“So how does a Christian slam-poet from Seattle end up on a Billboard ranking rap song?” Mary Lambert bursts into a deep, heartfelt giggle. “Well it’s kind of a long story…” she trailed off, before taking a deep breathe and explaining the long road to prestige and popularity for an audacious young lesbian who took every rule of pop music and told it to go fuck itself. Successfully!
In the spring of 1989, Mary Lambert was born to a Pentecostal family in the little city of Everett, Washington. At six, Mary saw her mother and family be excommunicated from the church because Mary’s mother defied Pentecostal thought by coming out as a lesbian. “We lost all of our friends along with our community,” Mary said. “We really did get shunned. And it wasn’t even all about my mom being a lesbian, it was about her divorcing my dad.” To the Pentecostal church, I suppose living a life of lies and quiet desperation is better than exposing unconventional truths. For some, the loss of community and breaking of beliefs might be a crushing blow. For Mary, it lit a little something inside of her spirit that never went away.
As a teenager, Mary discovered two very different extracurricular activities — poetry and the Evangelical Church. “Evangelicals seemed so passionate, so on fire for God, and I think I was just drawn to people who care so much about something.” That desire for authentic human connection also fueled Mary’s poetry, which covered a range of often-taboo topics including body image issues, depression, and her own sexuality. “This is going to sound so stupid, but I care so much about humanity. Everyone can be a good person, but we’ve forgotten our connection with each other, and that’s how terrible things happen. Humanity can be really ugly, but I think it can be repaired. As a society we’ve forgotten how to love somebody you don’t know, and fixing that really starts with being honest about how you’re feeling. We’re so worried about judgement that we end of judging other people. The moment you allow yourself to be vulnerable by saying ‘I hate the way I look’ or ‘I wonder how the world would be if I was dead,’ things change. Most people, if not all people, has had those types of feelings. So why can’t we say it? When you’re honest about who you are, you build bridges, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
I can’t imagine getting up at 17 and reciting poetry about sex and body issues. That actually sounds like my personal hell then, now, and possibly forever. To do that such a thing takes brass balls, or in Lambert’s case brass ovaries.
Mary Lambert the young Christian slam poet realized at 17 that she, like her mother, was a lesbian entrenched in a disapproving religion. “Coming out was this ‘aha’ moment for me. Everything made sense. For the first time. I felt so good in my own skin, like now I fit.” Unfortunately the Evangelical Church she loved was less than supportive of her newfound realization. “The funny thing about the church is that they don’t see it as they’re being hateful or that they’re hurting a community. They have good intentions, and that’s what I try to remember about Evangelicals. All Christians are trying to come from a place of love, and they’re just confused and incredibly misguided into twisting words. But the thing is even if you’re all like ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ you’re still full of hate.” Since both Mary and her first girlfriend were part of the Church, they tried to make sense of the contradiction between what felt right and what they were told was wrong. “I would sit in church and cry, just cry every Sunday.” Mary said, “I hated myself and wanted to die, so my girlfriend and I would pray. We wouldn’t pray not to be gay because even then we knew that couldn’t happen. Instead we prayed for forgiveness.”
It wasn’t until college that Mary left the Evangelical Church for good. “At 19 or 20 I would spend about three and a half hours in Church every Sunday. First I would go to a standard Evangelical service, but afterward I started going to this beautiful choral service unlike anything I’d ever seen. The choir sounded like traditional hymns sung by monks, and the services took place in a massive Seattle cathedral. There was really no sermon, just songs. People would bring blankets, lie on the Cathedral ground, and quietly listen to this lovely music. It was then that I realized, for me, the divinity of God was in my writing and artistry. When I’m writing it’s almost like I’m in a trance, it just feels divine, like I’m right where I’m supposed to be. And so I stopped going to the Evangelical church but kept going to that choral service, where I could have little revelations while music washed over me. That’s how I felt close to God. And I feel closest to God now, when I perform, than I ever did in the Evangelical Church.”
But enough about religion. “What about girls?” I asked Lambert, “I know you’re in a long term relationship now, but what was dating for you like as a baby gay?” Mary laughed, then pauses for a moment to mull over the question.
That pause of thought is a lovely habit of Mary’s I noticed throughout the interview. When you ask Mary a question, she really thinks about it. When I ask her a question she’s already been asked constantly, her response is quick and polished. She knows her answer already. However, when I ask Mary a question she’s not used to being asked, she doesn’t just bullshit a sound bite response or change the subject to something less mentally taxing. Mary visibly takes the time to think about what you’re asking, what you’re trying to learn, and what she thinks the answer should be. It’s one of a dozen little things Lambert said that convinces me of just how serious she is about connecting with other people.
“I always just wanted to find my soul mate,” Mary said. “And as soon as I met her I was like ‘done, let’s settle down, let’s have some babies, we’re going to get gay married and it’s going to be awesome.’” Hmm. Maybe Mary and I, two 24-year-old femmes, aren’t as alike as I thought. “So you’re a good old fashioned U-Hauler?” I guess. “Oh yes, definitely!” Mary exclaims. “My very first serious girlfriend, we met in high school, and we were 19 year old engaged, and that ended.” As engagements between 19-year-olds are wont to do. “I’m a serial monogamist, but the times in between monogamy I’m a total hot mess.” My ears prick up again. I adore hot messes. “I’m not good as a single person, partly because I think I struggle with the identity of a femme sometimes. When I first came out I was like ‘ok I have to cut my hair and wear flannel’ because I didn’t want to be excluded from the queer community, I wanted to be accepted and fit in. And I think the queer community can be a little selective about who they let in, depending on if you have the right look or who you know. Finally I was like ‘Oh, wait! I love dresses so much and I’m really feminine and I’m totally ok with that now!’”
Mary had a lot of the same problems dating that us other femmes run into: lack of visibility, dykes skeptical of a girly girl who really likes girls, and confusion about how to flirt while still remaining cool. “Because I’m so feminine I would go to a lesbian bar and be a total creep. Like I’d just smile a lot and hope I had enough cleavage” Sounds far more effective than my tactic to pick up girls: Notice a hot one, ignore her, and hope she takes notice of me.
For friendly and non-friendly femmes alike, there’s something we can all bond over using in pursuit of the perfect mate: the internet. Mary mentioned a love of online dating and my jaw drops. Could this talented singer be an example of internet dating gone right? “That’s how I met my girlfriend,” Mary said, “on OkCupid!” I take this as formative truth that a. every lesbian in America has at one point tried OkCupid and b. I was right about OkCupid being the best online dating app for lesbians. When the conversation turns back to music, I can’t help but wonder what is was like for a sweet girl (although clearly quite tough) like Mary being on a rap tour.
Apparently her three month stint touring with Macklemore was surprisingly tame. “I was actually like the bad girl on tour,” Mary confessed with a laugh, “because so many people are sober on the tour, or really focused…The whole crew was supportive and loving, and a wonderful family with so much dedication to art.” And the reception from hip-hop loving audience to a song dedicated to the gay rights movement? Well, it was massively and wonderfully positive. Mary said, “I was shocked, and still continue to be shocked, at the reaction to same love. I was shocked that a gay rights song could go platinum and is still climbing the billboard charts… there’s so many people behind it, and I have really not received a single amount of hate mail from doing ‘Same Love.’ I’ve received hate mail for my body image pieces like ‘Oh you fat bitch’ but for doing a gay rights song not a single hate email.”
If there’s anything I took from speaking with Mary Lambert, it’s this lesson: You can make your own reality. You can be loved for exactly who you are. Your sexuality, age, body, or background does not define you. You define you. No one was able to slam Mary Lambert into a box, although God knows they must have tried. And after listening to her, I don’t think anyone ever will. This is what change looks like: lesbian feminists on the radio, rap songs about gay rights, Christians who don’t preach love but sing it in a lovely, heart wrenching song. What a wonderful time to be alive.