Tegan and Sara Are Just Like Me—And I’m Finally Okay With That
I resisted listening to the queer pop icons because I wasn't ready to see myself reflected
I have a confession to make: I never listened to Tegan and Sara. This is strange because in the late ‘90s/early 2000s, when they first rose to queer icon fame, I was—from the top of my frosted tips to the soles of my Doc Marten boots—their exact target demographic. While every other queer teen was encountering the Quin sisters’ indie pop ballads on mix CDs from their crushes, I was still listening to Pearl Jam. Instead, I first heard of Tegan and Sara thanks to a stranger who thinks all queer women look alike.
I was at a thrift store—Beacon’s Closet in Williamsburg, Brooklyn—sometime around 2008, waiting to try on some clothes when another girl in line approached me and said, “You know who you look like?”
I had a few guesses. If my head was shaved I’d often get Dolores O’Riordan from the Cranberries. If I was wearing leather pants, it would be Joan Jett. If I’d let my hair grow in and was sporting a blazer I’d magically become the spitting image of Ellen DeGeneres. So I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone somewhere told me I looked like Sara Quin.
“From Tegan and Sara. The band.”
When I got home I looked up a photo and rolled my eyes. Twin lesbian sisters playing guitars? Which one of them was even Sara? It didn’t matter because I looked nothing like either of them! Every time I was told I resembled some gay celebrity I had the same reaction—an angry, painful, almost sickening visceral reaction. This was somewhat hypocritical considering how gay I did in fact look, and in no way by accident. (How else was I supposed to get laid?) But I had been raised to believe lesbians were ugly. Ugly to look at, ugly to think about, ugly to be—even as I was clearly growing into one. That sickening feeling, that knee-jerk reaction of, “I look nothing like [your lesbian of choice here!],” came from a complicated self-hate that didn’t go away, no matter how alternative I got with my appearance choices.
So I didn’t start listening to Tegan and Sara’s music right then. I didn’t even give it a try.
Fifteen years later, this past May, I still hadn’t listened to their music. My friend and fellow book-person Megan was in town for an annual book industry expo. Megan asked if I was going to the event at Housing Works Bookstore Café & Bar celebrating Tegan and Sara’s forthcoming memoir High School. I may not have been a Tegan and Sara fan, but I had fifteen years of queer community and pride parades and ex-girlfriends under my belt, so I knew enough of their legacy to know that getting my hands on a book they’d written months before it reached the general public would be a coup. Yes, I wanted to go! But no, I had not been invited.
“Come anyway,” Megan said. “At the door just say you’re the third twin.” Thankfully it did not come to that. One polite email and a gracious reply later, I was on the list.
The event began with both sisters on stage, seated side by side. Each of them would read a section of the book, followed by a Q&A. In the years since that Beacon’s Closet incident I, too, have been on a few stages with a microphone in my face and a book in my hand. In fact, I’ve been on that exact same stage at Housing Works. When I achieved my life goal of becoming a published novelist I’d overlooked the amount of public speaking involved. My introvert’s approach to such extroversion has been to go into a fugue state while on stage and remember nothing afterward, so I’m never sure how I’ve performed or what I even look like up there under the lights. Now I realized: I probably looked like Sara Quin.
From my front-row seat in the audience at Housing Works, I could finally see the resemblance. We’re about the same size; we’re about the same age. Yes, she’s obviously way cooler than me but in our offstage lives we could, at least in theory, share T-shirts. As a five-foot-three, masculine-of-center female I can’t share T-shirts with many people who aren’t pre-pubescent boys—so I don’t take that lightly.
The experience of reading High School was just as surprising and comforting in its familiarity. Like the Quin sisters, I also cut my teeth on Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. I even used to play guitar, back when I still had long hair. More significantly though, no other book I’ve ever read so perfectly captured what it felt like—what it really felt like—to come of age as queer in the late ‘90s, years before positive representations of nonconventional sexualities and genders could be found in mainstream newspapers or on broadcast television.
The scenes in the book of Tegan and Sara fighting tooth and nail over their single landline telephone brought a knowing smile to my face, but also a lump to my throat. Tell a young queer person today, “We didn’t have cell phones,” or “This was pre-internet,” and you may as well be saying, “This was before we had electricity.” And it should strike them that way, because we were all in the frigging dark, straining to see who we were and who we wanted to be with so few visible models, while those that were visible were hassled, harassed, and made fun of.
High School’s cover is reflective like a hazy locker mirror, apt given how much reading it felt to me like catching sight of my past self. I was surprised at the pleasure it gave me to recognize my own experience in theirs, as I’ve only recently had any interest in seeing my past self. I was not an uncomplicatedly happy or proud teenager or traveler through my early twenties. I was anxious and depressed, and while I had a lot of fun and a lot of queer sex and many loving queer friends, I was still the product of my childhood home and ‘80s America. So I didn’t like myself very much. I definitely didn’t love or accept myself. I think people assumed, or maybe I just assumed, that if I knew I was gay and looked gay, I must also like being gay—or at least not hate myself. This wasn’t how it went for me. I didn’t want to relate to Sara Quin in my younger days, whether we looked alike, dressed alike, or were alike or not. Potential for connection doesn’t always create the desire to connect, nor does it necessarily lead to acceptance of oneself or the other.
What I understand now, but didn’t that day when I was thrift-store-shopping, is that you can build self-acceptance from recognition and identification. You can stare at an aspect of yourself that you are ashamed of in the mirror and seek out that component of yourself in others. The exposure can help ease your discomfort, amend your sense of commonality, and you can reconceive your identity through all that bouncing light.
Presently, Tegan and Sara and I are, all three, aging into elder-status lesbians who suffered through the ‘90s, drank through the early aughts, and today get to sit on stage at Housing Works and tell people in their twenties what it used to be like to be gay. This feels like something of a miracle. And it’s been a surprising joy to not just see myself in their present, but to see my past self in their past selves as well. “Recognition” means the act of knowing and remembering upon seeing, but it also means an acceptance that something is true or important—that it exists.
They have a new album coming out. It’s called Hey, I’m Just Like You. Ha, I thought. Funny. You are just like me, aren’t you? Or, I am just like you. I’ve already pre-ordered it, and before it arrives, I’ve been listening to some of their older stuff too, to get caught up on all those years of music I missed—and to remember with new affection things about myself I used to want to forget.
One last thing: After that Housing Works event in May I posted a photo to social media of Tegan and Sara on stage and half my relatives commented with Congratulations! and Good job! Did they think I was Sara and Tegan was the moderator? I have no clue. I simply said thank you.