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THE BOYS on the bandwagon.

As "boy bands" once more explode on the pop music scene, they're discovering out youth among their most vocal fans, gay men among their behind-the-scenes allies, and at least one openly gay singer in their midst. Is the teen idol world saying "Bye, bye, bye" to the closet?

Wherever there are boy bands, there are gay boy fans. That's the way it's always been.

"I about died when I heard New Kids on the Block were coming to Sacramento in the late '80s," recalls Mike, now 25. "But because I didn't want to make it look obvious to others that I had a crush on this guy group, I would go to the grocery store, do some shopping, and conveniently throw in a Teen Beat at the bottom of the shopping cart under the fruits and veggies so I wouldn't attract attention."

Cut to a decade later: "I am an 'N Sync-aholic!" raves Jason, a 20-year-old in Maryland. But while Mike buried his enthusiasm beneath the produce,, Jason buys "Teen Beat and Tiger Beat just to have little posters" to hang on his walks. "At first my friends were like, `He went from gay to supergay,'" he adds, "but that did not last long. Soon enough they found the same appeal to this group that I did."

Even high school students have let their random out of the closet. "I would scream and shout and act all crazy if I got tickels to a boy band concert," writes 17-year-old "David," who couldn't get his parents' permission to be out for this story. "I think liking boy bands reinforces some people's ideas about me being gay, but I also think the stereotype that all gay guys like boy bands is dumb. In fact, none of my gay guy friends like boy bands nearly as much as I do."

Teen idols have long served as a bridge between childhood and sexual maturity. For pubescent girls, the sweet, soft young men who grace the covers and collectible foldout posters of 16 and Teen Beat represent safe objects of first affection--training crushes, so to speak. What's been largely unspoken until recently is that these pop stars often serve a similar role for boys who are discovering their same-sex orientation.

"We always knew that there were boys reading," says Danny Fields, who was the co-editor in chief of 16 magazine from 1975 to 1977 and is himself gay. "I run into people all the time now who say, 'Oh, my sister used to get it, and I used to pretend to be interested in the Beatles, but I was really looking at pictures of David Cassidy.' It wasn't figured into the marketing or the circulation of the magazine, but we all knew it existed."

Today, young gay readers are more vocal. "I just read a letter today from a 14-year-old boy who read our story about gay celebrities and it gave him the courage to come out," reports Teen People deputy editor Maria Baugh.

Bolder and braver, out youth have no qualms about joining the mainstream's skyrocketing madness for boy bands, those harmonizing crews of attractive young men who typically play no musical instruments. Last month 'N Sync smashed all sales records as a staggering 2.4 million copies of their sophomore album, No Strings Attached, flew out of U.S. stores in its first week. The record they broke belonged to boy band supreme Backstreet Boys, whose own second U.S. release, Millennium, had set a hurdle of 1.13 million CDs a year ago. On their heels are other million-selling acts 98[degrees] and LFO. And the United States is well behind Europe, where also burning up the charts are superstars Westlife and Boyzone, which includes boy band-dom's only openly gay band member, Stephen Gately.

It hasn't taken long for network television to hop aboard the boy bandwagon. ABC's reality-based Making the Band is one of the hottest shows on the air, captivating viewers with the competition among aspiring members of a band-to-be named O-Town. Jonathan Murray, openly gay cocreator of MTV's The Real World and now executive producer of Making the Band knows the adolescent longings his show plugs into. "I think I had a crush on Davy Jones [of the Monkees]," admits Murray, 45, recalling his own teen years. "But I kept that to myself."

Not all gay teen fans were invisible in the past. Former teen heartthrob Tommy Page, now 31, who scored a hit with "I'll Be Your Everything" in 1990 and toured with New Kids on the Block, remembers seeing young male fans cooing for the Kids. "There would always be a couple girls with their guy friend who was obviously their 'best pal,'" he recalls with a wink.

What's new is the bands' acknowledgement of their male fans. James Lee Dallas from up-and-coming group Youngstown says simply of his gay followers, "Music is universal; it has no prejudices or borders. We don't judge our fans but instead are thankful to them for listening to our music."

O-Town hopeful Ashley Parker Angel, 18, is more direct. "I'm really flirty with everybody," he admits. "I don't just like the attention from girls. That there are boys out there too who like me makes me feel that much better about myself."

"All of these bands have always had young gay admirers," states Mike Glatze, managing editor of XY, a magazine for gay youth. "Now there are media outlets that represent young gay culture and provide an opportunity for young gay people to be more vocal."

And the bands do pay some attention--as shown by an October 1997 cover story and fashion layout in XY itself. "The Backstreet Boys--at the time still starting out [in the United States]--knew that being in XY would mean they'd be reaching instantly loyal fans," recalls Glatze.

"It was an important audience to reach," adds Jay Marose, 34, director of public relations for TransContinental Records, a division of the star-making company TransContinental. (The Orlando, Fla.-based management firm launched Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, LFO, C Note, and now O-Town--named for the company's hometown.) "I don't think any of [the band members] had a problem with it."

What has made such open connections possible in recent years is simply that "it's so much more OK and possible to be gay," says Brian Graden, 37, the out president of programming at MTV. "The last major boy band explosion was ten years ago, and you didn't have as many openly gay students in college and high school to make a fuss."

Jeremy Helligar, 30, Teen People's openly gay entertainment editor, concurs: "People in their teens and early 20s are much more savvy than teenagers ten or 20 years ago."

That's thanks in large part to the Internet, and not surprisingly, "All of these groups have official Web sites that are top of the line," notes Thom Storr, the out senior sales and marketing director for Logic Records, which signed LFO as one of its acts. "And fans create Web sites for their favorite groups."

"Guysluv Nick!!!" proclaims the fan site dedicated to Backstreet's Nick Carter and created by a then-teenage Tyson Stevens, now a 20-year-old University of Southern California student. "At the time I had this big thing for Nick," he confesses. (He now thinks 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake is "the cutest guy in any group I have ever seen.") "I love the 'pop-ness' of boy groups," he explains. "They just put across a sound and style that is easy to listen to."

For gay youth just coming out, the music can serve a double purpose: boys their age to idolize safely and sparkling, romantic songs to soothe their frayed emotions. "I have that age-old 'They helped me through a hard time in my life' thing," says Jason, "because the music is upbeat and happy for the most part."

Of course, both functions of fandom are universal among adolescents. "There's

no reason to assume that a gay teenage boy would be any different from any other teenager when it comes to these boy groups," adds out Reprise Records president Howie Klein, whose label signed the urban boy group Nu Flavor. "They love them the way any other teenager does." And boy bands aren't just for teenagers anymore; they're now "a cultural phenomenon," Klein declares.

That increased audience is in part a function of record labels' increased ability to market the bands, particularly with the enthusiastic assistance of media outlets from MTV and the Disney Channel to CNN and TV Guide. "I don't think record companies are going after that specific subset [of gay youth]," says Klein. "The bands are marketed toward youth, and gay youth are part of youth."

Storr agrees. "I have never made a conscious effort to market LFO to a young gay consumer," he says. "I want them to appeal the widest range of consumers possible."

The same goes for the new crop of teen magazines. "XY is great for kids who can pick it up," notes Baugh of Teen People. "But there are a lot of gay kids who clearly don't have that access. [Reaching them] is something we feel really committed to." One example, perhaps: Teen People's August 1998 Backstreet Boys issue, widely known as the wet T-shirt cover. The homoeroticism was so pungent, it prompted the San Francisco Chronicle to do a story on the ambisexuality of boy groups. "I do think that the boy bands of today definitely exude more sex appeal than the boy bands of the '80s like New Kids on the Block," points out Teen People's Helligar.

There's no doubt about it, as the photo of 98[degrees] gracing this issue's cover shows. Such gym-bunny grooming would never have happened ten years ago. "I remember the New Kids were not allowed to take their shirts off," says Page. "That was one of the rules until the very end. I think there's more of a gay following to the [current] bands, who are selling sex more."

Storr points out that even fully clothed, many boy bands are co-opting looks pioneered by gay men. "They are more accessible to gay youth because of the cross-pollination of fashion trends between gay and straight cultures," he muses. "Look at the members of current successful boy bands who have tattoos, body-conscious clothing, and body piercings. These are all affectations that originated in the gay subculture."

With so many out gay people behind the scenes, that cross-pollination is no surprise. "There are people working with O-Town who are openly gay," says Murray. "It's interesting to watch because I don't think a lot of members of O-Town had had a lot of contact with gay men."

"I won't play the pronoun game," says Marose adamantly, noting that he's one of at least three openly gay people working at the Orlando boy band factory. "I'm not 'in your face' about it because we're dealing with young people here. But it's a fact of life, and they have to deal with it."

And deal they do. "I have never had a gay fan come up to me and say, 'Hi, my name is so-and-so and I am gay,'" says Brad Fischetti of LFO, one of the bands Marose has worked with. "But I don't think that a person's sexuality is important when it comes to music."

"That's what's so incredible about the gift of music," echoes O-Town's Angel. "You can write something, and even though maybe you're writing it about one aspect of your life, someone can listen to it and have a totally different interpretation. If that's ever able to help someone through something, then we're doing our job. I hope that our music has that ability because that's wonderful."

But what happens when a member of the band is actually gay? On June 16, 1999, Gately came out on the cover of the British tabloid The Sun. Yet while Boyzone's greatest hits CD, By Request, remained on the top of the U.K. charts after Gately's revelation, the U.S. version of the album failed to catch fire after its fall release. The band's U.S. label, Mercury, has since written it off, and--as it had before and after the album's U.S. debut--declined to put The Advocate in touch with Gately for this story. Is it all simply a case of American homophobia?

"It has nothing to do with that kid being gay," insists Page, who now works in radio promotions for Reprise Records. "The sound of most European boy bands is not right for what's happening in pop music here. It didn't have to do with the image. It had to do with the songs."

Gately is no worse for the wear. "It's been a huge weight off my shoulders," he told the British magazine Attitude last year. "I'm more relaxed because I don't have to hide who I am."

One of Gately's predecessors--a gay but still-closeted '80s solo singer we'll call "Alex," who had one or two top 10 hits in his early 20s--knows what young gay pop stars go through. "Did I feel like telling everybody I was gay when I was touring around the U.S.? No. Being gay scared the shit out of me. It made the situation a nightmare."

Gately told Attitude that his career goals kept him closeted. "[W]hen I was first joining the group, I knew I was gay," he said. "But I wasn't going to say, 'Oh, you know I'm gay,' because I'd be knocking an opportunity."

Alex says he's "absolutely" certain that there are gay members in today's boy bands. "If one person could lead the way as a teen idol who's gay, it would set a precedent," he says. "But no one has been able to do that yet."

Fan Stevens thinks the world is ready: "When Stephen Gately came out, most of the group's fans said 'So what?' I think that if the same thing happened to a major group here, the fans would not care--but the 'higher-ups' would."

He's certainly right about the higher-ups. "I know it would hurt the band," states a skeptical Marose. "It's not a question. Unfortunately, in the entertainment industry the fact that someone is openly gay can change their perception and marketability. It ruined Ellen DeGeneres's television show. Would I ask anybody else to do that? No, I think that's unfair. [But] would I tell somebody not to come out? No. It's a personal decision every person has to make for themselves."

Should one member of a band of four or five come out, the straight band members "could absorb" the fallout, argues former 16 editor Fields. But that wouldn't be his professional advice. "If I had a group I'd say, 'Sleep with who you want, but don't get up and announce it.' I don't see what good it can do. I have never seen it really help anyone's career."

Not yet, but the rules are ever-changing. Ten years ago, pop stars k.d.lang and George Michael were still in the closet. In 1999 Grammy nominee Rufus Wainwright was gay out of the box. Who's to say that teen idols can't be next? "I just feel sorry for anybody else within the business who is gay and feels trapped," Gately told Attitude. "Hopefully [coming out] won't have hurt my career that much .... Maybe I'll even gain some fans."

Certainly young gay men like Jason are primed and ready to support the next Gately--and willing to settle in the meantime. "This past Saturday I shelled out $183 for tickets to see ['N Sync] in July," Jason wrote in an E-mail to The Advocate. "My friends and I plan to go to a meet-and-greet before the show, but given that probably 20,000 screaming girls will be there, I doubt we'll meet them. I'm sure I can find a nice guy there," he says, referring to other gay guys who will be mobbing 'N Sync, "even if it's not Lance (sob, sob)."

Epstein contributes to Cosmo Girl, Teen Movieline, and other teen publications.

the fans' OWN STORIES

Today's young gay followers of boy bands "make no apologies" for being out and awestruck

JASON / 18 / KERNERSVILLE, N.C.

I have been a big fan of the Backstreet Boys for at least two or three years and attended their concert in Greensboro [N.C.] in February. It was totally awesome. I was so excited that I was actually going to be able to see them in concert. When I pulled up in the parking lot of the coliseum, there were vans and other cars with BSB posters on them. I had brought one of my BSB magazines (Teen Beat, I think) and put some posters on my car as well. A lot of people looked at me funny, but I didn't care. The concert was so awesome. It was the day of my life, and I will never forget it. I've never had a problem with people accepting the fact of my favorite band. It actually gives me and my female friends something to talk about.

RENE / 22 / FAIRFIELD, CALIF.

I think [boy bands'] pop music brought me closer to my family after coming out. My nieces and nephews weren't sure how to handle it, but having something in common like this helped a lot! Being the oldest boy-band lover of the family makes me the "coolest" uncle. (I was the one at Target buying eight 'N Sync albums on the Tuesday it came out.) I recently went to see Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync in concert. [The] BSB [show] was cool because the audience was a little bit older, and after a few minutes of weird stares at me yelling "I love you, Kevin!" it was fine, 'N Sync was different though--the kids were younger, and it took a while for them to get used to me reaching up for Lance as he flew above us during the concert.

DAVID / 17 / BOSTON

At school I am not afraid to reveal my sexuality but do not flaunt it. It might pop in a conversation, where I am talking about a cute guy, but I do not do that too often. Most people suppose I am gay because I am copresident of [the] gaystraight alliance. Now on to boy bands. I guess I have a soft spot for them. I have CDs from 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, 98[degrees], Boyzone, and whatnot. I like boy bands mainly because I like the sound of their music ... mostly. 98[degrees] has the cutest members; I find the Backstreet Boys, all of them, pretty unattractive, I do read Teen People and YM or even Seventeen sometimes when the cover attracts me. Occasionally I would want to buy something that would trigger my guy friends to comment on [how] gay I am and that is actually fine with me. If I can make fun of how gay I am myself, I do not see why other people cannot do it.

JOHN / 29 / CHICAGO

It all started fairly innocently in September 1997, when Backstreet Boys played a small club show in Chicago. A group of us (all 20-something gay men) decided it would be a hoot to check out the show. Some of Backstreet's earliest videos were getting play in gay clubs, so we knew at least some of the music. Needless to say, we had a fantastic time. Each Backstreet Boy high-fived us and smiled and generally gave us a boatload of attention throughout the show. We were hooked. Next thing we knew, we were all buying expensive Backstreet European CD singles and road tripping to places like Columbus, Detroit, and Toronto to see them perform live. Along our merry way, we managed to gain the trust of Backstreet's bodyguards and meet each BSB member personally. In a hotel lobby packed with teenage girls a group of smiley gay guys tends to stand out, and I think the Boys appreciated seeing some guys (regardless of sexual orientation) hanging out in their hotels before and after shows. One night in Detroit, Kevin recalled our group being at the Chicago show and asked me pointed questions about all of us and how we got to be Backstreet fans. I told him about their videos being played in gay clubs, etc., and he was genuinely interested in hearing the whole story. Not once in the nearly two years since then has any member of Backstreet (or any other musical group) seemed uncomfortable around us or concerned about the "gay thing." We treat them with respect, and they reciprocate.

he's with THE BAND

Jay Marose, publicist to the boy band stars, shares his tales of hanging with--and coming out to--the guys

When Chicago native Jay Marose left his hometown two years ago to head up TransContinental's public relations department in Orlando, Fla., he had no idea he would become one of the most powerful gay men in the boy band world, handling past and present Trans clients Backstreet Boys, 'N Sync, LFO, O-Town

(from ABC's Making the Band), and others. Working closely with the youthful singers--often as their guide and protector--inevitably meant Marose's own personal life spilled into his business. Here, in his own words, are just a few of his more eye-opening moments with the boys.

O-TOWN

We'd go to coffee every single night, and Ashley [Parker Angel] one night whispered in my ear so the [Making the Band] mike wouldn't pick it up, "Are you comfortable around us?" And I said, "Ashley, you can ask me anything you want. You don't have to whisper." My life is open. They were very cool about it. I was taking a date to the premiere of Making the Band, and they were all excited for me. They wanted to meet him.

'N SYNC

I was out a few months ago in LA. at [the West Hollywood restaurant] Manx on a Saturday night with Joey and Lance from 'N Sync and [pop singer] Tiffany and a bunch of their friends. I was with this guy I had met two days before. He was beautiful, and I didn't know what his story was. He went up to go to the bathroom and Joey goes, "Jay, what's the deal? Is he your date?" And I said, "I don't know." So Joey says, '"I'll find out for you." The guy comes back and Joey goes, "OK, we're going to play a game. It's called Gay or Straight. I'll start: Straight?" And then he looked at the guy. They are just the coolest people about it.

C NOTE

It was on my birthday two years ago. [The band] called me and said, "Come over. Just you." So I took a cab over to [their hotel] and they walked me outside and said, "There's something we want to ask you. You're always around us. But you never talk about your personal life." I said, "I'm here to support you. You shouldn't have to support me." And David said, "That's bullshit. You're our family. And family is there for each other. You expect us to be open with you. Well, you have to be open with us." And they have been unbelievable ever since.

BACKSTREET BOYS

It was my first night with the Backstreet Boys ever, almost four years ago. I was on the tour bus, and Nick [Carter] was talking about singing. The theater that they played in Chicago, the Vic, is right in the middle of Boystown. There were lots of young girls, but there were a bunch of young guys there too. He was singing some "I love you" line [during the show,] he said, "And the lights came up at the end, and I realized I was singing to a guy." He had just met me and didn't know anything about me, but he looked at me and said, "I don't care that it was a guy. It just surprised me. I know there are gonna be rumors about it tomorrow." They were really funny and open about it. --As told to Jeffrey Epstein
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Article Details
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Author:Epstein Jeffrey
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 9, 2000
Words:4013
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