I still remember when Prince sang on “Muppets Tonight” in 1997. I was seven years old in Chattanooga, Tenn. It was a few years after he started using his symbol instead of his name, which the Muppets played up for laughs. I remember him wearing these overalls in one scene for a farm skit and a ridiculous chartreuse turtleneck for a music video in the next. Even the Muppet-ified Prince had a pompadour.
I watched him sing about Cynthia, the Muppet who didn’t care what people thought: “If you set your mind free, baby you’d understand.”
After that, I wanted more. I looked for Prince in music stores and online. I'll never forget seeing the cover of his 1988 album “Lovesexy.” Here was this naked black man on the cover of his album with flowers behind him. And people loved him.
So did I. “Purple Rain” helped me to understand the turmoil I was going through when a relationship ended differently than I’d hoped. “Little Red Corvette” was there to remind me to take time with my life. But it’s the opening line from “I Would Die 4 U" that knocked me out. It struck me so hard and stayed with me because it was my life. And when I heard it, I realized it was okay to feel that way:
I'm not a woman
I'm not a man
I am something that you'll never understand
As I went deeper into the catalog, I found Prince in similar poses with the same aura of pride as on Lovesexy. Prince had a magical blend of masculinity and femininity that I was searching for but couldn't find within my own community or anywhere, really. You see, Chattanooga is a very religious city. I went to church nearly every Sunday for about 20 years. We have more churches than schools. In fact, the American Bible Society named my hometown the most bible-minded city in America in 2016.
My family encouraged me to be proud of being black, proud of where I came from, and proud of the space I take up in this world. But I never felt as confident as other family members did when it came to their identities. My parents surrounded me with people who are the definitions of strength.
But not like Prince.
I was at work when I heard the news. I checked Twitter offhandedly and saw a tweet about a death at Prince's studio. I gasped and stepped back from the computer. I feverishly refreshed Twitter over and over again looking for a source other than TMZ. When the Associated Press confirmed the news, I screamed out and sank to the floor instantly. My white coworkers didn't understand how real I was being when I said my gut was torn and my heart was racing. I couldn’t accept it. He had been such a big part of my childhood.
The only conversation about sexuality I heard growing up was about abstinence. There was no talk of gender identity or being queer. There was no place I could reach out to for more information besides the public library because I didn't have internet access at home. I didn't know how my family felt about anything beyond the heterosexual world where I was raised. They never shamed or spoke badly about people; they just didn't discuss it. So it wasn't until I got older that I was able to put a description of genderqueer on myself. I could see and understand this concept of not being a man or a woman in Prince. But I didn't understand what it was called.
I rarely felt comfortable in my own physical body. I felt isolated. I still feel isolated, even though I’m surrounded by love and support. Family and friends can support me in every way, but they’ll never really understand my gender identity that makes me feel set apart.
Prince understood. He was what I was missing. He was unapologetic. Sexy. Proud. Genderless. It's what I'm still working on right now. Even as I got older there was no one out there who was as confident about their beyond-the-gender-binary persona. There was no music I could connect to as much as I connected to Prince’s.
I found a north star in Prince and his identity because he showed me the power of my genderqueer body. Prince let me see a person who wore makeup and whatever clothes he wanted, not caring whether his choices were on the gender binary. Prince created both transcendent music and his own identity and did neither for anyone’s approval or opinion. That’s brave as hell.
He continued to inspire me when he joined Janelle Monáe on “The Electric Lady.” It was a perfect match. Like Prince, she’s unapologetic about her blackness. She too is a pocket-sized revolution who is changing the game in a creative and bold way—from the way she composes her interludes on her albums to her dedication to her family's labor history in her outfits.
I've been fed the music of Prince, Whitney Houston, and Michael Jackson since I was young. They have all helped me translate the emotions I'm feeling when I couldn’t find the words. People in my life know how much I adore Whitney Houston in particular. Her music is a huge part of my soul. What I don’t state enough is that Prince was the person that gave me the attitude and the confidence to fully be that soul.
Jordan Scruggs is an advocate for equality who spends their time as a board member for The Nooga Diversity Center of Chattanooga. Their work has been highlighted for LGBTQ activism with MTV’s Logo Young Trailblazer Award and America Reframed. Jordan is a proud member of Echoing Ida, a Black women writers program of Forward Together.