
She writes in a tone that is witty, self-aware to the point of occasional self-deprecation, but still measured and reflective. Even when breaking down how a past work or creator is problematic by today’s standards, she is effective and not high-horsey, which can be difficult to pull off. Because this text balances topics that are at once very serious (trauma, homophobia) and very silly (college gossip forums), she also offers plenty of levity and funny parenthetical one-liners. Many of the sapphic struggles she describes are widely relatable even for non-millennials — like the “do I like you or want to be you?” dilemma — and Perry nails them with humor and insight. She even manages to offer fresh insight on The L Word, the one piece of lesbian pop culture that has been think-pieced to oblivion.
No millennial experience is universal, not even the gay one (shoutout to DowneLink queers — but that was not my life). For every cultural reference in The 2000s Made Me Gay that felt like it was pulled straight from my own millennial memories, another felt totally foreign. Perry is white and from a Catholic family — I am neither of those things. She watched the Disney Channel and seemingly enjoyed musicals, while I didn’t have cable and avoided musicals for dear life. Still, I learned a lot from the chapters that I didn’t relate to, including sections on Glee, The O.C., Disney, and Harry Potter. By the way, who knew Disney did so much queerbaiting back then?!
If there’s one major takeaway that I’ll remember from this book, it’s the unique position of millennials in the broader context of queer and trans history. “For LGBTQ+ millennials, our pride is couched in painful memories of a culture repulsed and frightened by queerness.” Perry writes. Another stand out line about this subject — “Despite the success of Drag Race, the existence of lesbian Christmas rom-coms, and openly transgender Oscar nominees, we haven’t moved on from the trauma of growing up in a culture that hates us.”
Reflecting on my own life and how the world around me has both changed and also not changed, I couldn’t help but think of all those who continue to be last in line on the road to inclusivity and survival — dark-skinned Black people, trans people of color, intersex people, and many others. Gay millennials straddle two eras: one regressive and scary, and one that is honestly just slightly less so. Perry writes, “That’s the thing about being a queer millennial: it’s not about things getting better in any linear fashion but holding a painful past and an optimistic future together, one in each hand, at the same time.” That’s perhaps the best that any generation can hope for on the road to queer liberation — that things are less hard than they used to be, however long the road remains.