by Stephanie Ryan Johnstone, with support/editing by Jillian Buckley
I vividly remember sitting in my music studio in Harlem several years ago when a young friend called and came out to me as queer and trans. The pain carried in each word they spoke is still seared in my heart. Not long after came a suicide attempt, and I haven’t for a day forgotten the conversation that followed in which they said to me, “I know the world is catching up, but I don’t know if it will catch up soon enough for me.”
Those words and their pain ignited a fire under me to demand, with love and urgency, that the world catch up faster. It was, and long has been, time to shout in solidarity in the streets, to write to politicians, to elevate voices of the long marginalized.
Another fire was ignited too, to encourage my young friend about the power of queer community. It was in such spaces with such incredible people that I had discovered I wasn’t alone in this and that we are not broken, or maybe everyone is broken and the cracks are where the light comes in. I wanted them to see that we are invited to be all of who we are, all of us, but this is often more easily said than felt. The devastating truth remains that many are not safe to freely and publicly be all of who they are. “It gets better” has been a powerful rallying cry for some, but not everyone has the privilege that makes “better” possible. The same can be said for feeling invited to be all who we are. Because I’ve felt both included and left out of this invitation, I am committed to making music and conversation that hold both the world as it is and the world as I’d like to see it.
So in the summer of 2013, along with my bandmate Jillian Buckley, I listened deep in my soul for what song I wish had existed for my young friend before that first suicide attempt. And thus, the song No Shame was born.
No wonder you are wracked with pain, my love
The aftertaste of shame doesn’t easily fade away
I hear your fear, I’ve been there too, my love
This rage in me is rooted in all that says you’re not ok
And as I was writing it, I realized that this song is actually for me too. Even though I am a queer, gender-creative, kinky person, who has been fully out and speaking publicly about all those things for years, and I do believe “the world is catching up” in significant ways, I still need to be reminded sometimes that:
You’re invited to be all of who you are
Loving only who you love
Saying yes when it feels good
No Shame, and its jubilant music video (featuring a young genderqueer hero, Neo Cihi!) is not a mandate that everyone should come out, regardless of their circumstances. Rather, it is a love letter to the power of queer community. You are not alone. You are not broken (or everyone is broken). You are invited to be all of who you are, whether or not you are free and safe to be so publicly.
The album it’s from, Love Songs for the Rest of Us, is a love letter to queer community too. It’s creation was sparked by questions like: What if we turned on the radio and heard pop music with all the heartbreak and lightness that we love, but instead of giving us endless reiterations of “love at first sight” or “devastating betrayal and jealousy” or “dominant man wins over reticent woman” we got songs that were a little bit queerer? Meaning more variation in how human sexuality is presented, in the calling out of who is attracted to who, yes, but even more than that, songs that speak to the widespread, lived experiences of so many people who haven’t found that their romantic and sexual lives mirror the paradigms of pop music or romantic comedies.
Jillian and I developed the album throughout the fall of 2013 as we drove across the country speaking and singing with people in their homes about their values and conceptions of love and sex and gender and family. We talked with people who spend a lot of time thinking about these things, as well as people who have never had a conversation about sex or birth or what love means in their own lives. We started with seeds of some songs, but the conversations sparked in those house concerts informed how the songs evolved, and the new songs we wrote were shaped by the stories and perspectives we encountered along the way from humans as beautifully diverse as my friends from high school in Buffalo Grove, to freegans on an encampment in New Orleans, to seniors at a center in Missoula, to multigenerational neighbors in St. Clair Shores, to teenage girls in Flat Rock, to evangelical Christian lesbians in Jackson. The album is a record that can’t capture, but we hope will honor, the laughter, honesty, and compassion we encountered in all the homes we were welcomed into.
Going on the tour, working on the video, and now sharing these hopes and ideas with the rest of the world are all ways to remind ourselves and others that there are no fixed boundaries on who we mean when we say “the rest of us.” We are, while simultaneously holding the world as it is and as we’d like it to be, working towards a world where “the rest of us” is an obsolete phrase, because we are finally living in a world where everyone has been “invited to be all of who they are” and is free and safe to step into the light of that invitation.