For the record, music has never come easy to me. I was a dancer my whole life. The day I told my family I was singing in an Off-Broadway show was a surprise seconded only by the day I told them I was gay.
B.G. (Before Gay)
I. Grandma Jane
For the record, she didn’t tell my parents that she let me watch Pretty Woman, or the last ten minutes of Dirty Dancing on repeat every time I went to her house.
She didn’t tell them that I ate bowl after bowl of jalapeño chips with cool whip either, or that she dressed me up in full beat with a clump of shoe-laces for a crown, because she knew they might not yet understand that life is for indulging in the things that you love; the things that make you feel like your taste buds have eyes, and your eyes have hands that can reach out and touch Julia Roberts under those soft white sheets.
Grandma Jane was the one who put the needle down and told me to listen. I told her I couldn’t.
I couldn’t hear the drums.
For the record, my mom used all our home ink to print out the script of The Wizard of Oz (last revised in 1939.) She introduced me to Audrey’s elegance and Kathryn's bite. She bought me Anna Pavlova’s Biography and there is a still a part of me that lives there with her, in the 1400’s with the Marilyn Monroe of the ballet.
My mom was the first to see it in me, that I would give my life to telling stories.
I was about twelve when she and my father divorced and my Mom came out as gay. I stopped eating and talking in her house. I told her it was a slap in the face and I clung to the show tunes on my record player. I dove into ballet and Bible study.
It was only a couple of years before I started watching scary movies with my best friend Britni as a mutual excuse to make-out and dry hump. She would come to my house to use MySpace where (under the guise of cool scene kids) we would upload photos of us kissing.
It was only a matter of months before someone anonymously sent those photos to my father, alerting him that his daughter was engaging in pornographic activity on the internet.
I grew up watching my dad sing in church. The way his face would grimace and flash red for the sake of an effortlessly high tenor note. That was the moment God entered the room.
I think it was hard, driving me two hours back and forth the year I went to arts school, two towns away. But I wouldn’t trade the time, singing 80’s songs at the top of my lungs (very badly) for anything, and I don’t think he would either.
For the record, he had tears in his eyes when he called me down from my room (where Britni was, on Myspace), and it took him a long time to say anything at all.
Eventually, the defeated words fell out of his mouth like petals of a rose and he said,“Katie, if you’re gay, you can tell me.”
He didn’t shame me. He didn’t scold me. He merely asked me to trust him with my truth. I told him, no. “No, Papa. I’m not gay.”
And for the record, I meant it.
Until I went to college.
A.G. (After Gay)
Like most lesbians, I fell in love with a beautiful older butch woman who filled my heart with music, sex, and Chinese food; until eventually…she BROKE it.
I went home over Christmas break to tell everyone why my face had basically fallen off it’s bones and that required coming out.
When I told my dad, he reassured me that he loved me for who I am. He said he’s only ever wanted me to let him be there for what I’m going through. When I told my mom, she warned me harshly against it, knowing my life would be harder. Her partner told her to cut the shit and we all acknowledged that it’s awesome to be who you are even when the world makes it hard for you to feel accepted.
When I told my brother, he said, “I would be a lesbian too, if I was a girl.”
My other brother said, “Another one?”
My ballet teacher smugly said, "I know..."
Soon after, I fell in love again.
This girl told me that confidence means "to move with faith." It's not about perfection or bravado, it's about trust. She, and The New York Times came to see me the very first night my dance company trusted me to sing into a mic on a stage.
With my voice shaking like it still does,
And my pitch akimbo like it still goes,
And my heart pumping straight into the mic for all I could tell,
I made it through a life-changing three minutes.
As the dancer in me remembered how the notes did leaps and turns and sometimes flails out of my mouth, I realized that art and love both require bravery. They require a willingness to be vulnerable and to show up even if you’re not sure what will come out of you.
I traded a lifetime of discipline and knowledge in dance for a world of risk and vulnerability in music. I had no choice but to trade a life of fitting in for a life of fighting for love and the people like me. I celebrate my sexuality now, because I know it is a powerful tool to help others see that every detail of their unique story amounts to something special, something crucial for the growth of human kind. And it’s harder to own the ways you are different, yes.
But for the record, it’s totally worth it.
Who would chose a life without the freedom of dance, without the lighting in the tenor’s face? Who would chose to live without ever tasting the pang of the jalapeño? Who would skip a waltz in the 1400’s or a kiss that changes every corner of your being? I know I couldn’t.
I couldn’t live without the music, Pretty Woman, or the right to love whoever the fuck I want.
And I never got to come out to my grandma. But I think she knows, that I can now.
I can hear the drums.
About Kat Cunning
KAT CUNNING (aka Katrina Cunningham) crafts alternative pop songs, drawing from her study of dance as well as her time on stage. This summer she can be seen in Netflix’s TRINKETS, adapted from a novel by "KIWI" Smith (10 Things I Hate About You). TRINKETS is a coming-of-age series following teenage girls from different social circles as they form an unlikely friendship. Kat made her television debut in 2018 in Season 2 of HBO's The Deuce starring James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal, playing Franco’s love interest, Christina Fuego. A rising voice on the NYC arts scene, Cunning has performed on Broadway in 'Dangerous Liaisons,' Cirque Du Soleil's 'Paramour,' NYC's Sleep No More and HOUSE OF YES. She was the featured performer in Refinery 29's sold out 29Rooms exhibit with famed artist Juno Calypso and opened for recording artist LP's sold out North American tour in 2018. Influenced by a baroque aesthetic, Cunning and her original music "Wild Poppies," "Baby," "Make U Say" and "Stay on the Line" have been named "One to Watch" by BBC tastemaker Annie Mac and have been featured in The New York Times, Billboard, Nylon, Teen Vogue, People Magazine, and more. She is currently working on her debut EP, and her new single BIRDS is available now.