When Real Life’s Getting More Like Fiction Each Day

Three things happened in 2005:

1. I turned 14 and realized I still hadn’t had a crush on any boys.

2. The movie adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s musical RENT premiered in theatres.

3. I got really into the internet.

I remember hearing about RENT through some friend of mine who was only a year older but always had seemed ages ahead of me socially. She knew one of the songs — you know, the one about using love as an inaccurate unit of measurement — and she knew that I liked musicals and asked me if I was going to see it. Obviously, I said of course I was gonna go see RENT! And then obviously I had to go straight home and figure out what RENT was.

When my family first got internet, my Mom had given me this really huge workbook about websites for kids, and that workbook had suggested “Google” for anything you couldn’t find in the book. Apparently, the workbook wasn’t prepared for adolescents getting into queer musical theater — not really sure why — so when I came up short, I took their advice and visited Google.

2005 was the year I discovered just how deeply I could get into the internet if I really wanted to. Have you ever been to the 19th page of a Google search? I have; things can get really weird. That was the just the beginning.

When RENT was still in theatres, it was unrated/rated-R (as opposed to the PG-13 rating it got for the DVD release) so I knew it’d be tough to convince my Mom to let me see it. I told her it was about “equality” and “love” and left out the drug use, HIV/AIDS, and queerness. To this day I’m still not sure why she went for it.

So my mother, my two best friends from church and I went to a 9:30 showing at a theatre in Hartford. It was mostly empty, so we were able to sit in the very back row and put our feet up. As soon as the first song began, I wanted to cry. The movie had barely even started yet and I was already compelled to sob. A few scenes stand out, like one that apparently either never happened or vanished from the internet, where you watch Roger’s girlfriend April cut her wrists and slowly die in a bathtub. I remember Maureen and Joanne kissing, and how it made me feel alive when I hadn’t realized I was dead. I loved every minute. I made us stay for the credits. I left the theater speechless.

So many thoughts whirred in my head but none stuck long enough to articulate. Seeing RENT was the first time I felt seen — like I was seeing myself on screen. It scared the shit out of me. I identified with something in each of those characters: Mark and I were both watching life happen from the outside. Like Roger, I’d already begun the wonderful habit of avoiding intimacy. Mimi and I were both running from hidden pasts. Maureen cared so passionately about things, almost too much so, just like 14-year-old me, who didn’t know how to let anything go. Collins was funny, had good taste in women, and was bookish. Angel was loud and lived her truth with a vivacity that I prayed for every night. And Joanne! Joanne was Black and queer — I didn’t know it at the time, but so was I. But I did know that if I was one of the characters from RENT, I was not going to be the person my family expected me to be. I wasn’t even going to be the person I expected to be.

My mother’s always been of the “fewer words are better” camp, and after seeing RENT, she waited for our comments before giving her own. Walking through the parking lot that night, probably wearing a gross sweater hoodie that I was obsessed with, shivering because it was mid-November in Connecticut and I was underdressed, one of my friends went, “Why did you bring us to see this Alaina? I’m scared. I think the batty man [Jamaican slang/slur for gay man] is going to get me in my dreams!”

I was crushed. My Mom, sensing my disappointment in their negative reactions, said something kind about enjoying the singing and the friendships. That was the first moment in my life that I remember closeting myself.

I kept my feelings about this scene to myself.

I kept my feelings about this scene to myself.

If this scene had played out twenty, or even ten years earlier, that would’ve been the end of it. But it was 2005. The internet existed, a closet-free utopia cloaked in anonymity, where thousands of queer kids were finally finding a space to be themselves.

Still, looking back, early 2000s technology feels so weird and primitive compared to now — flip phones with color screens were still only something for rich kids. We’d had computers in our home for a while, but it was just a bulky thing that my Mom used to check her e-mail. We were still bringing floppy disks to school, not flash drives. All of my friends that year had gotten $50 10GB mp3 players for Christmas or their birthdays. The internet still felt mysterious, and it was weird to say you’d made friends online in a way it’s not these days, now that the internet has become a primary way of communicating and maintaining friendships.

The internet habits I cultivated in 2005, once my family finally upgraded our dial-up service and began using “high speed” DSL, had a lot to do RENT and the community I formed because of it. I was awkward awkward awkward, fat and picked on, and 100% not interested in boys. I spent my time reading American Girl Magazine, doing homework, yelling at my brother and reading lots of young adult fiction. A field hockey dispute made me an outcast at the school I attended in 9th grade, so I went online to find other teenagers who were bookish and loved RENT, and doing so provided me with a sense of connection I couldn’t get in real life. Combine that with the fact that my mother worked until at least six every night, leaving my brother and I alone in the house after school, and it was the perfect breeding ground for an obsession.

When I say I was obsessed with RENT, I mean obsessed. I grew straight out of American Girl Magazine into the world of wildly risqué musical theatre. My mother tended to encourage the things I was interested in, but this one… well, it baffled her a bit. How could a good church girl from the suburbs of Connecticut relate to this musical? I’m positive she didn’t know that she was fueling my first full-fledged obsession when she got me the movie cast album for Christmas that year, but I listened to that two-disc album until it was ruined. I uploaded it to the the family computer so I could have it on iTunes. It lived in my boom box.

soundtrack

I would google “RENT Movie” and go through pages and pages of results. I found RENT fan fiction fairly early on in my search. Maureen/Joanne (MoJo) and Angel/Collins were always my favorite pairings — obviously. They were the two queer couples in the musical and one person in each partnership was Black. Joanne and Collins, at least in the world of fan fiction, helped me to see myself over and over and over again. When I came out at 16, “knowing” two Black queer people through Joanne and Collins made the process easier. I would read 10,000 word stories in 3 hours, go stretch and eat a PB&J, and come back and read another one. I had an account (which is still live and if you’re really determined, you can still find it) and began to write my own fan fiction.

Writing fan fiction was a way for me to come into my own. A lot of my life was dictated by forces outside of my choices. When my parents divorced, as the only child, I felt like I needed to be perfect for my mother. I didn’t have an unhappy childhood but, for the most part, I lived my life doing what my mother wanted to do. I just wanted to make her life easier.

But writing fan fiction? That was 100% for me. Nobody knew what I was doing because the internet was so anonymous. I got to explore topics using fictional characters that I was too afraid to try and explore in my real life. Writing about these people living such different lives from me and being fulfilled by them gave me the bravery to take agency of my own life. It was after I started writing fan fiction that I started doing things that I wanted to do because I wanted to do them. Like my hair: I’d never been into my long, relaxed hair; it was something I did ‘cause that’s what I’d always been doing, so I cut if off. I regretted it immediately, but it was a decision I’d made all on my own, which felt a lot better than regretting things I’d done to please somebody other than myself. Writing fan fiction led to other decisions that made me feel like I was in control for the first time.

My obsession kept growing until around the time I graduated in 2009. For four years, I would write and read fan fiction daily. As social media grew, we all moved from fan fiction dot net to MySpace, Twitter and LiveJournal. During one of my daily searches for all things RENT, I found Tracie Thom’s personal MySpace page — this was very early in the life of MySpace, like pre-customizable Myspace pages, early. She didn’t have many MySpace friends and probably didn’t realize I was only one of a large group of teenage fangirls who had no problem invading her personal life when I wrote her a long obsessive message about how much I loved RENT and her voice and her acting. I probably called her an “inspiration.” But it worked! I convinced Tracie Thom to be my MySpace friend.

She added me, and had a consistent presence in my Top 8. What followed was a wild couple of years which included more fan fiction (including fan fiction about Tracie Thoms the person, who was obviously a lesbian in my Alternate Universe), and a really weird couple of months where I was an admin for a MySpace page called the “Church of Tracie Thoms.”

A screenshot from Tracie Thoms' actual myspace page circa 2008.

A screenshot from Tracie Thoms’ actual myspace page circa 2008.

Most of those years feel like a blur to me, but they also feel so pivotal to the person that I am today, especially my online presence. Getting obsessed with RENT was probably the healthiest thing I could’ve had as a 14 year old confused about their sexuality. I realized my friends in real life wouldn’t be able to support me, so I found a community online where I felt surrounded by people who finally “got it.” I was so lonely in high school, especially in my first two years. But I knew that I could come home at the end of every day, do my homework, and go on the internet, where I could be reminded that the world was bigger than Windsor, Connecticut.

When in everyday life I felt like the only one of my friends who wasn’t “getting it” — everyone had boyfriends and started wearing makeup and grasping fashion in a way I still can’t — the RENT fandom helped me realize that there were other teenagers who were confused and asking questions. The internet gave confused teenagers like me a place to talk through things and a space away from adults to ask questions — even if we didn’t have the answers. In real life, adults had all the answers, but online we figured them out together. I was figuring out who I wanted to be: queer, a writer, a thinker, empathetic.

Musical theater specifically has always felt created for the outcasts, and the internet solidified my love for it. Queer men and women have been behind-the-scenes writing musicals from the genre’s inception, and theater has historically been a safe(r) place to be queer. The internet feels similar — or, at least, the internet in 2005 felt similar, before Facebook, the rise of online news, and the comment section. It could be a place for people who were marginalized to realize that they weren’t alone. Not being liked at school stung less because online there were people that would talk to me. Everyday life as a closeted black queer person wasn’t easy and involved a lot of spaces where I couldn’t come out. But the online musical theater community welcomed me and my ideas, they wanted to read what I wrote, they told me over and over that my words were important. That I was important.

When I googled “RENT” I was hoping to find more information about RENT — and eventually, what I ended up actually finding was myself.

When my interest in RENT finally started to wane, primarily because by then I’d seen the original musical production (and stopped seeing the movie as this perfect piece of work), but also because my life was taken over by college applications and auditions, the internet also introduced me to Autostraddle. I’d grown from googling “RENT” into googling things like “lesbian,” “lesbian sex” and “LGBTQ.” I don’t remember which combination of secret words that I deleted from my browser history after searching for them got me here, but I’m always grateful that it did. I don’t remember the first thing on Autostraddle that I read, but I remember feeling the same form of community that I’d found through fan fiction four years before. People were kind, funny, asking and answering questions, and talking about the things I’d hoped someone would talk about. So I stayed, and six years later, I’m still here — now as a staff writer.

I was so desperate for any form of connection in 2005, for someone to tell me “These weird big things you’re feeling are normal and okay and you’ll be okay!” When I saw RENT, I did it for my musical theatre street credit. I did not expect it it to change my life. The movie introduced me to an online community that cared about RENT as much as I did. My obsession started out as a need to know more about a musical, but it ended in my finding a community who helped me learn more about myself. Fandom communities from the internet in the early 2000s empowered a generation of young LGBTQ people. They helped us to come-of-age and form communities during a time where we were still really isolated. We wrote our ideal futures to survive difficult realities and leaned on each other for support and knowledge. I knew as soon as I left the theatre after seeing RENT that first time that I was queer, but it was the internet and the community that was cultivated there by our collective love of the movie that helped me be brave enough to live my truth. “No day but today,” right?

Ari is a 20-something artist and educator. They are a mom to two cats, they love domesticity, ritual, and porch time. They have studied, loved, and learned in CT, Greensboro, NC, and ATX.

Ari has written 322 articles for us.

42 Comments

  1. Wow thank you for this essay. I was just thinking about Rent given there was a mini-reunion at BroadwayCon some time last month.

    I watched Rent the movie and that was the first time i ever saw any sort of portrayal of homosexuality or otherness on screen, much less a positive one (minus the dying), and it’s like a light went off in my brain. I finally realised how damn ghey I was, and everything else just clicked into place. This show just changed so much for me.

  2. I love this. I grew up in a small town and musical theatre showed how much the wold has to offer. It inspired me to dream big.
    It also gave me a community where I felt, for the first time, a sense of belonging.
    So I love this. A lot.

  3. I loved this article! My relationship with Rent was very different; when I was a conservative Christian college student, it was my guilty pleasure. I love musicals, and shaking my head at their sinful content while continuing to listen was the closest thing I did to rebellion in my teens and early twenties. At that point in my life I had a special brain lockbox reserved for any remotely gay content, so the character’s relationships were something I worked pretty hard not to think about. But when I was finally ready to come out, I broke the box open and Rent and so many other things came pouring out, and I realized I wasn’t crazy.

    • I come from a conservative Christian background too and I enjoyed your experience! I wish I’d done that … I resorted to ‘backsliding’ (and going braindead on Christianity temporarily, and feeling deeply depressed about the conflicting directions pulling inside of me) in order to access ‘sinful lesbian materials’.

      When I was depressed enough, I went back to ‘good Christian phase’ and could no longer access such materials.

  4. Are you sure I didn’t write this? Rent was a huge part of my coming of age and coming out. I was never big on the movie, but I was privileged to live near NYC and have the ability to see Rent on Broadway multiple times. I’m actually writing a musical about how Rent (and one person in particular) made me realize I’m gay, and how it interwove with my mental illness and almost killed me.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this Alaina. Like many of the commenters above, I was also a confused teen who really really really really loved RENT. I always thought that being obsessed with musical theatre was more for queer guys but it’s so wonderful to know there’s some gals out there too! :)

  6. Oh my god I’m crying. This piece touched me – I saw RENT with my high school GSA at a time when I was ok saying “I’m bisexual!” but felt like it wasn’t true because I was only dating cis-straight guys (there were no other out lesbians or queer ladies) and I didn’t correct my parents when they thought I was the S of the GSA. That movie transformed me in a way that I still can’t really explain. Your writing has blown me away, as always.

  7. This brings back a few memories. When I was 13, I decided to come out to my straight best friend who was obsessed with musical theater. I saw her eyes widen in response and I immediately regretted my decision–until she screamed, “REALLY? THAT’S GREAT, YOU’LL LOVE RENT!” We watched it together on a sleepover, a bagful of microwave popcorn between us and nothing but unconditional acceptance from her. Fast forward six years: we still find ourselves singing “FIVE HUNDRED TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND SIX HUNDRED MINUTES” over phone calls. I’m smiling as I’m typing this…thank you so much for writing this article.

  8. I was 14 when I discovered RENT too, although that was a few years before the movie. So much of this is EXACTLY how I felt – connected to it without fully understanding the depth of why and how everything was hitting me so hard – right down to getting the two-disc album for Christmas and wearing it down until it skipped. It was such an awakening. I’m so glad for its existence, and that our teenage selves found it.

  9. I cant even remember how I discovered RENT (probably through Glee). I loved the movie version but seeing it performed at uni renewed my loove for it. The ‘I’ll Cover You’ reprise will always make me cry <3 I saw it on broadway for its 20th anniversary and it just means so much to me. Angel/Colllins will always be my fave pairing.

  10. Thank you! I enjoyed reading your experience of Rent which in many ways mirrors mine (while being different too).

    Young closeted queer me *loved loved loved* rent. My first exposure was my first secret girlfriend giving me the original soundtrack on tape. I listened and re-listened, over and over.

    My favourites where the two queer couples too (for some reason. Oh wait, I know it’s because I finally saw myself mirrored back). It was aMAZing to see a lesbian couple outwardly represented, and I was in awe that they had a love duet (albeit with conflict brewing).

    And I was so touched/joyed/empowered by the love duet between Angel and Collins. And their decision to open their hearts and embrace the love between even while they lived with HIV/AIDS.

    I also loved and was deeply moved by Rent’s message to live in the moment, a message I only understand the profundity of all these years later.

    I also enjoyed and was touched by hearing how powerful it was for you to see black characters.

    Don’t tell anyone, but I’m listening to the movie soundtrack on Spotify right now. ;-)

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