A few months after I came out, I was standing in the middle of a huge record store in London when suddenly a video overhead caught my eye. It was Madonna -- who this week releases her 13th studio album, Rebel Heart - performing what was then her latest single, "4 Minutes."
I never listened to pop until college, so it was that Madonna, age 49, to whom I was first introduced. Her persona was improbable then, and today -- at age 56 -- is even more so. A woman that age who's often the fittest and most provocatively dressed person in the room, not to mention the one with the hottest boyfriend? Wow.
I've always felt Madonna's appear to the gay community was about more than her dance hits and shirtless dancers. Today, more than ever, I think it has something to do with what her life has to say about aging, health and wellness.
By traditional, heterosexual, cisgender standards, good health is defined in terms of one's gendered role in perpetuating the species through procreation. The picture of health for men and women is inexorably tied to our notions of what a man or a woman "should be." Men should be big and strong (even if they have a bit of a gut) rather than super lean ("too skinny") or super toned and waxed ("too concerned with his looks"). Women, in contrast, should either be supermodel thin or maybe curvy, but never muscular -- and certainly not more athletic than their man.
Madonna, of course, has shattered these stereotypes by working her ass off to have better biceps and legs than most women or men you'll see at the gym. Much of our society resents her for it.
And that rejection of her look isn't just because people find it unattractive for a woman, but especially for a woman of her age. I think it's in part because our society increasingly values living as long as possible over actually living well; they think Madonna should settle for looking like an average 56-year-old and focus on living to reach 90, not on living for now. Her motivation for being healthy -- to retain her status as a sex symbol and a top-notch dancer -- is seen as unhealthy and unnatural for a mother who should be more dedicated to her kids.
In other words, Madonna doesn't just offend because of how she looks, but because it is indicative of her rejection of traditional values of health and wellness.
The queer community often clashes with these values, too, because often we do not conform with the multi-generational family model that has dominated social structure for millennia. We don't necessarily face the traditional milestones of monogamous pairing, biological procreation and growing old within that family unit. And the health choices queer people make -- from going on PrEP to taking hormones to seeing a therapist to hitting the gym -- are often questioned or outright rejected by those with narrow views.
At the risk of physically turning into a cliché, I'll admit that no one has helped me be true to myself more than Madonna. When she came to DC two years ago, I made plans to see her alone. My friends, who knew me as someone who wouldn't dance or talk to guys in a club, thought I was doomed. But I wore something silly and provocative, danced my heart out to the opening act and inadvertently flirted with her assistant. I got moved to the front row and had the best night of my life.
I don't think I've ever lived more genuinely than I did there in front of her stage. And isn't that what wellness is all about?
Madonna's longevity has never simply been a matter of sticking around forever. It's about defining success for herself and going after life full-force and without apology. And faced with rejection over her body, her pursuit of youthfulness and her pursuit of younger men, she hasn't given up today at 56 and probably won't tomorrow, either.
Instead, as the Queen herself says in her latest single, she's "gonna carry on." And maybe inspire a few of us, too.