Barbra Streisand Gave Me Hope as a Gay Teen Growing Up in Rural America

"Streisand knows how it feels to be told that your desires are wrong—and to feel those desires without shame anyway."

The year is 2007, and teenage me is watching 22-year-old Barbra Streisand’s 1965 television special in all of its black-and-white glory. I’m sitting in the living room because we only have one television, and Streisand is singing “How Does the Wine Taste.” She wears a collared black dress that sweeps the floor as she weaves in and out of kettle drums.

The song is about being secluded and sheltered, locked away from the pleasures of the world. Streisand sings questions about what it’s like to live in the world, to love the things of the world. Her voice is tinged with a visceral longing. It’s the song of someone who’s been denied pleasure and experience, but also a song of hope. How does the wine taste? She has been denied this knowledge, but curiosity will definitely prevail. She will escape, and it will be terrifying, but oh, isn’t the world out there lovely?
 

I grew up in a tiny white farmhouse that overlooked a dairy farm and the rolling hills of the Ozark Mountains. My childhood was not unhappy, but I was sheltered. My family attended a tiny fundamentalist Baptist church, and since I was home-schooled, the church was my sole source for socialization. Secular music was forbidden, movies that weren’t rated G or PG were off-limits, and the books I read were closely monitored. Always present was my mother’s voice telling me to “be content” alongside Bible verses warning me of the dangers of the world.

My friends were obsessed with boys and babies, both things I had no interest in. I longed instead to be a concert pianist and practiced for hours every day while plotting my escape. In my church, homosexuality was regularly compared to bestiality and pedophilia. When my best friend came out to me as a lesbian when we were 15, I realized that I was gay too. Boys were repulsive, while the poster of J-Lo that hung over my piano did things to me.

But, as my friend cried when she told me she was gay, “I’ll be kicked out of my parent’s house if they find out.” I knew that being gay was sinful and dangerous, so I repressed this part of my identity after a few weeks of panic.

There seemed to be so much life to experience outside of the small world I knew, but I was trapped on a farm in rural Missouri. My day-to-day existence felt like a conspiracy to suppress and silence me. My discomfort with myself and my surroundings was so intense, it felt almost tangible. So I turned to Streisand, whose music gave a voice to my deepest desires.

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Barbra Joan Streisand was born on April 24, 1942, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She moved out of her mother’s small Brooklyn brownstone at age 16, when she began to seriously pursue a career as an actress. Her mother discouraged her foray into show business, but Streisand was determined. She began performing regularly in Manhattan nightclubs after winning a singing contest at The Lion, a famous gay club in Greenwich Village.

In 1963, her first album won three Grammys; shortly after, she starred in Broadway’s Funny Girl. Streisand quickly catapulted into stardom and has since won eight Grammys, three Academy Awards, four Emmys, and one Tony.

As a teenager, I was obsessed with Streisand’s persona and read every biography about her I could find at my local public library. I was drawn to her daring nonconformity. In the days before she became famous, she was notably zany, refusing to wash her hair and wearing absurdly styled outfits with thrifted clothing. Above all, though, she was dogged in the pursuit of her career.

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I was also an active member on every possible online Streisand forum.

“I’m going to be a concert pianist and escape to New York City no matter what anyone tells me,” I’d write.

“I’m ugly but I don’t care because Barbra Streisand taught me that talent and hard work are the only things that matter,” I’d type furiously. I would log on a few days later to read dozens of encouraging responses, mostly from middle-aged women and gay men.

I’d burn the old Streisand records I found at thrift stores into CDs and listen to them on my long drive to home-school choir practice. In songs like “Much More,” from Streisand’s first album, The Barbra Streisand Album. Streisand sings about her desire to be more than a housewife, her desire for the outrageous, even her erotic desires. As a teen, I didn’t fully understand what drew me to this song; now, it all makes sense.

Songs like “Everything” and “The Woman in the Moon” from Streisand’s 1976 film, A Star Is Born, contain similar themes. In every earnest word she sings, Streisand communicates hope for a warmer future. She shares the conviction that it is normal—beautiful, even—to imagine a bolder life and to experience every aspect of what it means to be human.
 

Streisand knows how it feels to be told that your desires are wrong—and to feel those desires without shame anyway. Teenage me understood what it was to feel that desire, to long for more, and Streisand helped me realize that those desires were not sinful. Streisand’s music gave voice to my burning ambition and perpetual longing for escape. Because of Babs, I felt less alone and capable of pursuing my wildest dreams.

In the 1983 film Yentl, Streisand plays a young woman in 19th-century Poland who longs to study the Talmud. Studying the Talmud as a woman is forbidden, so her character, Yentl, is forced to disguise herself as a man. In the final scene, Yentl has decided to move to America where she will be able to study without hiding her true identity.

She’s on the deck of a ship bound for America when she sings her last song, “A Piece of Sky.” It’s a song about asking questions, pushing boundaries, and refusing to settle. Even in my youth, that song resonated deeply with me; I would watch the ending to Yentl over and over again. Streisand’s character is positively radiant in her joy as she hurtles towards a future full of knowledge and freedom.

Fast forward to 2019. I’m 25 years old and watching that same scene again as I sit outside a coffee shop. As the spring sunshine envelopes me, I cry tears of gratefulness. Like Yentl—and like Streisand—I dared and I survived.

Hannah is a freelance writer with bylines in Refinery29, Teen Vogue, HuffPost, Allure, and elsewhere. She writes about politics, religion, sexuality, and pop culture.
@hannahbrashers