‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is a remarkable new autobiography written by Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters. It differs from most musical memoirs in two ways. One, Jake can really write. By the end, you‘ll wish you'd spent at least some time in life working as a thong-wearing go-go dancer in tiny gay bars called things like IC Guys or The Cock.
The second is that the majority of the action happens years before fame strikes. Back when Jake Shears was Jason Sellards: a young boy in Arizona and Seattle struggling with his sexuality, before finding a path in the queer scenes of late-’90s NYC.
In this moving and exclusive extract, Jake describes having ‘that chat’ with his parents, on holiday in Vegas in 1995...
For spring break, my mom and dad wanted some family time, so we flew to Las Vegas. I had never been, and as I wandered through the vast casino of the MGM Grand hotel, I couldn’t even have a look because I was underage. I thought, what are we supposed to do here as a family? I had no one to hang out with, and while my mom and dad played slots on the floor, I roamed around the hotel, desperate for something to do.
It was a huge fixed-perspective ‘Wizard of Oz’ diorama in the front lobby that changed everything. It depicted Dorothy and her crew, skipping down the Yellow Brick Road, their lifelike faces filled with frozen wonder. I marveled at the detail, circling it slowly as if it were some sort of holy shrine. The Emerald City tower’s glistening phalluses seemed like they had been put there just for me, filling me with a queer reverence. The jangling sounds of the slot machines faded as I squared off with Dorothy. The room dimmed, her ruby slippers a gentle blur in my unfocused gaze. It must have been the boredom of the trip, or maybe I just felt like, again, I wasn’t getting enough attention, but standing there in front of Dorothy, I knew what I had to do, and it had to be now.
Keeping my sexuality from my family was eating away at my happiness. The layers and compartments to which I tended, the juggling of selves – it was wearing me out, rubbing all sides raw. I was sick of hiding magazines under my bed, sick of sneaking boys in through the window, sick of announcing in the school hallway anytime my mom came to visit, ‘You guys, my mom is outside and she’s coming in. I’m NOT GAY. OKAY?’ I wanted to feel like a complete person, to be ashamed of nothing and apologize to no one.
That evening, the burnt smell of a curling iron and hair spray permeated the small bathroom as my mother and I put the finishing touches to our hair. She had always been so pretty. But it wasn’t because of the spunky clothes she wore or her trendy hairdos. It was her smile, which made it seem as if she had two open arms extending from her face. And right then it was breaking my heart. ‘Which earrings should I wear?’ She displayed a conservative pearl-colored option and then a gaudy rhinestone waterfall.
‘The glitzy ones. It’s Vegas.’
She placed the more tasteful earrings back in her bag. ‘The show’s in an hour. I need to hustle.’ We were attending ‘EFX’, a new Michael Crawford spectacular that was playing in a theater downstairs. ‘How was the amusement park?’
‘Pretty quiet, but there were a few good rides.’ I had ridden a river rapids ride alone in the park behind the hotel. Staring at the empty seats around me in a circle, I had spun under a huge downpour of a waterfall. I walked away soaked, my outlook grim. ‘I’ve had fun,’ I lied. ‘But I’ll be ready to leave tomorrow.’
‘When we get back to Seattle, I want to talk to you about something.’ She adjusted her lip liner.
I froze, one hand covered in gel, coaxing my strands to stand. What was ‘something’? Did this mean she suspected? She looked over at me and must have known I was going to ruin any chance of us coming out of this vacation happy. Christ, who cares? I thought. Here we go.
‘Is it about me being gay?’ There, I had said it. Boom. The pale yellow tiles in the bathroom looked the color of sick. I felt nauseous. It was over. Out of the bag. Neon lights. Phase two. Lady, it’s official, your boy is a big fag. She paused, set down her brush, and extricated herself from the bathroom. I followed and sat next to her on the stiff bed. My father lay on one side, silent and watching TV.
‘Is that what you meant?’ I said. ‘Is that what you wanted to talk about?’ Her eyes were seeing atrocities on an invisible horizon. ‘Mom, I’ve always been like this.’
‘Jason,’ she said, just under her breath. ‘Your father is trying to watch the news.’ We sat through the overblown Michael Crawford show, none of us able to focus on the stage. My parents ordered a bottle of wine at the table; it was the first time I saw either of them have a drink in about ten years. Dad was quiet and went back to the room after it was finished. Mom and I walked ‘to get ice cream.’ We paced and hissed, raising our voices in front of a buzzing food court. ‘It’s a death sentence,’ she said. ‘What did we do to make this happen?’ At one point: ‘I’m never going to have grandchildren!’
‘People do that now sometimes,’ I said between spoonfuls of Häagen-Dazs. ‘Mom, I can totally have kids.’ ‘Over my dead body!’ she shot back.
We all flew back the next day and didn’t speak. On the way to drop me off at my dorm, we stopped at a gas station and my mom went inside to pay. My father faced forward as the car idled and the wipers swiped off the drizzle. ‘Dad? Are you okay?’
He glanced at me in the rearview mirror and gave one small shake of his head, eyes back on the windshield. ‘We’re simply devastated, Jason.’
Jake Shears talks to Time Out about that extract, his relationship with his mother and new music coming soon.
First off, how old were you when all this happened?
‘I was 16. In my junior year of high school.’
What were you like as a teenager when it came to conflict?
‘Yeah, I definitely provoked, rather than turning into a wallflower. I was like a porcupine, flexing my quills.’
Was your parents’ reaction to your coming out what you were expecting?
‘Yeah. To their credit, there were arguments and I knew there would be. But they had reason to be upset. They were really scared and they were scared for me. I don’t blame them. They had every reason to be scared for me.’
I guess you might not have had the language to talk about HIV/Aids yet.
‘I was actually doing queer youth outreach at the time, but [my parents] didn’t really know what that meant. They didn’t know that I was talking about safer sex, having safer sex events and talking about how to put on condoms. They didn’t quite know that’s where I was. They didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about that stuff yet.’
Why was your mum so against the idea of you having children?
‘I’ll never forget her saying that... My mom thinks that I threw her under the bus with this book. I could write a whole book about my mother. She is the most fun, sweetest, kindest woman, and I couldn’t be luckier to have her. She’s an incredible person and I get so much of who I am from her. All that anger and stuff was in the moment, and it has no bearing on who she is. There are moments in the book where she seems an angry person, but that’s not the case.’
Would you have done anything differently in hindsight?
‘I wouldn’t have come out at school when I did if I’d known the kind of danger it was going to put me in. That’s what I would have changed. I couldn’t go back into the closet. I’d have waited if I would have known.’
You talk about hiding magazines under your bed. What kind of magazines were they and how did you get them?
‘I was living on an island near Seattle. So to go to the mall took a full day. There wasn’t much stimulation. The most gay stuff I could find would be renting a VHS of ‘My Own Private Idaho’ and trying to freeze frame Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix having a kiss. So I remember being in a bookstore with my mom and seeing Playgirl peeking out over the top of other magazines and knowing that I needed it bad. It was such a scary moment. I was 14 or 15, so if I’d have got caught not only would I have got caught shoplifting but I would have been shoplifting an adult magazine. It was worth it. But I had to burn it. When I was leaving home the end of the following year, I couldn’t just throw it in the garbage.’
The memoir ends in 2006. Would you go back and write about what happened later?
‘Oh yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a whole other book, but it’s going to take me a few years to feel like I’ve got enough distance from that. That’s why I ended it in 2006; I felt like I had enough distance. I just didn’t want to get too close to where I am now.’
What’s next for you?
‘I’m headed to New Orleans to shoot a couple of music videos. Then I’m doing a book tour of the UK, and then the music is going to come out and I think it’s going to knock people’s socks off!’
Interview by Alim Kheraj.
‘Boys Keep Swinging’ by Jake Shears is out now on Omnibus Press. He will be in conversation with Amy Lamé at Waterstones Piccadilly on May 3. Book via www.boyskeepswingingbook.com.