What Elton John taught me about queerness and performance

 
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The first time I saw a photo of Elton John, he was laying across a grand piano with a pink feather boa across his chest and rhinestone-clad glasses. It was printed onto a postcard and taped to my mom's medicine cabinet, among half a dozen other letters, notes and postcards. I was eight, or maybe nine.

“Mom, who is that?”

“That’s Elton John.”

“Who is he?”

“A performer.”

My mom didn’t call him a musician. She called him a performer. I remember feeling like I was performing, too.

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I was positive that Elton John was straight. I thought his flamboyant costumes were just part of his performance, because I did not understand how someone so phenomenal and fantastic and beloved could also be queer.

My mom was the one who finally told me he was gay. She laughed when she said it, because isn’t it obvious?

But it wasn’t, to me. I had never noticed the queer people in public spaces, because there weren’t that many to notice. To be gay was not to be successful or powerful. But Elton John was both.

Discovering his queerness while I was discovering my own alleviated a lot of my anger. It allowed me to begin questioning the nuance of the queer world: Was he actually performing when he flaunted rhinestone glasses and pink boas, or was he just being himself? And, more importantly, does it matter?

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He became my favorite secret obsession, albeit skin deep. I found out he worked on The Lion King and watched three VHS documentaries on the show, one of which included a detailed account of an argument he had with producers at the time. They depicted him as a diva, and fairly spoke about him being difficult to work with. But I saw a man who knew what he had worked for and wasn’t going to allow that to be devalued. I decided that’s how I wanted to perform, too.

And I did. I owned my work and my art, no matter how unequivocally bad and grossly personal some of it was. My mom enrolled me in singing lessons, and I learned half a dozen instruments in my middle and high school band. And by doing so, I started to own other vulnerable parts of my life, too. When I eventually came out, the summer before college, I was surrounded by people who already appreciated my performance.

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Elton John retired from his 50 years of performance on Wednesday. He taught me that performance, while beautiful on its own, contains the potential for something else. Performance can seem like a crude depiction of a false reality. But it also seems like the inchoate beginnings of finding your own truth.


Christianna is an adventurous, optimistic feminist who can hold her own in a few topics: politics, music, baking and books. At a party, you can find her consoling the hostess’s pets and sipping a gin and tonic.