If someone asked me to name a gay or queer icon, my go-to responses would most likely be a glamorous female celebrity singer, like Cher or Diana Ross. But, Karen Carpenter? Uh, no.
So when singer-songwriter Justin Vivian Bond described Karen Carpenter as a queer icon during a solo tribute performance to the Carpenters Thursday night, my jaw dropped.
Karen & me.
I was a war-protesting senior in high school when the brother-sister duo Karen and Richard Carpenter debuted on the pop charts in 1970. Their first songs “Close to You” and “We’ve Only Just Begun” were huge hits, but way syrupy for my Woodstock-era tastes. From my perspective, the Carpenters were the super-straight, all-American singers that Nixon liked. I had no idea how unhappy Karen was.
When Karen Carpenter died from heart failure in 1983, I was shocked. She was 32 years old. The same age as me. I’d never heard of anorexia nervosa before her death. I felt sorry for her tragically sad ending.
My son who wears heels & Karen.
I didn’t think about Karen Carpenter again until 2000. The Nickelodeon channel was advertising a Carpenter’s greatest singles CD and my kid Harry, pictured above, then age 10, begged his dad and me to order it for him. He’d fallen for the song, “Top of the World.” I’m sure Harry’s dad and I exchanged eye rolls at the request, and again later when Harry played the CD nonstop in the living room.
Harry was horrified to hear Karen had died at such a young age from complications of anorexia. In addition to knowing the words to all of the Carpenters top songs, Harry became an expert on eating disorders. I think he loved Karen all the more.
Karen & Mx. Justin Vivian Bond.
Thanks to Mx. Bond’s between-song monologues, I learned Karen had been a tomboy. She liked sports and had a passion for drumming. She’d been the original drummer for the Carpenters until the record label made her get out from behind those drums and sing up front. Karen was very uncomfortable with the dresses, big hair and “forced feminization” that accompanied the Carpenter’s rise to fame. Karen felt trapped. She wasn’t allowed to be herself, and she hated that. Even their songs weren’t what she would have chosen to sing. In the mid-70’s she started to slowly starve herself to death.
“She gave voice to all young queer kids’ insecurities.”
Listening to Mx. Bond tell Karen’s story and perform the Carpenters’ songs, I slowly became a fan. Even though she didn’t write the songs, the lyrics reflected her suffering. In “Goodbye to Love” the line “No one ever cared if I should live or die” pained me. And I knew those words resonated with many of my male gay friends who’d grown up feeling self-conscious, lonely, and fearful of what the future might hold for them. As Mx. Bond said, “She gave voice to all young queer kids’ insecurities.” And I understood Karen’s queer icon status.
Rainy days and Mondays.
I flashed to Harry discovering Karen Carpenter. He was in fifth grade then, the year I worried most about how he was treated at school. Some classmates teased, tormented and physically harmed Harry for his gender expression and perceived gayness. If he ever cried himself to sleep, I imagined him finding hope and safety in the words of his favorite tune, “Top of the World”:
“Everything I want the world to be is now comin’ true especially for me”
Then I ached for him hearing these words from “Rainy Days and Mondays”:
“Sometimes I’d like to quit, nothin’ ever seems to fit…Nothin’ is really wrong, feelin’ like I don’t belong”
Now here’s the thing. There are still LGBTQ, questioning, and gender expansive children who feel persecuted and unsafe at school. And while there are anti-bullying programs in public schools, the Republican administration has turned its back on transgender kids. So it’s our job as parents, family members, guardians, educators, and adults to speak up and take action whenever we can to protect these vulnerable children who want nothing more than to just be accepted for who they are.
In addition to us, these children need queer icons and other heroes to give them hope and cheer them on. They need empathy and words that lift them up. And they can all benefit from shared stories of strength through adversity. Every child deserves to feel on top of the world.
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