My sister, arbiter of all things cool, her 18, me 11, informed me that the lyrics to "Little Red Corvette" were "dirty." I was singing along in the car, probably getting most of the words wrong.
"Underneath, where you can't hear it, they're singing, 'Real men call back.' It's about gays." She was, as always, absolutely unassailable in her rightness. She declined to educate me as to what the "Trojans" were about, but seemed to believe that the line about "horses" was so obviously filthy that no explanation was needed.
Now I was intrigued. I found myself listening even more carefully with nervous excitement, straining my ears to hear the subconscious assault on my burgeoning sexuality. Once she'd said it, of course, it was obvious. I mean, just look at him! Thigh-high boots and hair piled to heaven, purple lamé and eyeliner. He was terrifying and thrilling. That high pitched voice sang a siren's song of debauchery.
The graffiti at my elementary school already read what they'd say for years afterwards: "Scott Williams is gay." The slurs could not be have been more laughably far from the truth. I wished I was gay, just so this aching longing I seemed to have almost constantly carried around in my chest for the Jennifers and Christinas of my class would go away. I loved women in a way that crippled me and left me entirely unable to speak to them. I dreamed of becoming a girl, just so I could sit comfortably with them, talk to them, listen to their secrets, brush their long, shining hair. Just like the rest of the girls.
And didn't the kids have a point? I knew I wasn't like the other boys, obviously. I sang to myself. I cried too easily. I was "sensitive." I moved around like I wished I was an elf (the gayest of all the mythical creatures), and my hips swished, just a little, when I walked, no matter how still I tried to hold them. I wanted to write stories and poetry, for God's sake! When I turned thirteen, in lieu of the sex talk, my parents straight out asked me if I were gay, presumably to avoid having me lie to them more than I did already. I may not have been gay, but I was clearly something.
I went through a lot of confusion, for years. Maybe I was gay, and just didn't know it. The girls I liked clearly caught a whiff of whatever it was that made me strange - desperation, loneliness, a little bit of fey weirdness - and steered clear. So I went looking for sex and affection wherever I could find it. It didn't help that there were plenty of older men who didn't hesitate to take advantage of a horny, confused teenager with a penchant for self-destructiveness. It took years, and a move across the country, to figure even some of my issues out. But through it all, almost without even knowing, I had somebody showing me the way.
Prince showed me you could wear eyeliner. You could swish a little, or a lot. You could be soft spoken and scream and then destroy a motherfucker with your guitar. The girls could love you. The boys could respect you. And vice versa. You could sing about purple bananas and God and sex and nobody could say shit to you if you believed in yourself. You didn't have to explain yourself to anyone.
I never heard the voices singing "Real men call back." But Prince showed me real men - real people - do whatever the hell they want. I'll miss him more than I can say.