The Kids from Yesterday: Queer Community through MCR

MCR Queer.jpg

by Lily Hartenstein

In one, admittedly cheesy, line, Gerard Way sang of my entire perspective towards music: “That you only hear the music when your heart begins to break”. In this single line on “The Kids from Yesterday,” he explained the appeal of emo, which can be applied to all music in general. Music that resonates with you, that speaks to your emotions, is what you listen to. My Chemical Romance was a talented music group with lyrics and sound saturated in desperate emotion. They were an incredibly formative and influential band for teenagers across the globe, but their music seems to always have resonated especially deep within the queer-punk community. 

Growing up as a queer kid in the quintessential heteronormative suburbs, albiet the suburbs outside of San Francisco, I had a lot of rage towards both the world and myself. Most of my friends were from conservative, religious households, and I didn’t know anyone who could understand what it was like to hate my sense of love. I craved an outlet for that anger, but also a place of community where I could find people like me. Following in the footsteps of many angry social outcasts, I turned to the punk scene. But I didn’t find what I needed. 

Punk was supposed to be a space free of societal norms, but the problem was that it still upheld a lot of institutional structures. Most of the members of the scene were straight, white, and cis. A lot of them were men, and a lot of them were significantly older than I was at the time. The space did not foster a freedom from regular norms. Itonly made me feel more uncomfortable in my gender and sexuality. I felt like I had to perform to the standards of what punk expected, versus the standards of what mainstream society expected. I was simply looking for a place without standards. Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman of Against Me!, reiterated this sort of exclusivity in her memoir, discussing how coming out as trans in the punk scene was just as hard as coming out to her uppity religious family. 

But some music sounded different than punk, and fostered a different fanbase and therefore community around it. Punk seems to focus more on external feelings, like anger, whereas emo is more inward, with themes of sadness and guilt. I found solace in emo because it was full of young kids like me with a lot of trauma we had yet to unpack. The music spoke to that inner turmoil and rage, but it was not in a space that we had to perform to. Emo is disregarded by so many people because of its theatricality, and any genre with a fan-base consisting of large amounts of teenagers is invalidated by most. And that allowed emo the sort of freedom I, and many other depressed queer kids like me, were seeking. We were able to take that music and make our own space to explore ourselves with it. 

My Chemical Romance was particularly pivotal to this space because they were the kings of emo, but also because they, too, emphasized the notion of sexuality and gender in their songs. Their theatricality and willingness to explore anything and everything creatively was almost Bowie-esque, but whereas Bowie was polished, My Chemical Romance was messy and dark. That’s why I say queer-punk kids were specifically impacted by My Chemical Romance, because it is that intersection of seeking punk-adjacent spaces but feeling rejected from them based on identity. My Chemical Romance spoke to the kids who felt they had nowhere else, who thought it was them against the world. That is what emo is, and no one understands that feeling quite as much as queer kids do. 

My Chemical Romance wrote and sang, with so much emotion and candor, about the unsettling feelings that are almost hallmarks of the young gay experience. Their main theme seemed to be guilt, and that is certainly an issue you grapple with if you’re in the closet. Guilt about yourself is an angsty queer kid’s go-to feeling, something that weighed deeply on me after I left my conservative, Christian middle school. Every time I shared a bed with a friend, every time I was hanging out with someone and they made a comment about how predatory gay people are, I felt deep, deep shame. My Chemical Romance captured that shame, so their music resonated deeply with me and others in the community. 

But it wasn’t just about feeling guilt. While the theme of guilt helped us relate to My Chemical Romance’s music, they were incredibly inspirational in the ways they moved beyond that shame. The members of the band were all very outspoken about mental health and working towards building support and acting in healthy ways. So many other punk and emo bands glorified suffering, but My Chemical Romance said that you can move beyond it. That was intoxicating, especially when you’re a depressed teenager who doesn’t see a future past seventeen years old. 

I don’t want to speculate as to the sexualities of the members of My Chemical Romance. Gerard Way has often made jokes about all the speculation, and refuses to give a direct answer. He uses he/they pronouns. But regardless of whatever specific label any of the members have, they were queer icons. The way they subverted gender and sexuality was incredibly important, in ways I will never even be able to express, even though that’s the whole point of me writing this. They wore makeup and sang songs about having sex with all the wrong people. They made out on stage and were just so outrageously defiant of heterosexual norms, it awakened something in me. My idols were able to just be themselves. They were the new cool, selling out shows and quickly rising into superstardom, and they were able to be wholly and dramatically themselves. Maybe I could too. 

My Chemical Romance inspired my friends and I to experiment with our gender presentation and identities, under the guise of emo. Our parents just saw some edgy, emo teenagers, but in reality we were trying to carve out who we were as queer people in a heteronormative space. It helped me with my sexuality and gender expression, and it helped many of my friends come to terms with their trans identities. 

This same exploration of gender under My Chemical Romance is examined, much better than I am doing right now, in Lip Manegio’s poetry chapbook We’ve All Seen Helena. Lip is a student at Emerson, and when I saw them read some of their poetry about My Chemical Romance at the Emerson Poetry Project, I was deeply touched. The experience of worshipping Gerard Way like the God that didn’t forsake us, of using the emo scene to explore gender and sexuality, that was not exclusive to me and my friends in the San Francisco suburbs. Lip explores those same notions so well, and I cannot recommend their chapbook enough.

My Chemical Romance touched thousands of people, but their music specifically touched the sad, queer kids who had nowhere to be themselves. Frankly, we needed My Chemical Romance the most. Many try to diminish My Chemical Romance as musicians, to this day making fun of me for being such an outspoken fan of a group of dramatic men who sang about sadness, but their music touched on something that hadn’t ever really been represented before. Personally, I think that’s the mark of phenomenal art: it connects with something unspoken, unrepresented. It makes you feel seen.