LGBTQIA+ Gender & Identity Music Pop Culture

How Janelle Monae’s ‘Dirty Computer’ helped me come out to the world

Let me tell you the story of how Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer literally helped me come out. 

“[Redacted] takes her straight (unless you have something to tell me) friends to Pride.” 

When I saw the name of the group chat my best friend had added me to organize a group of us “straight friends” to accompany her to Pride the summer after my sophomore year of college, I knew I had a decision to make.

I had first thought that I was maybe bisexual in late middle school or early high school – but I hadn’t had an oh shit, I’m definitely queer moment until I was surrounded by people who were openly queer and comfortable in who they were in college. Even then, I’d only said the words out loud once or twice, preferring to stay in the safer space of being a slightly too enthusiastic “ally” to the queer community on campus.

I knew I had a decision to make.

After mulling it over, I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding and typed out a message to my friend: “Lol ok so…” 

It was one of the best decisions I’ve made – having someone else to talk to about being both queer and Asian helped me find power in the intersection of my identities instead of conflict. Coming out to the rest of my close friends was easier after that. But I still wasn’t out out, and definitely not to the Muslim community. I had loosely toyed with the idea of coming out around graduation but hadn’t given it much actual thought.

That changed after I met Mohammed Ramzan, a fellow student who started as a freshman at Northwestern my junior year. Mohammed was loving, exuberant, intensely curious, and proudly Muslim. He was the first openly queer Muslim I’d met, and I found myself wondering why I was so afraid.

Being Muslim and being queer weren’t just not contradictory identities – they were complementary. They gave him a level of empathy for the oppressed and motivation to answer Qur’anic calls to strive for justice that was unparalleled. When he was taken from us in a rowing accident after just a few short months of our knowing him, I promised myself – for Mohammed, for myself, for my community – I was committing to coming out.

“Serendipity” is a funny word. It’s also exactly what I felt was at play when, in the spring of my senior year, just before my self-imposed deadline, Janelle Monáe dropped her iconic “emotion picture” album, Dirty Computer.

Monáe’s music had hinted at her queerness for quite some time, but her unabashedly sweet crooning about the raw power of vaginas on the album in songs like “Pynk” and “Django Jane” and her “Make Me Feel” video celebrating bisexuality left no room for questions.

I cried my eyes out watching Dirty Computer. Seeing Monáe boldly proclaim her Blackness and her queerness gave me the jolt I was waiting for. Listening to “Crazy, Classic, Life,” it felt like the burden of the many hyphens in my identity was weighing on me. Seeing friends I hadn’t come out to yet losing it over the energy of the album further pushed that weight damn near the verge of exploding out of my throat.

I finally did the thing and slipped my bisexuality in the middle of a Facebook post about my upcoming thesis poster presentation about a month after the album’s release.

Later that summer, I went to Monáe’s Chicago show, feeling immeasurably affirmed as she once again reiterated her messages of queerness being a central code in our makeup, and the pride we should take in being “dirty computers” in a country with leadership dead-set on viewing our identities as a “virus.”

Two years later, I once again find myself on a precipice.

I thought of Mohammed again and his firm belief that Allah makes no mistakes. No computer viruses, no mistakes – I came home and came out to a few cousins, and eventually my sisters.

Two years later, I once again find myself on a precipice.

I’m out to all the most meaningful people in my life, except for a few notable ones, including my parents. I sit next to them every night as we watch the news and listen to how our government is once again attacking the LGBTQIA+ community, which is particularly dangerous for my trans loved ones.

I talk to my dad about how we’re in the middle of a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting BIPOC, as the Black community rises up across the country to dismantle white supremacist institutions that have no regard for the humanity of queer people, in particular Black trans folks.

And I know that even as I have these conversations with my parents – who have been understanding and accepting of every point I’ve made so far – that I am not being entirely truthful because I am treating these discussions as hypotheticals, rather than as personal to me.

I’m, as Monáe sings, “So Afraid” – of hurting them, of losing them. But I’m also afraid now, more than anything else, of not honoring them by being my full self with them. I owe that to them more in this political moment than ever before.

So this strange yet momentous Pride – what was meant to be my fifth as a proudly queer, clinically depressed, Bangladeshi-Muslim-American woman – I’m removing the final layer of my privacy settings and publicly stating for the record: I am bisexual.

And I’m ready to fight for my communities and those of my loved ones.

I’m listening to Dirty Computer while I’m writing, actually – it’s taken four and a half loops through it to figure out exactly what I’ve been trying to say and how I want to say it because I’ve never fully taken ownership of my identity and written something about it with my name on it.

It’s terrifying because I know as soon as my editors hit “Publish” on this piece, it’s going to be out there, and there’s not really any going back from it.

I’m also afraid now, more than anything else, of not honoring them by being my full self with them.

But I also think that’s exactly what this moment in history needs more of: No more going back, just reckoning and honesty and difficult conversations, over and over, until we build anew. We’ll make mistakes – many of them.

But as Monáe herself says: “We need to go through this. Together… I’m going to make you empathize with dirty computers all around the world.”

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By Sumaia Masoom

Sumaia Masoom is the proud daughter of Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants and a graduate of Northwestern University's School of Education & Social Policy. A product of rural Wisconsin and later the Chicago immigrant & refugee rights organizing community, she's equal parts passionate about college sports and diversity & inclusion – of identities, em-dashes, and free food in lunch meetings.