Leaning ever-so casually against what appears to be a white-painted wall (although lead singer and my first imaginary husband, Brian Littrell, rests against a brick wall), the Backstreet Boys came into my life 20 years ago, on August 12, 1997, by way of their self-titled debut album. The album cover featured the most attractive men that I had ever seen in all my nine years of life. In third grade I barely knew what pop music was, let alone sexual desire, but the image gave me urges that defied explanation.
I was sure of one thing: I had to keep my love for Kevin, Howie, Brian, A.J., and Nick a secret. How would I explain to my Catholic, Mexican-American parents that I wanted my own copy of the record that my older sister played incessantly in her anti-skip portable CD player? That I wanted to gawk at the coy pretty boys trying way too hard to look tough?
The best part about that album is that it was everywhere. Due to the size and convenience of CDs, I never could escape the photo that signaled my early sexual attraction to men. I soon understood I shared the same yearnings as my female friends, and though this realization was unsettling at first, it demanded an answer: Did I like boys?
“As Long As You Love Me” remains one of my favorite Backstreet Boy songs. In the music video, beautiful female models pine after the Boys during a photoshoot, while each singer gives a heartfelt solo before joining together for their iconic folding chair dance. It was undeniably cheesy, Grade-A ’90s camp, but I was sold, and my heart pulsed when the chorus came: I don’t care who you are, where you’re from, what you did, as long as you love me. Just when I was starting to form my first same-sex crush on my classmate José, this was the message I needed to hear: Love is all that matters.
But was it love that I felt for José, the kid who sat across the room from me in my third-grade class? The one whose hand I made sure to hold during a round of Red Rover on the playground, even as he reached for a girl’s? José gave me the same sort of butterflies that Brian Littrell did, but José was a tangible presence in my life, someone I could engage with in the flesh—and not merely over sound waves. When I’d go home after a long day at elementary school, I pictured José while I listened to Brian and company croon a sensitive ballad, especially “Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)” because, ultimately, I realized that despite his eagerness to hang out with me, he was still just another straight boy oblivious to my schoolyard flirtation. “You want to come over and play?” I asked, Ugh, but you’re not going to spend the night?, I’d think, You’re killing me!
Looking back, I clearly misread José’s platonic feelings, like many gay kids do when they’re trying to get a handle of new and strange sexual desires. I’d often sit in my room blaring “I’ll Never Break Your Heart” from my sister’s CD player, which I borrowed clandestinely, hoping that one day I’d find the one I could eventually sing it to. And at nine years old, who knew when that’d be.
I recently revisited the album after 18 years, and I was immediately reminded of its pop genius. Backstreet Boys will always be the CD that allowed me to recognize my same-sex attractions, and however minor, act upon them. 1997 will forever-remain a period when youthful curiosity and self-discovery flourished, when music and fantasy and self converged. My gay journey began 20 years ago, and I can only thank the bleached hair and cargo pants of the Backstreet Boys for showing me its path.
And Brian, I’m still waiting for your call.