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Samuel Ernest| Longreads | May 2, 2023 | 19 minutes (4,261 words)

for Josh

In the dorm, friends were playing the new record of a local band, Too Bright by Perfume Genius, and I couldn’t tell if I liked it. The songs were tender and fierce, sometimes one or the other, but often both at once, the singer’s voice trembling like someone who has ever only whispered learning to shout.

Having followed their career, I can now see how tenderness and ferocity have characterized all of Perfume Genius’ albums in different ways as their sound has grown louder — from their first album, Learning, with songs like memories overheard from another room, through the most recent, Ugly Season. Mike Hadreas, the lead singer, has risen from the keys where he used to sit hunched over during their shows. Now, he dances while he sings, almost crumpling under the weight of sound, sex, and spirit — exuberant and free.

But when I first heard their music, Perfume Genius threatened the tentative treaty I was negotiating between gayness and faith. It was too confident in refusing purity and cleanness and whatever I believed about sex. “Queen” and “My Body” swelled from the speakers, pounding into my own carefully guarded body. “No family is safe when I sashay.” A warning. “I wear my body like a rotted peach. / You can have it if you can handle the stink.” A curdled cruise. I didn’t listen long.


I called my pastor before I came out. The blog post was drafted — a carefully written confession and acceptance of my gay desire — but I was sitting on it, unsure. For years, I had cultivated about my person the opposite of obscenity. Coming out would sex myself in public. I feared that almost as much as I craved it. “Sometimes telling one story now prevents us from telling a better story later,” my pastor told me (pastor speak for don’t do it). It felt like a rebuke. Over ice cream, a lesbian friend told me to ignore that advice, so I posted it. The story received over 2000 views by the following morning, surely proof that what my pastor said had been wrong or irrelevant: It was a good story.

Coming out would sex myself in public. I feared that almost as much as I craved it.

This was my sophomore year of college. But as I’ve reflected on my coming-out story a decade later — not the blog post so much as what writing it and sharing it did to me — something about his words seems true. I made a self, and since then, I have struggled to make sense of myself. The meaning I found in my coming-out story — in repeating it to my family, friends, professors, therapists, anyone who asked me to coffee at my college, and the anonymous cloud of blog readers — the story and its meaning came to feel final, resistant to reinterpretation.

In coming out, my life ended. It was a personal apocalypse of many smaller revelations. The struggle that had defined me had reached its denouement of freedom — and what comes after freedom?


My mother says that I kicked her gut to the beat of the church organ when she was pregnant with me. At 6, I started playing violin in church. By high school, middle-aged women were approaching me after the service to tell me how my playing had lifted their spirits, had been the Spirit to them.

None of them knew I had discovered gay porn around 12 or 13. According to the orthodoxies of evangelical porn literature, the brief clips I watched rewired my brain from straight to gay: So great is the power of men on couches and beds and in forests, so powerful the idolatrous iconography of dick and ass and big ol’ man tiddies. Growing up in a rural suburb of Grand Rapids, porn was the only place I could reliably see glimpses of men together in any desirous way. Easy to contain, easy to hide. And necessary to hide in a subculture built on concealing sex and desire behind a bridal veil, so I split myself in two. I hated my body.

I made a self, and since then, I have struggled to make sense of myself.

Playing violin became the public counterpart to my private pleas that God would restore what I had ruined. When I prayed, I fell prostrate on my bedroom floor. God was a gentle pressure I felt surrounding my body, holding me together. When I played violin, God swept me into my sound, projecting me outward.

I experienced symptoms of anxiety throughout middle school and high school — sudden weight loss, mouthfuls of canker sores, spitting up bile — but the strain between my public and private lives pulled at my body in a new way during my freshman year of college. It came for my sound, my means of worship. Playing in the school orchestra or with piano accompaniment at department practicums, there were moments when I could hear nothing but my own instrument and heartbeat. The muscles in my bow arm would seize up, giving the graced and highly trained instrument of my wrist all the nuance of a falling ax, chopping out notes in a fucked forte.

The muscles in my bow arm would seize up, giving the graced and highly trained instrument of my wrist all the nuance of a falling ax, chopping out notes in a fucked forte.

Beta blockers calmed my heart, but they also wiped my memory. During a practicum performance of Tartini’s Violin Concerto in D minor, I forgot my cadenza — the second, long one. Although many are now codified in sheet music, historically, cadenzas are moments when the performer improvises, so I made up something on the spot. I followed an instinctive form of theme and variation, flowing through a modulation, out of D minor into D major. But I forgot to modulate back. The cadenza, intended to show off my mastery of technique in harmonic fireworks, ended on a wildly dissonant F#. To my shock and glee, no one noticed that I had accidentally performed my first true cadenza except for my accompanist, who drowned out my dissonance by pounding the tonic chord on her piano. It was both a failure and a discovery: Without my sheet music or memory, I could lurch forward anyway, relying on the technique I had spent most of my life internalizing.

It was both a failure and a discovery: Without my sheet music or memory, I could lurch forward anyway, relying on the technique I had spent most of my life internalizing.


Strike an A on the piano, and the third string of a well-tuned violin will sound. Or any two strings tuned to any one pitch. This is one way to check whether stringed instruments are in tune relative to each other. It’s called sympathetic resonance. Hermann von Helmholtz, a 19th-century German scientist who studied the physics of perception, offers a theory of it:

This phenomenon is always found in those bodies which when [] set in motion by any impulse, continue to perform a long series of vibrations before they come to rest. When these bodies are struck gently, but periodically, although each blow may be separately quite insufficient to produce a sensible motion in the vibratory body … very large and powerful oscillations may result.

“Vibratory body” sounds too accidentally animal to describe a musical instrument or a tuning fork, but animal bodies vibrate, too: At the gut punch of a loud bass, the fleshy viscera within you throb. Incidentally, violin strings were once made with catgut, and you can still buy catgut strings. The name is a misnomer (the biological material in the core of these strings typically comes from sheep or goats) but tell a kid bored by stringed instruments or classical music, “They used to make strings from catgut. Go ahead — pluck it.” It resonates.

A 2015 article at Audioholics summarizes studies of the physical sensations produced by low-frequency sounds. Seventeen-hertz (Hz) tones cause anxiety. At 18.98 Hz, the human eye resonates, causing some people to see ghosts. Around 1980, an Air Force laboratory in Ohio anesthetized some animals and discovered that dogs, when “subjected to frequencies from 0.5 Hz to 8 Hz” at around 172 decibels, experience decreased respiration. Below 1 Hz, their independent breathing ceases. “The animals were not suffocating,” the reviewer, James Larson, assures us. “What was occurring was the pressure waves were so large that air molecules were being exchanged between the ambient air and the lungs of the dog, so, in a manner of speaking, the sound waves were breathing for the dog.” Artificial ventilation, or a gentle pet for the lungs.

Listening to Perfume Genius wasn’t difficult because the sound was antagonistic. It was the music’s sympathy that I was afraid of, the way it breathed for me. Is there a frequency to loose faggotry coiled deep in the gut?

 It was the music’s sympathy that I was afraid of, the way it breathed for me.

A former lover of mine, a beautiful poet, saw Perfume Genius perform with a friend when they toured with Too Bright. The bass of “My Body” rattled his friend.

I wear my body like a rotted peach. 

He couldn’t stand it.

You can have it if you handle the stink. 

The performance left him visibly uncomfortable.

I’m as open as a gutted pig.

I imagine the two of them standing together,

On the small of every back,

his friend wilting, shaken by the sex of it —

you’ll see a picture of me

my lover alert, life gurgling up from his bowels.

wearing my body.


Spring break freshman year, my dad and I took a road trip, winding down the West Coast’s wormy highways from Seattle to Los Angeles and back. I had told my parents over winter break that I was addicted to gay porn, and we had spent considerable time processing together. In the rental car, my dad played a sermon our pastor had given on God’s will.

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The sermon shifted something. I had always felt God’s will for me was in phantom futures: the violinist I could be, the straight man I could become. The relationship between now and then, a runaway train. But, according to the pastor, God’s will is not some rickety bridge we are to fear falling from. It is a field to enjoy.

I stopped praying for God to change me and started asking God to reveal to me who I am. I received the good news and began telling people I was gay. I shared my testimony. I came out again and again. My parents and friends didn’t disown me — I didn’t know that could happen. I began praying for God’s guidance in how to tell this story, and midway through my sophomore year, I wrote and shared the blog post. 

In coming out, I found some of the freedom I was supposed to find. A new orientation to the world, allowing myself to look at men outside a computer screen for the first time, and it was springtime in Seattle, cutoffs and muscle shirts exposing limbs, the college boys playing on the hill behind the dorm, the fit and furry young father wearing only short shorts, bicycling with his baby in tow across the Fremont Bridge. 

It wasn’t all revelation. I lost my sense of God’s close presence. At church, I no longer knew when to stand up and raise my hands in surrender to God, because I had surrendered the primary thing I believed that God had asked of me: the hatred of my body, my useless genitals and affections. I looked around the sanctuary, feeling odd, disconnected. My hands and arms could only pose.

I kept blogging for a while, but as I started to date, I became afraid to write about myself. Talking about my body, my love interests, my slow stumbling into sexual being would have scared away my audience. I was good at being respectable. A model gay Christian. An enthusiastic participant in college admissions panels. To say anything more would have discredited my experience as a godly one.


After college, I began my masters in religion and literature at a divinity school on the other coast. My divinity school was more mainline than evangelical. This made sense for me, as I had become an Episcopalian, but it felt strange not to speak regularly with others about my relationship with God. There was no appropriate occasion to share life stories with others, so the me who appeared in divinity classes was unknown and unconditioned by the story I had crafted. Starting over somewhere new could have been an opportunity for self-recreation, but I had just done that. My story was over. Life felt formless and void.

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It was strange to find myself still getting up and doing things, attending morning prayer, taking classes, experimenting with my wardrobe, getting on the hookup apps, meeting up with men, discovering I could be desired, wearing my body with increasing confidence, legs out, chest poppin’, pop music in my earbuds, pounding down the sidewalk like you knew I was fucking, returning stares with a glare of my own, on the way to Wednesday night mass in a frankly conservative wool pencil skirt that burst open as I carefully waddled up the div school stairs like a mermaid standing on her fins, my thighs, thick from exercise at the gym, escaping into their fullness, the mermaid tail torn in two. I had no idea how to make sense of who I was becoming. 

At my div school, most of the queer work happened in theology, so I gradually shifted disciplines. From literature, I had wanted a model. I wanted to find that someone had written my story so I could know what came next. I followed the protagonists of James Baldwin, John Rechy, Jeanette Winterson, and Andrew Holleran into cities and rooms and beds and arms I never would have found in following Jesus as a straight boy. But where Christianity is present in these books, it is something to leave, and its God is, if anything, a persistent ghost, and that never felt possible to me.

I was living in the divinity school’s apartments, starting to read theology in earnest, when No Shape came out and I tried listening to Perfume Genius again.

While recording the first song, “Otherside,” the band set up the recording studio like a church. Shawn Everett, the album’s sound engineer, says, “We talked about how it could feel like a lonely church up in the Ozarks, this sad church where most of the town had died. There’s a few remaining people sadly singing the songs they’ve been singing forever.” Hadreas says, “We arranged lines of chairs like pews and had each person sing seated, facing a microphone at the front of the room. Everyone in the studio sang, including some friends of the engineer that were nearby.” The space is set up like a church, the chairs like pews, but the singing is reverent, the sound is holy — metaphor disperses into actuality — the lyrics are a prayer.

“Otherside” was recorded using a piece of technology called a binaural head. It captures the spatiality of sound. With earphones in, one takes the place of the head, experiencing the sounds as they were imparted to it. It begins with piano. Muffled broken triads descend from above at the listener’s left. Then from all sides, the congregation sings paradoxes of faith: that one may be lost,

Even your going,

yet found;

let it find you.

that one may be alone,

Even in hiding,

yet known;

find it knows you.

that the one who finds and knows you

Rocking you to sleep

is of a different order, a different kind, a different kind of place.

from the Otherside.

There is a beat of silence, then an explosion of sound like creation.

Perfume Genius’s religious aesthetics and lyrics fascinate critics. In a 2015 interview, Randy Shulman tells Hadreas, “At times [your songs] reach almost ecclesiastic height. The thing that kept popping into mind listening to [Too Bright] especially was religion. The arrangements at times evolve into an almost spiritual, heavenly rapture. Why that style?” Hadreas responds, “I’ve always really responded to hymns, choral music and spiritual music. Even though I’m not Christian, I’ve listened to Christian music. It’s weird to have a taste for that, but to not feel included in it. And so, I reconcile that with the music I make. I make music that feels old or spiritual, but I am included in it, people like me are included in it.” E. Alex Jung asks a similar question of Hadreas in a 2017 interview titled “Perfume Genius Wants to Take You to Queer Church,” and Hadreas says, “I like when people are singing about God and death and the Devil and like fucking big shit.”

There is a beat of silence, then an explosion of sound like creation.

In some sense, then, the spiritual grandeur of “Otherside” is no surprise. Like many queer artists, Perfume Genius makes the stories and art that have been withheld from queer people — they make sacred music for faggots. Churches often attempt to sweep queer people from the margins into the center through rituals of transformation, paring down desire and excess through ex-gay therapy or celibacy or marriage. What can’t be cut off is covered, like robes for the choir. But Hadreas disrobes. He sings his hymns with those the church marks sexually unclean, those who remain resistant to the shapes of queer life legitimized by the church, the shapeless and the taking shape. There is access for them, too. For us. There is grace in strange places, and knowledge of this grace is the catgut core of Perfume Genius.

Critics and Hadreas agree that No Shape marked a new moment for the band. Owen Myers writes, “If Perfume Genius’s previous albums acknowledged the scars we bear from the heteropatriarchy, this new record gestures towards how we might carve out space within it and flourish anyway.” In addition, Hadreas’s spiritual vision approaches clarity through No Shape. Robin Hilton interviewed Hadreas for NPR upon the album’s release. The singer walks through the album, song by song, providing commentary and backstory. About “Otherside,” he says,

Hymns have always sounded like sung spells to me. I never felt included in the magic of the God songs I heard growing up—I knew I was going to hell before anyone ever told me that I was. People found comfort in this all-knowing source, but I felt frightened and found out. I developed some weird and very dramatic complexes. It took me a long time to not think of the universe as a judgmental debit-credit system. I haven’t completely shaken it, but I no longer think that I am overdrawn with God. Grace is not something you earn, it’s always there. I find this idea a lot more fun.

The fascination with hymns and the feelings of exclusion from their world are familiar from earlier interviews, but there’s a new thought here, as well, or a revision. A sense that a debt to God has vanished. Perfume Genius’ music and interviews began to represent for me the possibility of living beyond my inherited world of heterosexed faith and life. The second song on No Shape, especially.

Following “Otherside,” “Slip Away” thrums with the excitement of hiding, finding, and being carried by queer love on the peripheries of a straight world. Hadreas sings,

Don’t hold back

I want to break free—

God is singing through your body

and I’m carried by the sound.

The joy of it hit first. I danced in my div school apartment’s kitchen.

Every drum,

every single beat—

they were born from your body

and I’m carried by the sound.

Hadreas has described the song as his version of a Springsteen song. It rollicks, taking you with it.

Oh love,

They’ll never break the shape we take.

Oh

Baby let all them voices slip away.

If from literature I had wanted a model for gay life, with theology, I’ve wanted to learn how to live in the wake of theological models that never quite fit. I want to slip, rather, into a new configuration of faithful life and narrate what this new life is that I’ve found in emancipation from heterosexuality — not what new life in Christ should be, but what it actually has been and might be.

If from literature I had wanted a model for gay life, with theology, I’ve wanted to learn how to live in the wake of theological models that never quite fit.

For Christians, the shape of new life is normed by the shape of one particular life. To be a Christian is to be remade in the shape of — did you know — Jesus Christ, both sacramentally, through participation in baptism and communion, as well as morally, through following his teachings. The goal is, in some way, to imitate Christ. But what does it look like to imitate Christ? It is not difficult to imagine the ways such a task could be either dangerous or, frankly, boring.

Around the time I was listening to “Slip Away” on repeat, I read Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology by Kathryn Tanner, one of my professors. In a chapter called “The Shape of Human Life,” Tanner says to imitate Christ does not mean replicating moments from Christ’s life or living by some formula. She writes,

We follow Christ where he leads in our own lives, shaped as those lives already are by the forces of contemporary times and cultures. Christ’s life is extended in new directions as it incorporates our lives within it. … exactly where we will be led in Christ is not easily foreseen from the specifics of Jesus’ own life as those reflect an historical distance of two thousand years. …  we must do as Jesus did and live out a union with God in ways appropriate to our own circumstances.

I find Tanner’s theology freeing, particularly her refusal of conformity to Christ as an imposition of a pre-known form and her insistence on context. She doesn’t sever the relationship between Jesus’ life and the contemporary Christian’s; rather, she suggests that faith may lead to unobvious lives, in which a person’s particularities are preserved, not obliterated. Being somewhere unexpected does not mean one has been hewn from the body of Christ, but that Christ’s body is found … somewhere unexpected.

Tanner’s theology describes a life of grace, not debt. For theologians, grace is what the created being finds in God and is given by God, including and beyond the gift of creation. It is not only a response to sin, but it is that, too. As Hadreas says, it is not earned. God’s gifts are all that God bestows upon creation and to all people, regardless of any thinkable hierarchies of deservingness and faithfulness. Receiving them does not place one in debt to God, because, Tanner writes, “The gift of salvation in Christ has no conditions; there is nothing we must do or be in particular.” We are not, in fact, overdrawn with God. The universe is not a “judgmental debit-credit system.” The only fitting response, according to Tanner, is to give of one’s goods freely to others. And the body is one such good.

Following the first chorus of “Slip Away,” the drums break into a pounding sprint. The lovers are in flight.

Don’t look back,

I want to break free—

If you never see ’em coming,

You never have to hide

.

Not only are the lovers carried by God’s song within them, they are fleeing someone.

Take my hand,

take my everything.

If we only got a moment,

give it to me now.

The future is unsure; but at least a moment can be secured, so the singer offers himself to his lover for what time they have. “Slip Away” ends with the carnivalesque jangling of a piano modified to sound like an unhinged harpsichord — even the instruments must be transformed to tell of this love.


I am four years into my doctoral program — a decade since I first heard Perfume Genius — and I had never seen them in concert until recently, when a queer friend from religious studies invited me to go with them and their friends. The stage was strewn with tufts of white tulle and a chair covered in knotted rope. During an extended instrumental, Mike Hadreas grabbed the tulle and wrapped his body in it, part mummy, part bride, part spirit, part priest. Muttering to himself, Hadreas wormed around the stage, lap danced the knotted chair, crawled under it, threw it aside, still shrouded. The audience watched, captive, some with confusion, many with wonder and love. It was a strange and intimate struggle, an ecstatic ascent and descent at the same time. When he finally shed his tufts of tulle, we all shrieked.

A week or two after the concert, I had a vision while walking my dog. I saw a cocoon of shining translucent fibers, and I knew I was inside of it. I felt the physical presence of the prayers of those who love me. I knew the cocoon’s fibers were God’s will. As I neared home, I expanded against the boundaries of my skin, pushing outwards but not fully out.

Every testimony, every coming-out story, attempts a transformation of life. But narration is not life itself, exactly, or its transformation; it is a cocooning. From it, a truer shape may emerge. Which means our stories don’t end like we think they will. In lieu of an end, grace brings revision, a conversion of form. I don’t know how to tell a life under grace, but I’ve been taking notes:

sex, grace, and sin don’t work by formula

coming out is a gradual reckoning with what desiring men might do to my life

conversion is a gradual reckoning with what desiring God might do to my life

the two create new circumstances for each other to make sense of

it is ok to pose, to try out new postures while you acclimate to new revelations

faith can look like this

as I walk, I bounce, chest out, wrist upturned, and a world hangs from it


Samuel Ernest resides in New Haven, CT. He is a doctoral candidate in theology at Yale. More of his work may be found at samuelernest.com.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands