For gay Gen Xers, perhaps it was Boy George’s beat face on the cover of a Culture Club album, or when Madonna humped her wedding veil at the VMAs. For today’s Gen-Z baby gays, those Shawn Mendes underwear ads have been pretty damn effective, and I’d bet good money there was a sharp uptick in coming-out convos with Mom and Dad during the week after Beychella.
For the thirty-something subset of gay Millennials like me, our sexuality was molded by the ’90s — the decade of grunge and heroin chic, Britney v. Christina, and that blessed Real World episode where Eric Nies poses nude.
A long time ago, Oscar Wilde wrote that “the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realise that energy.”
In other words, life imitates art.
Life is shaped by art.
And what is life, but sex?
Here are, in no particular order, the ’90s pop culture moments that shaped my homosexuality — my interests, my longings, my sensibilities, and my desires.
Elijah Wood in ‘North’
One summer afternoon when I was eleven, my dad took me to see the movie, North. According to IMDb, North is about a young prodigy (Elijah Wood), who, after filing for “divorce” from his neglectful parents (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, sporting a cheek-length bob with bangs, and a not-yet-bald Jason Alexander), is given two months to find a new set of parents or else he’ll be shipped off to an orphanage.
But I recall none of this.
All I can remember is Elijah’s thick mop of chestnut brown hair and the lingering sadness in his glacier blue eyes.
The barely perceptible gap between his two front teeth.
I can also remember how I felt when I exited the theater: fifteen pounds lighter, as if God had scooped out all of my organs, leaving only my racing heart. I can remember that the crickets were chirping and the fireflies glowing. I vaguely remember it smelling like rain.
A week later, Dad and I were waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, when suddenly there he was, smiling back at me from the cover of Nickelodeon Magazine: Elijah, rocking a spiky new haircut.
I yanked the magazine from the rack and clasped it to my chest. “Dad, will you get this for me?” I asked.
“Not today,” he answered without looking.
For the love of God, Dad.
“Please,” I said.
My father turned around. He glanced down at the cover, and then up at me.
A silence ensued.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” he finally said.
When I got home, I tore the cover from the magazine and thumbtacked it to the wall above my bed. For the next two years — which is how long the magazine cover remained there — I would compare every new crush to the one I had on Elijah when I was eleven.
Oh, how I envied my older sisters, who shared a subscription to a magazine filled with riveting it-girl profiles, boundary-pushing photo spreads of ’90s supermodels, and ck one samples. I was left with stupid National Geographic Kids, good for nothing more than lining the cage of my guinea pigs, Ren and Stimpy.
It just wasn’t fair. I, too, wanted a quiz to tell me if I talked too much, or if I was way too possessive. I, too, wanted my “boy probs” to be solved by dating experts, and to be schooled on “why some have it and some don’t.” I, too, wanted to lie poolside with a girlfriend while we debated Jared Leto’s sex appeal.
The glossy pages of Seventeen are filled with the memories of a teenage sexual awakening that never was.
No, this ’90s phenomenon wasn’t just soft porn for straight bros. It was also prime viewing material for gays when websites like Sean Cody and Guys in Sweatpants were only glints in the eyes of the gay porn gods.
The hottest of the hotties were David Charvet, Jason Momoa (yes, Kahl Drogo from Game of Thrones, and your current Aquaman), and my personal faves, David Chokachi and Michael Bergin. Chokachi was more stacked than Bergin, but Bergin had the bigger bulge.
About once a season, there’d be a special episode in which all the lifeguards would ditch their red swim trunks and don black Speedos to compete in fitness challenges. It was basically Christmas. For an hour I’d sit inches from the TV set before retreating to my bedroom for some late-afternoon alone time.
When I came out at seventeen to my only gay friend, a twenty-something fellow waiter at a Baltimore seafood restaurant, I was bursting at the seams for some locker room talk.
“Who do you think is the hottest celebrity?” I asked him one night after work.
He scratched his head. “Well, I guess I’ve always had a thing for…”
“MINE’S DAVID CHOKACHI!” I exclaimed.
At least three, two-foot-long strands of string were needed to make one bracelet, preferably in complementary tones, like earthy (sage green, burnt orange, taupe), summery (pink, yellow, pale blue), or moody (blood red, black, purple).
If you kept your head down, you could complete at least half of a six-inch-long bracelet by the time the lunch bell rang, and the rest of it during fifth period — just in time to deliver it into the hands of your best girlfriend on the bus ride home.
From the start, I knew.
I was way too fucking good at them.
Aerosmith’s ‘Crazy’ Music Video
How about Alicia Silverstone’s dirty blond hair whipping in the wind as she takes off in a convertible with her bodacious partner in crime, Liv Tyler?
How about when the general store clerk, so overcome by Alicia’s beauty, lets her raid the sunglasses stand for free? (And when wide-eyed Liv, after learning that everything in the store is theirs for taking, chooses… a loaf of bread?)
How about Liv spinning around a stripper pole while Alicia, serving Frank Sinatra in a charcoal gray men’s suit and fedora, watches lustfully from the audience?
Historically speaking, I’d guesstimate that over one million American lesbians have deposited this music video into their spank banks since its 1994 debut. The type of desire that it aroused in me was a different one, since the closest a woman has ever come to my own fantasies is the tattoo of Victoria Beckham’s likeness on her husband’s sinewy left arm.
What I desired as I watched the music video was to experience, if only for a day, what it felt like to live inside the skin of an impossibly cool, impossibly sexy young woman like Alicia or Liv. A woman unburdened by self-consciousness. A woman who exploited the male gaze to get what she wanted.
I wanted to know what it felt like to be so irresistible to a shirtless farmer that he would ditch his tractor and run away with me.
What I wanted more than anything, I soon realized, was a best girlfriend for silk-pajama slumber parties, and a brawny man to fuck me.
Mariah Carey, ‘Rainbow’
Maybe it’s her ass-slapping choreography in the “Heartbreaker” music video, or her silver roller skates in the video for the remix.
Maybe it’s the three-minute mark in “Can’t Take That Away” (a.k.a. “Mariah’s Theme”), when Mariah delivers a guttural refrain to which a closeted sixteen-year-old, drunk on his mother’s boxed wine, can lip sync his little heart out:
They can say anything they want to say
Try to bring me down
But I won’t face the ground
I will rise steadily sailing out of their reach
Oh, Lord, they do try
Hard to make me feel that I don’t matter at all
But I refuse to falter in what I believe or lose faith in my dreams
’Cause there’s a light in me
That shines brightly, yes
They can try but they can’t take that away from me
Or maybe it’s the literal rainbow painted across Mariah’s boobs on the album cover.
Here’s a vivid memory to which I’m sure many gay men can relate: Faking a stomachache during a mall excursion with friends so I can slip away to Sam Goody to buy Mariah’s latest album.
Today I can confidently say, Mariah’s music will forever be the soundtrack to my sexuality.
The Bathtub Scene in ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’
This is so my first hook-up in a steam room when I was fifteen! Except that in Matt Damon’s case, he doesn’t actually get to enjoy mutual masturbation with the object of his desire.
No matter how many times I’ve seen the film, when Matt asks Jude if he can join him in the bathtub, I always hold out hope that Jude is going to say yes. But alas, he never does, and Matt is left with no choice but to bludgeon him to death with an oar.
I owned this movie on VHS, which meant that achieving an orgasm required superb left-handed dexterity of the pause, rewind, and replay buttons on my remote control. It’s skills like these that you should really be allowed to put on your résumé.
Oprah’s ‘Remembering Your Spirit’ Segments
Every afternoon of my sophomore year of high school, after I had completed my daily half-hour of journaling, I would assume lotus position on the living room couch and watch The Oprah Winfrey Show.
In the late ’90s, Oprah introduced “Remembering Your Spirit,” a three-minute-long segment that would air at the end of every episode. In these segments, scored by a tinkling piano, an obscure celebrity or a common person with a story would describe some aspect of his/her spiritual life, often while wandering meditatively through a lemon grove.
One late autumn afternoon, as the hour neared five o’clock, my eyes filled with tears as I listened to a domestic abuse survivor explain how her reconstructive surgery had “erased my ex-husband’s hands from my face.” After the segment ended, I took a cleansing breath through my nose, inhaling the warm fragrance of my “Home Sweet Home” Yankee candle. My eyes moved to the bay window, through which the cobalt blue sky had begun to fade to a dusty shade of pink, and then towards the kitchen, where my mother tended to a pot roast on the stove. My mother smiled at me, and I smiled back, and as my eyes returned to the television screen, I thought, Yep, I’m a fag.