How I Overcame Chronic Outsider Syndrome

by Steven Reeder, ACC

I recently participated in a group meeting of gay professionals who asked if there even was such a thing as gay pride, and if so, what was it? What does it mean to each person? Though it's celebrated in group festivals and parades, what "pride" means to each person is often very personal. After some reflection, I realized my journey was not about being proud of some facet of my character or personality, but that I had taken the journey from being "an outsider" to becoming an insider.

In 2011, I toured the Midwest as a gay rock and roll solo artist. I performed at six pride festivals in five weeks. Just me, my electric guitar and backing tracks, and high energy rock and roll songs I had written and collected about pride, self-esteem, fun, and hot mens. It is reputed that Led Zeppelin got their name after being told their sound would go over like a lead balloon. In that sense, I had the delivery down pat because that was exactly how my sets went down. Audiences at those festivals, to quote Iron Maiden, ran to the hills.

I had expected a reaction like this after years of observing bar after bar, festival after festival, showcase the latest in lip-synching drag performers, and DJ's mixing it up in 4/4 time. More power to them, but tres cliché for a community that celebrates diversity. So I was ready to play out loud to the empty sidewalk, to deliver my stage banter to blades of grass and crickets (though the crickets would not be heard over the tones of a Marshall amp). I was prepared to be the outsider yet again. Was this defeatist attitude setting me up for failure? Not at all.

When I was a kid playing vinyl records of KISS, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Van Halen, and the Rolling Stones among others, I wanted the ability to create the kind of sonic power they had. At the same time, a new wave of hard rock dominated the music scene simultaneously with my passage into puberty and the subsequent realization of my orientation. My inner urges did not align with the gratuitous flaunting of "girls, girls, girls" in the hard rock scene I loved.

Besides my inner urges, my outer self could not pull off being in a band. With my thick glasses, braces, a gangly frame, and no access to an electric guitar or lessons, I couldn't yet imagine a world outside of my rural Florida home town where I could pursue a life in the world of rock music. Such endeavors were reserved for musical hubs like New York and Los Angeles, and the free spirit of San Francisco was utterly inaccessible. This was also in part due to possessing little self-esteem or self-assurance. A campaign promising "it gets better" might have given me a glimmer of hope, but that was for a generation yet to come.

What I realize today is that the sonic qualities of the music I loved evoked a sense of power that was very entrancing to someone who felt powerless. When I came of age and went to the bars, I could not relate to the robotic repetition of the dance music beats in the clubs, which for me elicited a detached trance rather than the gutsy, ballsy swagger of rock and roll derived from the blues. Psychologically, it could be translated as the difference between archetypal masculine and feminine energies. I was absolutely attracted to the masculine, as someone seeking outer empowerment might be.

To many people, it's enough to buy your favorite music and listen to it. For me, I was totally engaged and connected to the sound and experience, and wanted to create it with my own hands. This might be what made the overblown caricatures of rock hetero-sexism so unnerving for me. It's at least no wonder that finding other gay guys who liked this music was so difficult. However, I had entrained to the sound, not unlike how the blues had moved the souls of oppressed populations in the American south.

With the advent of the internet, the search was on to find any signs of gay musical life that could exist off of the dance floor. Indeed there was hope, though nothing that resembled the bombast I was seeking. One true inspiration was a handsome gentleman from Oklahoma. Sid Spencer had three classic country albums under his giant belt buckle. Here was someone flying the rainbow flag in what was another hostile musical landscape at the time. Sid was doing it, and so could I. It was my job, indeed my birthright, to create my music my way. My sound: guitars and more electric guitars. My songs: about self-awareness, freedom, and hot guys. My marketing tagline: "Cock rock has come home to roost." Yes, I had found my voice.

Over three years, I recorded an album in my basement that reflected my experience of having each foot in two worlds that no one thought could reconcile. I was laughed at for being gay by the rock and roll crowd. I was laughed at by gays for being rock and roll. Now, no one's opinion mattered except mine. With this album, I would stand in my own skin, in my own identity, and in my own power. Effectively I had evolved from being an outsider to being an insider: creating my world, my rules and my life from the inside, where everyone's true power resides.

Like most artists, I'm probably the most critical of the finished product. I did the best that as I was able with the time, money, resources and skill that I had. It wasn't perfect, though good enough to get six festival bookings: something my teenaged-self would have never thought possible. Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Columbus, Minneapolis, Cincinnati: I was a rock and roll road show! The world didn't have time for me to wait for perfection.

Wherever it is that you show up - a pride festival, an ethnic festival, a church festival, at school, your job, or just navigating your path through life - give a thought to how you show up with pride in the world. Pride can be the hubris to flip off the people who said you were nothing, the courage to stand in your own shoes, the passion to express your greatest truth, or the coming together of strong people in camaraderie. All of the above have their place, and each played a part in putting me on the road to being a big gay rock star, even if I'm the only one who ever noticed. I didn't matter if no one else showed up. What matters is that I showed up.

How are you showing up? And where? Have you resigned yourself to a "safe and secure" job that you simply tolerate, knowing that your heart's desire is being stifled? Have you negotiated away your passion for a paycheck? Many people follow the path that someone else promised would bring them every happiness and success; a life that gives them everything they WANTED to want, but find it no longer serves their truer purpose. When you do that, you've given your power to everyone else to manage for you.

My purpose is to help you craft yours from the inside, and restore your power. Feelings like an outsider isn't a bad thing; unless you feel it's holding you back from success. In that case, it's an indication that there's something to address on the inside. It's a journey worth taking, because you're worth it.

The world is waiting for you to be you.