The Drums’ Jonny Pierce on Marriage Equality and Why He’d Like to See an End to Gay Pride Parades
The Pastors’ Son
Oct 26, 2012 Issue #42 - The Protest Issue Photography by Tommy Kearns
We spoke to eight gay and lesbian artists for The Protest Issue, all of them honest and passionate conversations ranging from politics to art to relationships. But none of them were more open and revealing than our exchange with Jonny Pierce of The Drums. In fact, over many years and many interviews, I have rarely encountered such on-the-record personal candor from a musician.
Pierce has obviously achieved a lot, as frontman for one of indie pop’s breakout bands of the past few years. But only when you hear where the now-openly gay singer has come from—a story that would have curled my hair if it weren’t already—do you appreciate just what a remarkable journey he has been on. And, it should be added, continues to be on. He concedes that he is “ever-evolving” on many of the issues touched on in this interview. And why not? Isn’t evolution what it’s all about?
[Pierce was interviewed for, and is quoted in, the article "The Rainbow Connection: Gay and Lesbian Artists on Marriage and More," which is in our Protest Issue. The Protest Issue is still on newsstands now. This is the full transcript of that interview, mainly quotes that didn't make it into the print issue.]
John Norris: Jonny! You’ve been traveling?
Jonny Pierce: Yeah I just got back. I was in Amsterdam for a while and then Toronto, had a show up there. And so I’ve been back maybe three or four days.
So you have a break now?
I have like a year off, essentially. We’re doing three shows with Bloc Party at Terminal 5 in August, and then I have a show in Moscow, all these one-offs, and then South Africa. We’re kind of doing all this weird stuff now. We’ve got all the heavy, normal touring over with. And we’re gonna go to Mexico, a lot of kind of random stuff.
And those are nice trips to be able to take too.
Well that’s the thing; I can kind of look at these as just like a holiday, you know. I mean all these places, like Moscow? It’s literally always been my dream.
Well while you’ve been away… as I’m sure you’re aware, same-sex marriage has really been moved to the front burner it seems, due in no small part to Obama’s endorsement. And acceptance of it really seems to have picked up unexpected speed.
It’s so funny hearing you say that, which is true, that in a way it feels like it’s sort of come out of nowhere and it’s moving fast and there’s been a lot of progress. Because I see on Facebook and I hear from gay people all the time about how angry they are at Obama and the administration, for taking too long or not pushing hard enough. There seems to be a lot of anger about that, but to me, I’m with you, I really feel fortunate to kind of, I mean I feel like I haven’t even pushed that hard. I haven’t done enough, and things are still happening that are helping to make my life easier as a homosexual.
Yeah, when Obama finally came out in support of marriage equality there were plenty of people saying, “well it’s about time.” And a friend of mine tweeted something along the lines of “great, now I want to know what Obama has to say about the sky being blue.” And I think his point was that this is such a no-brainer, of course gay people should be allowed to marry.
Well I mean it’s a no-brainer to us, and to educated people, but my mother and father are both pastors in a Pentecostal church. And they actually lead anti-gay rallies and marches.
Wow. Even still today?
Even still today. I deal with it every day of my life. So it’s not a no-brainer to people of faith. And those people are sort of the meat and potatoes of this country. From my perspective, there are a lot of uneducated people out there who are desperate to believe in a heaven, because it’s a terrifying idea to a lot of people to think that you just die when you die.
And when we, or any supporter of marriage equality says to those people, “Well, we’re not trying to change your church. Your church can perform or not perform whatever weddings they want to perform. We’re just saying that your church doesn’t get to decide on a civil level who gets their marriage legally called a marriage, or not.”
The problem we run into here is they believe it is their duty, as instructed by God and The Bible, to preach the word of God. Because that’s what The Bible says to do. And if they are not doing that, then they are sinning, and sinners go to hell. So they constantly live in fear of the flames of hell, and it drives them to fight against things like same-sex marriage. And I know there are a lot of casual Christians out there who have like a gay friend who works in an office with them and think “Oh, Jim’s not that bad.” But there’s this whole other world that I come from, where you are condemned to hell and there’s nothing you can do about it if you’re a homosexual. I’ve had my mother tell me that she would prefer me to live my life as a single man, celibate, than to have a gay partner. And I just say, “Mom, that’s so easy for you to say, because you were born straight. And you liked guys, and started dating one, and you married one! And you just have no idea what it’s like.” They are afraid to even begin to put themselves in my shoes, because the second they begin to feel compassion toward what they call my “problem” or my “struggle,” then they’re kind of sinning, and enabling. So they really have this ice-cold stance against it.
And it hasn’t warmed at all, changed at all? Is everything that’s happened for you in the last few years professionally just a complete separate issue as far as they are concerned?
It all wraps up together. My parents would much prefer that I make music in the church, for God, you know. I’ve had sit-downs with my parents where they tell me that.
But they can look at magazine covers and interviews and things and be happy that there is measurable success for their son, or no?
I think there is always a ceiling to their happiness. And I think if I was doing this all for Jesus Christ it would be through the roof. But their joy is limited by their concern for where I will go in the afterlife. It’s a very, very real thing, and they are not alone. They are not just two people who randomly came up with this idea. Millions of people believe that.
Well, we’re here in another Pride week which only seems to get bigger and bigger.
Well, let me say this about that. And this is controversial and probably sounds very wrong to some people. But I can’t help but feel like people who come from where I come from could relate. I think there are a lot of people who will be pissed off when I say this, but I’m ready for Gay Pride parades to end. I’m ready for big flamboyant prideful events to go away forever. And I think there’s a lot of people who probably think that’s disgusting. But every time that I think that my parents might be taking a step in the direction of acceptance of me being gay, there’s slight little hints they might be opening up every once in a while, and then the door just slams closed.
What slams it closed?
I believe that it’s things that they see on TV. It might sound really silly but I was dating someone in New York in about 2005, and I knew I was gay. And I had been dating this kid for a year and a half. And I just stumbled on the Gay Pride parade. I didn’t even know it was going on that day, and it freaked me out. And I still believed in God at the time, I don’t now. But I went home and packed my bags and I moved back upstate to my parents’ town, with the intent of never coming back. And this guy eventually ended up coming up and talking me into coming back to the city. And I did and I haven’t done that since, but that was less than 10 years ago. And they believe in God wholeheartedly, it’s their life, it’s their every breath. I don’t know, I just don’t like this Gay Pride thing, why are we “proud” to be gay and why would straight people be proud to be straight? If it’s such a natural thing. And I am for having a level of self-esteem, but shoving how you live into someone else’s face? We say we hate it when Christians are up in our face about God and Jesus and to just shove being gay back in their face, it doesn’t help anything.
So that kind of thing just pushes people like your parents further away?
Yeah, and that’s what I fear every day. I think, “What are my parents watching on TV? What are they seeing?” You know, the gay character on every TV show is ultra-flamboyant; it’s very rare that there is just an average Joe-acting gay character on the screen, and you know, uneducated people believe what they see on TV. Even if it’s a sitcom on ABC. They just do. And even if they don’t, it’s settling into their subconscious. It’s happening that way.
Right, but back to the parade. You know, I’ve lost count how many Pride parades I’ve been to, and I probably won’t go this Sunday, but at this point in my life what makes me happy is to see these people who come from all over, maybe they’re in New York for the first time, maybe they’re a teacher in Waterloo, Iowa, and their whole life experience has been a much more closeted one, much more one of having to look over their shoulder or wonder what people are saying…
Right, and I think that’s a direct result of things like a fabulous Gay Pride parade, in the long run.
Well what’s the alternative? Back in the closet?
I just don’t think it’s worth celebrating. We’re gay and some people are straight, and can’t we just get on with it? When we draw attention to these things, whether we’re rebuking them or celebrating them, it pulls them out of the realm of being normal. And all I’ve ever wanted was to be normal. I have five siblings and want my parents not to think of me as the gay son, but just, “Oh that’s our son, Jonny.” That’s what I’ve always wanted. But they see something like a Gay Pride parade featured on the news, and it terrifies them. And that’s why I said at the beginning that this might be a very selfish and specific attitude. It’s what I think would make my life a little easier. It’s what would help me obtain my goals regarding my relationship with my family.
I don’t know. Every time I hear another story about a 14- or 15-year-old who kills himself because his life was a daily hell because of the way he was treated specifically for this reason—and it is the single greatest thing that can bring on bullying or abuse—I think if those kids having those awful thoughts can see, whether it’s New York or San Francisco, tens of thousands of people in celebration of who they are, to me that’s not a bad thing.
It’s funny because I was that kid, and when I saw the Gay Pride parade it freaked me out, and I literally ran in the opposite direction. I think it’s really a case-by-case sort of thing, and again, what I keep thinking is maybe part of the reason that kid is so picked on is because society, through things like Gay Pride and these characters you see on TV representing, whoever is playing the gay person usually does a really ultra-flamboyant job of it, and everyone’s like, “Oh, he’s funny on TV but I would never want that for a son.” You know I feel like that is part of why these kids are bullied, because if you’re gay then people equate you with that freak on TV or those men wearing leather jockstraps on Gay Pride.
Sort of relating to this, and back to the question of marriage: I actually feel like there is a bit of a conservative thing happening among gay people. I almost believe that as marriage becomes possible, that a byproduct of it is going to be what straight people have endured for eons, which is pressure—particularly once you’ve reached a certain age—to settle down and marry. You know the idea of, “So, why don’t you have a partner? Why aren’t you settled down?” kind of thing.
There’s always going to be people who think differently from the majority, and that occurs whether you’re gay or straight. You know that to me, somebody telling me “Why aren’t you getting married?” is my dream because my whole life I’ve been told if I get married I am gonna go to hell, or lust after another man I’m gonna go to hell. So that would be a great problem for me! I wish my parents were forcing me to marry [Pierce’s boyfriend] Jasper!
Well if he’s Dutch, if I’m not mistaken The Netherlands is one of the countries that does allow same-sex marriage.
It does. I think for a while in the ’90s it considered itself the “gay capital of Europe.”
So you could do it there, right?
We could do it there. But he still would not gain citizenship here. So to me there is no real equality until there is true equality, you know. How can you call something equal when it actually isn’t? If he or I were a girl we would have no problem.
Does he come from a more liberal family?
Very. His family is the exact opposite of mine. Open and welcoming and educated, his father is a doctor and his mother is a French teacher and they have a house in Paris too. Yeah, it’s the opposite of where I’m from.
I guess we often want the opposite of what we have though.
Yeah, and I think about it a lot, my childhood. I think about how it happened all the time, I want to make a movie about it. I’ve been really into the whole suburbia sort of thing for a long time. Or, not quite suburban, but more where I came from which was full on poverty level, and there were six of us kids.
Did you not live in the suburbs?
No, we lived on the church grounds. Which is right next to a military base.
Perfect. Best of both worlds.
And on the other side was this just depressing like strip mall. Which is completely empty now. It’s a really dark, dark place. But there is some sort of nostalgic thing happening with me where I don’t think it’s beautiful, but I can view it in a romantic way.
I get that. You’ve come a long way from there.
And when I was young all I wanted to do was move to New York City and get away from all of that, and travel the world. And now I’ve done all of those things, and so I kind of, it’s just this weird thing. That time to me is so dark and dirty and small and close-minded.
There was a bookstore that opened a few years back, and my mother went in and saw that there was a very small gay and lesbian section, four or five books. And she marched up to the counter and told them that if they didn’t remove the books, she’d call for a townwide boycott of their store. And my parents run a pretty large church up there, it’s a small town and a lot of people go to that church. And so she got a letter in the mail a week later, stating that they had removed the books as per her request, and thank you for your interest, Mrs. Pierce. And she showed me the letter with pride. Just awful, awful things like that.
I so do not mean this to be in the least bit offensive. But seriously, if that were my mom, that might have been the last conversation I had with her.
[Laughs.] But that’s what I’m trying to say! I don’t know what drives me. Just yesterday I booked tickets to fly up there for the Fourth of July, and…
Uh huh. Of all holidays…
[Laughs.] Yeah, but I think somewhere in me I have this hope that it will change.
I hope so too. How much do you think sexuality, your sexual identity makes its way into The Drums’ music? I think about “Days” and the lyric “We were just wasting time/I’ll never be with you.” Do your parents wonder who they were written about?
I haven’t heard a word from them about this album. But it’s so funny, when I released the album, my brother went through it track by track with me, and wanted to know what every song was about lyrically and where those lyrics came from, and who they were about and why. And he very easily picked up that “Days” for me was not a heartbroken love song to an ex-lover. But that it was in fact about my upbringing, my parents, about that small town I grew up in. And how for so long I wanted it to work, and yet that moving on was a lot easier than I thought it would be. But I’m still… I literally can’t give you an answer why I’m going back to visit.
Is Jasper going with you?
Yes he is, that was the stipulation. If you want to see me, you have to see us.
So they know about him?
Yes. For a few years I’ve been very honest with them about my relationships.
But they never ask.
Never once did they ask how my love life was or how Jasper was or anyone else. And they have never met him.
And how does he feel about this trip?
Well, this sort of feels like the make it or break it. I plan on being with Jasper a very long time. And this is kind of the first person I’ve been with where it’s not up for discussion. You know with my ex-boyfriends, I would go up there alone and try not to talk about being gay. But this one, this is it. You either accept us, or you don’t see me.
Well, best of luck with that! And thank you so much for your time.
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