BackCAST Cape Ann: LGBTQ Community on Cape Ann Series
Episode 3: Brian King
This transcript was edited for clarity and length. Listen to the full episode: Episode 3: Brian King
The stories you hear as part of BackCAST Cape Ann’s series on the LGBTQ community highlights their contribution, care, and activism. It’s a look back at experiences, significant moments and persistent memories.
For this episode in our series on the LBGTQ community, Brian King is my guest. Brian is a singer, songwriter and performer. He’s also the front man for the neo-cabaret band What Time Is It Mr. Fox? For ten years, Brian was the director of Prism LGBT Health, a public health program on the North Shore, and he currently works as a medical case manager at the North Shore Health Project in Gloucester.
Maureen Aylward (Maureen): Brian, welcome to the podcast.
Brian King (Brian): Thanks for having me.
Maureen: You were born here, so you have a unique insight into the community. Tell me about when you were younger.
Brian: I grew up in Gloucester. My mom is from Rockport and my dad is from Lanesville. I have two older brothers. We grew up on the border of Gloucester and East Gloucester. I went to Veterans Memorial and O’Maley and when it comes to being gay, I guess I knew that I was different pretty young. My first experience of the difference was when I went to school, even kindergarten, and definitely by first grade. When I had heard the words “fag” and “gay,” people pointed at me, so I knew that it was something wrong, but it was something that I was.
Maureen: What was that like, thinking that you were different, and thinking that it was a wrong thing because other people were calling you names and bullying you?
Brian: Well, it’s awful. If you have Netflix, watch Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. It’s a one woman comedy show. Have you seen it?
Maureen: Yes, I’ve seen Nanette.
Brian: I’ve watched it with some gay friends, and we cried and were like, “Yes, thank you.” That brought up a lot of memories around the shame that you internalize because it’s one thing to be told that your behavior is wrong, like don’t steal or don’t be mean to this other kid or hit somebody, but when it’s your actual identity it is very hurtful and confusing.
My mother is going to hate that I said this, but one of my earliest memories of feeling that shame was my love of Stevie Nicks. I’m an avid Stevie Nicks fan, and everyone knows that. She was a big influence on my music. As a kid, I wanted to be her. I listened to her constantly. I was probably seven years old and my mom thought I was too into her so she took away my Stevie Nicks records. It wasn’t because I was doing anything wrong. I wasn’t being punished for having bad grades or anything like that. It was just because I liked her so much.
I wondered to myself why are the records being taken away? Just because I love it? I think my mother thought, “Oh, he wants to be a girl too much, so we’re going to take away this girl music.” I don’t know if she understood.
I want to give my parents credit. They grew up in a different time, and there wasn’t a lot of information. We didn’t have gay-straight alliances. Rather, we had doctors telling people, “Oh no, you’ve got to fix that.” I think she was afraid that it was true that I was gay, but I know I can’t totally speak for her. She was trying to protect me from further alienation and bullying, but rather than addressing the bullying, she was focusing on making me change as the easiest thing to do.
Maureen: When you were coming into your adolescence and saying to yourself, “Okay, I’m gay. How do I express myself?” what was that like for you? What were you doing at the time that was moving you forward to becoming yourself in your own authentic way?
Brian: I learned there were two different worlds. There was the world I had in my neighborhood, in my backyard, and then there was a world at school. They were completely different. In my backyard, I could be who I wanted to be with my friends. We’d play, take on roles and pretend we were different characters. I could be Princess Leia and no one cared. But at school, it was a completely different story, and the teachers at that time – I know that many of them didn’t have the tools or the understanding – they would ignore the bullying or they would join in on the bullying. That happened; there was a crossing guard who would join in on the bullying.
There was a teacher, who unfortunately recently passed away, that a lot of people admired. One of my most vivid memories is this teacher joining in on the ridicule to perhaps impress the more athletic kids in the class. But again, there was no information. There weren’t gay-straight alliances, there weren’t counselors addressing it. This was the norm. I had one teacher who ridiculed a friend of mine in class. He had an effeminate voice, so she mimicked his effeminate voice. And even at that age, I think we were 12, I knew that this teacher should not be making fun of my friend, but there was no one to tell about it.
I didn’t want to go to school. I tried to pretend to be sick so I could stay home. I didn’t join in drama. I wasn’t active in music in school. I learned outside of school where it was safer.
Maureen: When you were younger, when you were in that safe place, who were some people who meant a lot to you? Who were influential people or your favorite art or literature or music?
Brian: I can’t emphasize enough how important I think mentors are. We are in a different culture and different time. There is a lot more gay representation in music and movies and TV and athletics, but as a kid, one of the first people I met was a lesbian woman who worked at a local convenience store. I would hang out there after school and chat with her and smoke cigarettes and talk to her about her girlfriend. That was hugely important.
The big important moment was when I met Gerrit Lansing, the poet who passed away in 2018. He had a bookstore called Abraxas. I went into the bookstore and bought a biography of Jean Cocteau and one of Anaïs Nin’s diaries. Gerrit said, “Oh, I had dinner with Anaïs once.” And my mind just blew apart. Who is this person and what is he doing in Gloucester? I thought this kind of stuff happened way outside of Gloucester, you know? People like that don’t live here. Gerrit was openly gay, and his partner was still alive at that time, and sometimes he would be at the bookstore, too.
Gerrit was the first gay man I met who was someone I wanted to be like, who had an interesting life, was unapologetic, and seemed happy and totally himself. And that was incredibly important. We became friends. I think that my life would have been very different if I didn’t meet him and had him as a mentor.
Maureen: He sounds like an incredible person.
Brian: There are not many models for gay people growing up, or there were not many when I was young. Sexuality was a kind of figure-it-out-on-your-own thing. There’s a great writer, Anodea Judith, a spiritual writer. She wrote something like in a capitalistic society, we take away what’s natural and sell it back to you. There’s this real idea where someone else owns sex, and then they sell it back; therefore, they dictate your culture. Whether it’s corporations or religions, they dictate what sex is supposed to look like. Then, anything that falls outside that norm is wrong. Then, people are hyper-focused on sexuality because it’s taboo.
Many people have talked about this focus particularly on men, mostly because we live in a patriarchy where the focus is often on male power, and men who are gay are considered less powerful. There are research papers about men defining their masculinity based on not being gay. As if that is what defines a guy as masculine, the fact that he is not gay, that he is not anything like a woman. This line of thinking is pervasive and harmful for straight men as well as gay men and women, obviously. I think society is obsessed with it because it feels like men have to give up power.
Personally, I feel more gender fluid because I’ve never been super attached to my gender. I think gender is largely constructed socially.
Maureen: Who were your cool people?
Brian: As a kid, my influences and role models were women: female singers, actors, writers. There were some men, but for the most part, I thought, women were the cool people. I was into Judy Garland, Cher, and Bette Midler. I didn’t know that they were connected to the gay community, that they had large gay followings. I just thought they were cool. I think Stevie Nicks was the combination of the wicked witch and Dorothy, so she worked for me because I loved The Wizard Of Oz and Stevie is witchy and she sings and she’s pretty.
Maureen: She’s got it all.
Brian: She’s got it all, right. She’s strong, she’s vulnerable, and she can cast spells. As I grew older, I realized that I didn’t want to be a woman, and I didn’t need to dress like one. Puberty happened and I became myself and internalized the feminine and the masculine, if those things exist.
Maureen: What is, or was, your most powerful gay moment?
Brian: That’s a really good question because I guess every moment is kind of gay for me; it’s just one part of who I am.
One of my earliest feelings of connection to the gay community was at a movie night at the Little Art Cinema in Rockport, and it was a fundraiser for the North Shore Health Project. I was probably 20, and it was showing this fantastic movie and it’s still one of my favorite films: Beautiful Thing. The place was full of gay men who were laughing at all the right moments and crying at all the right moments. We experienced that film together. It’s a movie about two teenage kids who fall in love, and I wish it had come out when I was in high school because it would have shown me my own story. I hadn’t gone to a Gay Pride event yet, and I had some gay friends at that point, but I had never been in such a big room of all gay people.
Some years later I saw a film at the Castro Theater in San Francisco with 40 times as many gay men and that was pretty gay. You can’t get gayer than the Castro. I performed at the Stonewall Inn a few times, and those were proud moments because that’s where the gay civil rights movement began. I was standing on that stage and singing and feeling proud to be there and to have been invited to perform.
For me, being gay or queer and spirituality have always been linked. I think they were for Gerrit too.
Maureen: How so?
Brian: There are some theories that when you’re not really attached to the gender norms, the binary of male/female, black/white, right/wrong, these kinds of arbitrary labels, that you’re more adaptable. In spirituality, there’s a lot more gray, and I think that queer people are attracted to that gray area.
I’m interested in Ancient Sumer and Inanna, who was a goddess of love. She’s there in the old poetry; some of the first writings we have. Those ancient hymns and poems talk about men wearing women’s clothes to honor Inanna, and women wearing men’s clothes to honor Inanna. There was already gender fluidity attached to spirituality. I find it fascinating, the connection between gender fluidity and spirituality and we see it very early in the ancient texts. It’s not something new. Some people say, “Look at all these trans people.” But, this isn’t new, folks!
Maureen: In this present moment, what are some of your hopes for gay civil rights and the progress that the gay community has made and marriage equality? What are some of your hopes for the future? There’s obviously more work to be done.
Brian: A lot of the issues have to do with patriarchal societal structure where we have some people’s lives worth more than other people’s lives. It is a serious problem that we have that structure, like men are more important than women or white people are more important than people of color. The structures of our patriarchal society supports these ways of viewing the word, and gay people and people of color experience the consequences and discrimination and even death from that thinking.
If we have a society in which we believe that some people are worth more than others, that there’s even a value scale on human life, then I do not think that we will change until we look at that very big issue. So many people are impacted by it, including disabled people and older people, even people who have certain diseases. We need to understand how to shift this thinking of “other” because what about that person who is queer, who is of color, who is disabled, who has all of these additional stressors. We need to see this person’s humanity first, not all those judgements. When you reduce other people to a stereotype or make generalizations based on skin color or sexuality, it creates war.
Can we change society? I always say it’s like asking 100 people what movie we all want to see tonight and then agree on it. How do we all agree to move forward?
Maureen: As a final question: What is the power of art to tell the gay story?
Brian: I’ve done a lot of shows where I talk about my story. I did a show a couple of years ago called Do You Queer What I Queer? with my friend Johnny Blazes, who is a non-binary queer performance artist and singer, and who is ten years younger than me. We talked about the generational differences and how much change has happened. The process of doing that show was healing for me, as was sharing that story with an audience. We had a whole bunch of people who agreed with me or agreed with Johnny or agreed with both of us. We would argue and try to resolve some of these issues. That was a powerful show. A lot of people talked about being in the audience and were happy that these things were discussed in a group setting that also included drag and singing and dancing.
Storytelling is the most powerful activism at the end of the day. It seems to be what moves things forward. Someone hears something they can relate to and reflect on and then can think about it, such as, “Oh, I didn’t realize that is what is going on. I didn’t realize how hard that was. I didn’t realize how I contributed to that. I don’t want to contribute to that any more. I want to contribute to the change.”
Maureen: It’s been a pleasure to talk with Brian, and get to know you a little bit better. Keep doing your great work. Thanks for being on the podcast.
Brian: Thanks for doing this, and putting all this together.
BackCAST Cape Ann is a production of 1623 Studios. This show was produced by Maureen Aylward with technical assistance from Becky Tober.