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Katy Perry Made My Gay Teenage Dream Come True

Katy Perry

Out’s music columnist reflects on the importance of gay icons to their fans, and one legend in particular.


When I was 16, a song came on the radio that changed my life. I was in the car with my mom, the sticky Texas summer heat pouring in through the windows. "We've got a new one for you," said the 104.1 radio DJ, "from newcomer Katy Perry."

Drums rolled. A glittery guitar line. "This was never the way I planned, not my intention."

Having grown up on R&B and gospel music, my ears always perked up at pop-rock, a genre that felt like a rebellious parallel to my Southern Methodist upbringing. Then that chorus kicked in, and I gasped. "I kissed a girl and I liked it, the taste of her cherry ChapStick."

I glanced at my mother, 34 years my senior, literally clutching her pearls. "Don't let your little sister hear that mess," she gasped, changing the station. "I won't," I promised. But as soon as I got home, I plugged in my headphones on our family computer and pulled up YouTube, rapidly searching the name. I checked over my shoulder before clicking play.

"I Kissed a Girl" topped the Billboard Hot 100 that summer, the first of nine number-one songs for Perry. When I returned to school that fall, the classroom gossip about parties I wasn't invited to became "Sarah made out with Padma in front of everyone," someone giggled in a hushed whisper. Suddenly, acting on a queer desire wasn't talked about with disgust, but with excitement.

I was deeply closeted at the time, denying my sexuality even to myself, but those became pivotal moments in my coming-out journey. I became obsessed with Perry. "Hot N Cold," "Ur So Gay," "Waking Up in Vegas" -- I played every song on repeat. To say my classmates knew I was a fan would be an understatement. I became known as the guy who loved Katy Perry, a correlation that followed me for years. "She's so hot," I'd say when someone inquired about my obsession.

Then came Teenage Dream, the album that "turned me gay." During our recent interview about Play -- her campy Las Vegas residency at the Resorts World Theatre -- Perry awkwardly chuckles as I share that tidbit with her. I imagine few women want to hear they incited the yassification of some random dude they just met, but she takes it in stride.

Let me explain. Before I knew what gay was, I was teased for it. My mannerisms, my voice, my music tastes -- everything was scrutinized for the right amount of masculinity. For a decade, I couldn't beat those gay allegations, no matter how hard I tried -- and I tried. I repressed every spark of femininity. I played sports, though I hated them. I became involved with a church that preached homosexuality is a sin. I became quiet and guarded. I didn't cry as a teenager, because men didn't cry. I became a people pleaser, because people would like me if I was of service, if I excelled in school, if I wasn't a burden -- right?

Looking back, I can see I was depressed. When I finally admitted my sexuality to myself, I thought I was going to hell, that romance wasn't in the cards for me. I repeatedly told myself, "You'll never be in love, and that's OK."

It's corny to say, but "Teenage Dream" gave me hope. In this song, and in Perry's story of escaping a conservative religious upbringing, I saw glimmers of the love story I wanted so desperately. "You think I'm funny when I tell the punch line wrong," I'd sing along dreamily. "I know you get me, so I let my walls come down."

At 20, just before coming out to friends, I got my first tattoo. "No regrets, just love," a lyric from the song, lines my inner right bicep. It's a mantra I live by to this day, a plea to myself to love without fear. When I share this and a bit of my story with Perry, she's touched. "Wow. You're a real fan. Thank you."

This connection to fans means everything to her. "I really pride myself on the fact that a lot of these songs, they help revive the spirit," says Perry. "They support and they give you hope. And a lot of these songs, I wrote in my darkest times, speaking to myself, saying 'Girl, you've got to find your voice.... You are a firework, all it takes is a little spark.'"

These uplifting anthems became Perry's signature sound: "All of those songs were encouragements first and foremost for myself, but they were so honest that I think it really resonated with the listener because they were coming from an honest place."

Millions of people have stories like mine, where one of the world's biggest pop stars lit up something inside them they didn't realize existed. It's easy to make fun of stans -- slang for super fans. They can be obsessive over their idols, occasionally a little bit toxic. But many are people like me whose lives were bettered, where a lightbulb was turned on, where a once feared feeling was validated. Suddenly, we owe a positive change in our lives to a person we've never met.

Thank you, Katy, for that spark.

Taylor Henderson is Out's music columnist. Follow him on Instagram @cornbreadsays.

This article is featured in Out's January/February 2022 issue, a special LGBTQ+ Star Trek edition appearing on newsstands February 22. Support queer media and subscribe -- or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.

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Taylor Henderson

Pop culture nerd. Lives for drama. Obsessed with Beyonce's womb. Tweets way too much.

Pop culture nerd. Lives for drama. Obsessed with Beyonce's womb. Tweets way too much.