Kiss and Make Up
Nine years ago, I got into an email fight with Gene Simmons of KISS. Or perhaps not a fight, but a heated discussion. Singer Adam Lambert had recently come out as gay, and Simmons had criticized him for it, saying that he should have remained closeted in order to sell more records.
It wasn’t a personal attack, really. Simmons was a supporter of marriage equality from the beginning, and although his politics lean toward the right on financial issues, it seems to be purely about business. His remarks about Lambert were also about business. If you want to sell records to the masses, he said, leave your gayness out of it.
I understood his point, but I thought there was a larger one he was missing, and so I wrote to him and said, “Do you know what it would have meant to me as a 10-year-old KISS fan if one of you had come out as gay or bisexual?” Because no tea, no shade, there have been rumors about two of the founding members for years.
To my surprise, he wrote back. Yes, he said, he did understand what that might have meant to young gay me. But, he maintained, rock and roll is first and foremost about the music, and if an artist is to have a long career, he needs to appeal to the broadest fan base possible. Lambert, he insisted, had killed his career before it had even gotten off the ground.
Thankfully, this prediction turned out to be untrue. Lambert has enjoyed a solid career trajectory. Ironically, he now tours the world as the frontman for Queen, another band whose lead singer’s gayness was the source of much needless worry. Freddie Mercury was never entirely in, but never entirely out, either, at least not until after his death from AIDS in 1991.
Getting back to 10-year-old me, as I mentioned I was a huge KISS fan. This was mostly about the music, but I was also fascinated by the photos and posters that prominently featured Paul Stanley’s exposed, hair-covered torso, even if I wouldn’t understand why for a few more years. I felt similarly about posters of Van Halen’s David Lee Roth and Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, which adorned the walls of many an adolescent boy’s bedroom in my town, where hard rock and heavy metal were the only acceptable listening choices.
The irony of hair metal is that so much of the imagery that makes the bands popular is drawn directly from queer fantasies and the gay leather world. Yet when I was a teenager, the largely heterosexual male audiences never seemed bothered by this, if they even noticed it at all. Glam rockers like Duran Duran, more popular with girls, were often dismissed with the same epithets my classmates spit at me on a daily basis, but no one doubted that the members of Judas Priest were getting it from hot groupies on a regular basis.
Things changed a bit when Judas Priest’s Rob Halford came out in 1998. By then I was a grown gay man myself, and although I was pleased to see things in the metal world expanding, I wasn’t involved in it enough to really sense how fans were reacting. But then Adam Lambert appeared with KISS on American Idol and Gene Simmons made his comments, and it got me thinking about the issue again.
Once you’re a member of the KISS Army, you’re usually a member for life, and although my musical tastes have expanded since I was 10, my love for that band has remained a sometimes-irrational constant. Not long ago, my childhood friend Stephanie, who shared my love for KISS and allowed me to keep my records at her house when my mother forbid me to have them, introduced me to a Facebook group for KISS fans of our generation. It’s been fun to talk about the band with people who remember them from the same era. But when someone posted a photo of a former bandmember who, after being largely in seclusion for the past twenty years, recently emerged and seems to be transitioning into a female identity, I worried. Would these old-school metalheads make transphobic and homophobic comments? Would I suddenly feel like I was back in the halls of my high school?
I waited for the comments. And then the first one came, from one of the group’s most diehard male fans. “Man, I don’t know. I have a real problem with this,” he said. I prepared myself to be disappointed. Then I read the rest. “I mean, good for her. But those white high-heeled boots with a purple jumpsuit? That’s just wrong.”
I laughed. And then I cried. Because sometimes people surprise you in the best ways, and 10-year-old you gets the reassurance that who you are is okay, even if it’s 40 years later.▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. More Michael Thomas Ford