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I like to tell this funny story about the time I met Demi Lovato.
It was at a book signing in 2013, and as a shameless Leo, I needed to stand out. So naturally, I decided to hit on her. I mean, have you seen her? My gay ass couldn't resist. But no, it was much more respectful than it sounds as I kept it playful and tongue-in-cheek when I approached her in this assembly line of a meet-and-greet, determined to make the most of my ten seconds with her. We had the following exchange, verbatim:
Me: So I've spent the last hour and a half coming up with the perfect pick-up line to tell you. Can I lay it on you?
Me: (with exaggerated suaveness) I like how you wear black. Is that only your clothes or do you like black girls, too? Demi: (with playful coyness) Well, you know what they say. Once you go black (she pauses, either for dramatic effect or trying to think of something witty)... you keep on wearing it.
Then she gave the collar of her black blazer this sly little tug, and I'm grinning my ass off because that was dumb, we are both so dumb, but I love it. Demi's "smooth" facade breaks and we grin at each other for a few beats before she bursts out laughing. Not that polite, but uncomfortable titter that celebrities sometimes do with fans, but that genuine, loud, so cute goofy laugh of hers.
Still grinning like an idiot, but keeping some suaveness somehow, I tell her, "Well-played," and we smile until I've held up the line too much and get whisked away.
Retrospectively, it's absolutely mortifying and somewhat problematic that I essentially fetishized myself for the sake of a pick-up line, and thank goodness Demi didn't retort with anything involving the phrase "jungle fever," but questionable language aside, that moment of connection with Demi meant so much to me on many levels. It's more than just a fun party story I can pull out of my back pocket at any time.
You see, Demi was my queer awakening. At first when I was twenty years old and adamantly "straight," yet still couldn't stop thinking about how pretty she was.
But then especially three years later. I saw her in concert, and she changed the words of her song "Who's That Boy?" to "Who's That Girl?", and her lyrical switch-up wouldn't leave my head. A week later, I found out that a friend from church had come out as a lesbian, which furthered my spiral until I was finally forced to confront my own sexuality after decades of meandering in the back of the closet the world had imposed on me.
Demi had always been something to me, but from that point on, she was close to everything. A self-proclaimed pop culture connoisseur, I admittedly can stan hard when it comes to celebrities, but something about Demi transcended even that.
I've been on the Lovato train for almost a decade now, when I stumbled upon her debut album courtesy of Pandora radio and discovered she had a voice more extraordinary than anyone else ever to come off of the Disney Channel circuit. There was such an unprecedented richness in her vocals, as she wielded this ability beyond her years to embed so much of herself into every note. The tritest of contrived pop songs suddenly turned so vulnerable, like a coveted look inside of this person. It's a treasured experience, to be able to listen to a song and feel connected, and Demi is one of the few artists who can do that for me.
It extends beyond her music. Demi's wholly unapologetic. She's brazenly exactly who she is, no matter if people like it or not. She's always been so refreshingly honest about herself in both her highs and her lows, and it's a brand of authentic frankness that can be hard to come across.
It's always made me want to be every ounce of myself, and as a queer woman, that's not something I could ever take for granted.
This has always been bolstered by her compassion. Her openness never felt exploitative, but as a means of connection and encouragement that turned her honesty into activism as she not only advocated for those who faced struggles similar to hers, but also for those whose stories were different. It's always been a nice reminder to practice my own openness and empathy - to live freely in my sexuality while arduously taking up the cause of those who often cast aside.
Demi is a rare breed who let us all have such an intimate look into who she really is, never shying away from showing us her rough edges. I can't even begin to the count the amount of times I've gotten to stand in front of her as she belted her heart out, privileged enough to look into her eyes and somehow feel understood, even if for those few seconds.
So to actually meet her five years ago was a landmark. With such a public display of her heart, after all, you come to feel like you know her. You avidly celebrate her victories.
Then you feel your heart crack in your chest when she falls.
I saw the headlines about her overdose two weeks ago and immediately went tumbling back in time to 2010 when news broke of Demi's first rehab stint. I'd been upset back then, but eight years later, I'm wrecked.
It can sometimes feel absurd to care this much. Connections to songs and smiles at concerts aside, Demi is still essentially a stranger to me, and yet I'm still so deeply invested. But if there's one thing I've had to learn over the years as I've come to accept who I am, it's to not police myself when it comes to love. No good ever comes from holding it back.
It's what I've come back to these past weeks especially. Love. A surprisingly contentious term for me sometimes, but I did grow up in the Christian church, which simultaneously preached love while forbidding me to love who it was natural for me to love. But to paraphrase what The Beatles famously crooned, love is what we need, and Demi's relapse reminds me of that. Sometimes in the darkest and most hopeless of times, it's all you can do. It's my tribute to her.
I know how harrowing it can be to be cut off from love. The repressiveness of the closet birthed my own darkness with a sense of helplessness that followed. It was only through a support system that I was able to reach out to the light through the doors. Finally given the freedom to embrace love -- for myself and for women -- I have no choice but to now except the mandate to extend love in every situation, to all it can reach. Including to Demi, who I haven't officially met, but through her openness, vulnerability, and undeniable humanity have still come to know.
My queer experience has been able to thrive on the tenants of empathy and solidarity. To be marginalized creates a compassion that I'm not sure I'd have to this extent otherwise, and to know the struggle means I must be sensitive and supportive of others' struggles, even if they are so different than mine. To be marginalized also creates such a need for community. With a world against us, we have to be in this together. And since I know so well what it's like to be turned aside because my "struggle" was considered "unacceptable," I have to stand by those who are in that same position.
In both her celebrity and as someone who sparked the flames of my queer sexual awakening, Demi taught me that it was okay to love. And she's certainly shown us all that it's okay to be open with exactly who we are -- in both the good and the bad. It reaffirms exactly what the root of my queerness ultimately is -- to live freely and to love freely.
It would be an insult to my queerness to exist in any other way.
To eschew those principles would also desecrate everything that Demi has come to mean to me. She's a powerhouse, in her ups and her downs, and I know I can honor her by esteeming love, empathy, solidarity and most importantly, being wholly indiscriminate in all those things. My heart is with her as she goes through this troubling time, just as my heart is with all who are fighting in their own ways.