When You’re Black and Queer but Masquerading as Straight While Listening to the Music of White Lesbians

“And I try. OH MY GOD do I try? I try all the time…in this INSTITUTION!”

As I recently cleaned my apartment whilst nearly bringing myself to tears with my own rendition of “What’s Up?” (we’re talking full voice emoting, in the apartment by MYSELF), I paused mid-sweep with the realization that I hadn’t fooled anyone. Family, friends, my Brooklyn neighbors all knew, in fact, what was up with me (see what I did there?) before I’d fully admitted it to myself. This Four Non-Blondes anthem was only one of several favorite diddies by white lesbians I was prepared to belt out that morning.

A quick Spotify check confirmed my suspicion that I’d been musically signaling my queerness since the 90s. Indeed, I was reminded that Ani DiFranco had only been playing a few minutes before and that Melissa Etheridge was second in line in the queue, with Tracy Chapman* also thrown in there. I racked my brain: how could I not have followed my own breadcrumb trail? And why didn’t anyone tell me?! I could have been having so much lezzie sex way sooner!

I’m a baby queer, having only come out to many family and friends last year, in my thirties. In many ways, though, I’ve been coming out in search of community since the days of yore, when I was but a wee queerdo in a sleepy Memphis suburb. Early on branded as “weird” and not particularly adherent to certain southern belle conventions, my taste in music set me that much further apart from my contemporaries. Memphis remains a very polarizing place and in the ‘90s, the radio only offered the best of sonic extremes: pop, hip-hop, whatever my parents listened to (all generally produced before 1985) and gospel. So it’s not really a surprise that my entire childhood vibe could easily be referred to as coffee shop music on an episode of Felicity. I wanted folk, I wanted soft rock, essentially anything Delilah would play.

In reflecting on my younger days, I’ve highlighted the five sapphic singers whose intense presence in my life was my queer slip showing, moments where everybody in my life knew, sometimes even before I did.


Melissa Etheridge

“I know you’re home / You left your light on / You know I’m here / The night is thin”

Picture tiny Jehannie in grade school. It’s the mid- nineties and she’s in the passenger’s side of her mother’s car belting out “Come to My Window,” by the only lesbian palatable enough to hit those bible-thumping airwaves. She demands her mother play the song again and again, until her mother reminds her radios are not tape players. But still! Melissa Etheridge’s raspy voice, her powerful songs of yearning continue to hit me in a soft spot to this day. I sang with the longing of a new crush in the body of an eight year old. But let’s just get on the same page now and declare “I Want to Come Over” as the true gem in her crown. The naked desire of the chorus: I want to come over/to hell with the consequence/you told me you love me/that’s all I believe! I MEAN.


Sophie B. Hawkins

Till you call my name/ And it sounds like church bells /Or the whistle of a train/On a summer evening/I’ll run to meet you/Barefoot, barely breathing”

My commitment to the ‘90s remained fierce well into high school in the 2000s. Senior year I ordered a multi-disc CD set called Forever ‘90s or something to that effect. The second song was Sophie the songstress’ “As I Lay Me Down.” It was the lesbianic (technically omnisexual) siren call I needed and that I promptly put on repeat. We’re talking months of this whisper song in my car, in my house, as homework mood music. I definitely made ill-fated attempts at both poetry and songwriting to this song. I kind of didn’t understand the lyrics but knew, I too was capable of this type of love.


Ani DiFranco

“Come here/ stand in front of the light/Stand still/So I can see your silhouette”

I’m aware Ani is not a lesbian and is a problematic fave, but we’re not talking contemporary Ani. We’re talking mid-aughts Ani! And where would she be without her white lesbian fan base? Case in point, during freshman year of college my white lesbian roommate’s single act of generosity was copying 19 of her albums to my computer. Remember when you could do that? It was a simpler time. I remember it like it was yesterday: returning to the dorm to hear “Alex” playing this music that seemed to lovingly stroke my cheek and beckon me into its warm embrace with a knowing glance. I fell hard, made her music my studying soundtrack. I had a “friend” actually say, “you know she’s gay right?” To which I replied “Love is love, Beth!” [Her name wasn’t Beth but she was white so, you know.]


*Tracy Chapman

“But you can say baby / Baby can I hold you tonight? / Maybe if I told you the right words / Oooh at the right time / You’d be mine”

So Tracy Chapman is obviously not white. But she has to make the list because she was such a staple of my ‘‘90s-era listening and because she is TRACY MUTHAFUCKIN CHAPMAN. Again, she is very much a Black lesbian and one of our patron saints, but she is nonetheless peak white lesbian listening. Back in the day was a regular on Delilah and other folk-adjacent stations. While those days were more “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason,” who hasn’t openly wept to “Baby Can I Hold You?” Who, I ask?!

This song marks the era of being in (unarticulated) love with my best friend at the time, and her pretending like it wasn’t mutual. While lying in bed, fully clothed and discussing our plans to co-own the Felicity coffee house, we played “Baby Can I Hold You?” and she’d suggest that maybe I was a lesbian. Which I totally played off until, you know, we made out.


Brandi Carlile

“I crossed all the lines, and I broke all the rules / But, baby, I broke them all for you”

Perhaps the most obvious moment of my inability to play it straight was during a powerful obsession with the relationship of Arizona Robbins and Callie Torres. I’d become a half-hearted fan of Grey’s Anatomy before suddenly rededicating myself to the show to watch one of the hottest couples on screen in a long time. Then the musical episode happened and I refuse to believe that I was the only one whose eyes glazed over at Sara Ramírez singing “The Story” by Brandi Carlile. DEAR GOD SO HAAAWWWT! It was almost too much. Nay, it was just enough. At this point I’d already done a soft launch of my queerness and was just yearning for the right cutie to come along and give me literally any reason to belt out this song to her.

Thankfully in the years since, I have *mostly* recovered from Callie and Arizona’s breakup, but have not even remotely tempered the urge to sing.

Jehan is a writer, artist, and editor basking in all things Black and queer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apogee, VICE, Public Books, Teachers & Writers Magazine, and Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory where she is an editor. She currently lives in Harlem but remains in a committed LDR with Brooklyn.

Jehan has written 2 articles for us.

11 Comments

  1. Gurrrlll…I have never related to an Autostraddle article less. I went to a majority white college and I remember being told in the late ’90s that I wouldn’t date because I did not like/listen to white lesbian music.

  2. I love this, and am so happy to see content from someone else who came out in her 30s! I too can look back on so many, many clues and wonder how I managed to hide from myself. I used the following Ani DiFranco quote as my bio blurb in the back of a literary magazine my friends and I used to put out: “this vague little smile is my all-purpose expression / The meaning of which I will leave to your discretion”. I mean COME ON

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