Are my friends going to be mad at me for not telling them?
Are they going to be disgusted by me? Will they be worried that I’ve harbored secret crushes on them? What about my WEDDING!? Would she be wearing a suit at our wedding? What would our kids call each of us? Would our kids be okay? Would they feel empty? Would they resent me for depriving them of a father? Maybe there’s time to reverse it. Would I be able to go back to pretending I’m in love now that I know for certain the truth about myself? Would I ever be able to have a double date with any of my friends? Will my siblings want me and my girlfriend around? Should I tell my extended family why I’m crying in the bathroom on Christmas?
I was falling in love for the first time in my life, but this was the constant dialogue in my head every night as I fell asleep. We had been best friends for years. We met freshman year of college, and had only grown closer and more obsessed with spending every second together as each year passed. The moment we kissed senior year, I immediately knew it was love. We were nauseatingly in love. Obsessed, happy, dizzy, fantasizing about a house and a dog (a German Shepherd, to be specific), talking about doing crosswords with each other each morning until we’re old and grey. But I was falling apart.
I was literally sick with stress. I had painful canker sores in my mouth. My stomach hurt terribly, all the time. I could barely eat. It was the same feeling I had when I was kid and knew I was in trouble, waiting for a punishment. It lasted all day every day, from morning until dawn, with no blissful peace even in my dreams. Every time someone asked me about my day, I felt like I was being interrogated, accused, spied on. I was terrified they would find out that my best friend and I were actually dating. I felt so much shame about lying to everyone, but I also couldn’t fathom declaring a new identity to each and every person I’d ever met. The word ‘lesbian’ made me flinch, even when it was in a context completely unrelated to me.
My girlfriend of 5½ years, who is also my co-writer, producer, and guitar-player, was amazingly supportive throughout it all. But she too was stressed. Neither of us had been out of the closet to ourselves or the world before we fell in love. During the first year that we began dating, we wrote and released a 5-song EP called “Television Is My Friend”. In these five songs, I first toyed with lyrical ideas about not seeing myself represented in the world. “Talk, talk, and they won’t stop coming after me / but I’m nothing like the girl that’s in your fantasy.” I skirted around certain ideas, never getting close enough to them to acknowledge the real reason I felt so out of place at my core. I wrote songs about my relationship with my older sister, and how I felt like everyone expected me to grow up and settle into a serious (hetero) relationship like her. I wrote more directly about keeping a huge secret, and promising I’d tell the truth if I made it out alive (because the secret was slowly killing me).
It wasn’t until several years later that I realized: this should have been the most special, life-changing, beautiful year of my life. I was in love. For the first time. Every time she came home from class after being gone for two hours, I felt elated. But all of the music I wrote was dark, anxious, and deeply sad. I felt equal parts fear and excitement for our future. I had been raised to see myself as a bride in a white gown, standing at an altar next to a man with a square jaw at least three inches taller than me. I grew up being fed a constant stream of lesbian or homophobic jokes for decades (by family, friends, kids on the playground, and TV); but more importantly, I had rarely, if ever, seen positive portrayals of a healthy lesbian relationship, especially one with more femme-presenting women in it. I came from one of the most liberal counties in the country, and yet I saw no representation. Homosexuality was tolerated, but not celebrated. Two boys and zero girls were “out” in my entire high school.
When I was 23, almost exactly two years after my girlfriend and I started dating, we were finally living together, supporting ourselves, and happy with our circle of friends. I was out and more comfortable with introducing my girlfriend to people. One afternoon, I was in our apartment in the middle of the summer, sweating in the heat. It almost felt like a fever dream, but I picked up my guitar and started playing and singing a song. The song was so familiar that I wasn’t sure if I wrote it or not. The words seemed like they had already existed in my brain for so long. “Make me a safe place out of your bed, and I promise to forget all of the places we’ve slept.”
The song was sonically a little dark, but it was also more upbeat, sexual, and a bit snarky. “Bad girls go first / good girls eat dirt. / Want me, leave me, screw me, keep me.” I was talking about my desire to be bad, to be sexual, to do things that felt right in my body, but only if I felt safe. I wrote this song quickly, and my girlfriend loved it right away. She said it sounded like me, but not like me. She encouraged me to keep writing more in the same style, and she got to work producing the song. We released “Make Me A Safe Place”, and people loved it. Friends from college, who I used to be terrified wondering what they thought of me now that they know I’m gay, talked about how we were a cute couple, or role models to them. Such a small sentiment caused a massive shift in my thinking. I started to believe that our relationship was cute, that people like to hear about it, that it was okay to write more about it.
Songs poured out of me after that. I finally felt free to write about my relationship. First, I wrote a song called “Cruel Is the Love”. It’s about how the person you love can piss you off, but if either of us is mad, we have to kiss and make up before falling asleep. “I am just a girl, and you are my living dream. I am just a girl, and you’re all that I’ll ever need.” I wrote a song called “Baby Doll”, where I talked about how I don’t want to go back in the closet now that I’m out. “Little white lies, and you’re kissing my thighs, and I never could find the cure.” And then I wrote my favorite song to date, a song that solidified my identity as a writer and my mission statement for all of my future work. The song is called “You’re Still My Sugar”, and it’s a punky power pop song about how everybody is brain-dead and totally sucks, except for my love. “I took a long walk / after we first talked / my tiny heart throbbed / you were my savior / and when we still kiss / I feel it like this.” It was the most honest I’d ever been. It was a celebratory song, a love song.
The song came across the Twitter feed of a writer at Billboard, and it got a lot of attention. Billboard staff named it the critic’s choice #9 Rock Song of 2017. I know at my core that external validation can never fill the holes that we want it to, and the last several years of my life have been extremely fulfilling because of how much love I’ve been surrounded by. I spent a lot of time and a lot of hard work finding my voice as a writer and artist, until I could make something that I genuinely liked as a listener. But what the success of that song gave me was acceptance, and it was a huge gift. Because with acceptance soon came pride.
I was proud of my girlfriend. I was proud of her talent and her wit and her relentless work ethic. I wanted people to know about her, about us – I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. I wanted people to know how cute our love story was. It made me realize that because of all of my internalized homophobia, while I was falling in love I didn’t find our romance cute. I was ashamed and scared. Now that I was being more open, honest, and positive musically than I ever had been, I was finding more success and genuine connection with people. I slowly grew braver and prouder, and soon I was able to say out loud how I identified: I am a lesbian. And it’s cool. It’s awesome. A happy relationship like ours is something worth aspiring for. My new mission was to show people that two girls falling in love is adorable, fun, and exciting.
So I wrote a song called “Loners”. I talked about being in college, sneaking around and keeping my romance a secret, but I didn’t include the anxiety and turmoil. I focused on the happy memories. Lying on the floor in her tiny attic-converted-bedroom, listening to music. Hooking up in the book stacks at the library – a USC rite of passage, although the tradition was traditionally celebrated by hetero couples from the Greek system. Making her late for work because we couldn’t stop kissing each other goodbye. I released a music video with this song, featuring old photos and videos of us at USC, throughout the years as we fell more and more in love.
TLDR: writing songs about being in love with a girl helped me come out of the closet.
It was terrifying at first to declare my love so publicly, to define myself so permanently. But I spoke it into normalcy, and I was met with so much love and acceptance. I became eager to stop hiding, and with every new song or new show or new podcast (I have a lesbian podcast with my best friend called Love Is A Softball Field), I grew more confident and stoked about my identity as a lesbian. I knew that all of the negative associations I had with that word were the result of years of micro-aggressions and a lack of representation. I felt like a badass, a good person, an admirable person, for the first time in years.
I’m incredibly happy now. We rescued a German Shepherd, and we love our little family. My girlfriend and I release all our music under our imprint Sentimental Records, and we love working together. We just went on a 22-city tour opening for KT Tunstall, and we released my debut album in May. The entire album was inspired the iconic teen movie soundtracks that we grew up on, only re-imagined as queer. I created an entire story-line about a girl who falls into a group of friends at a new school, falls in love, experiences the fear of rejection and even worse, the fear of a successful relationship, and eventually ends up kissing her dream girl as the credits roll.
Mid-way through my album, on a song called “Liv Tyler”, I sing “My parents were right, MTV ruined my life” over and over. These movies that I grew up on contributed to my fear and loneliness. I have had many tough moments and interactions, experienced real homophobia and countless offensive micro-aggressions, but I truly do feel as though I’ve conquered the fear. And I see the world becoming so much more accepting, tolerant, and full of genuine love for people across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. I see those who have struggled so much more than me, and experienced much more discrimination. I feel a sense of duty and pride toward this community, and I will always challenge myself to be a fierce, front-lines ally and change maker.
It’s really beautiful to me that this excitement about my identity and queer community all stemmed from writing and releasing a song. I spent my life writing, living, and breathing music, not knowing that it would eventually give me a tool to find myself and attain true happiness. Music and art are essential to our expression, self-discovery, and I’m grateful and privileged to be in a position to share my perspective with the world. Thank you For The Record for doing the often thankless, critical job of being a platform for artists to share their experiences, failures, and successes with the world.
Art can change lives, and I am forever grateful that it gave me a vehicle to process and destroy my internalized homophobia.
About Maddie Ross
In summer of 2018, a notification flashed across independent rock artist Maddie Ross’s iPhone. “Would you like to accept a message from KT Tunstall?” She glanced at it and assumed it was a spam account, but returned to check it later in the day. That was when she noticed a blue checkmark, and realized it truly was an enthusiastic message from the songwriting legend. “Hiii Maddie… It’s KT Tunstall! Hope this finds you good. I saw a tweet of yours and checked out some of your stuff. Sounds awesome. I’m on tour in the US in Oct/Nov and looking for an opener – would you be into it?”
Maddie and her girlfriend Wolfy, who is also her producer, co-writer and label co-founder, read the message multiple times to make sure it was real. They had both dreamed of doing a tour on this scale, but didn’t know it was possible without first landing a booking agent. The two have been making music together since college, where they attended the same songwriting program at USC. “She [Wolfy] was the most talented person I ever encountered, and I was drawn to her long before we started dating senior year,” Maddie describes it. By the time they received KT Tunstall’s message, Maddie and Wolfy had written and released two Maddie Ross EPs and a string of singles, garnering some critical success along the way.
In early 2017, Maddie came to the attention of Billboard Rock writer Chris Payne, who featured her on Billboard.com’s home page with the headline “Maddie Ross is the Best DIY Rock Star You’ve Never Heard Of”. Payne gushed about the unsigned artist’s new single “You’re Still My Sugar”, calling it “one of the best rock songs released this year”. Maddie talked to Billboard about making authentic music and the importance of being a visible queer role model. Former USC classmate Katie Gavin of MUNA contributed to the piece, describing Ross as one of her “secret role models” and praising her as an “authentic artist”. Payne continued to champion the single throughout the year, and in December Billboard Staff named the single #9 on their list of 25 Best Rock Songs of 2017.
Maddie and Wolfy continued releasing singles throughout 2018, building on “You’re Still My Sugar’s” success. When Tunstall’s offer came along, they readily agreed, and dropped Maddie’s sophomore EP Touch Hands, Touch Bodies via AWAL a week before hitting the road. Ross toured with Tunstall in support of the EP at venues such as Los Angeles’s El Rey Theatre, San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall and Austin’s 3TEN @ ACL Live. Tunstall fans fell in love with Ross’s high energy performances, “abundant cussing”, and candid love songs about being queer and proud. Touch Hands, Touch Bodies went on to achieve the #25 spot on Billboard Staff’s 25 Best Rock Albums of 2018.