“The Sufjan Question” by Michael Colbert

On the Subreddit r/Sufjan, there’s a discussion called “Gay-ish references in Sufjan’s music.” In the first post, a fan writes, “Alright, I know it’s probably just my wishful thinking and hoping that someday I can marry Sufjan, but every once in a while, I come across some of Sufjan’s lyrics that are somewhat, well…gay.”

            Another admits, “Sufjan is often portrayed as shrouded in mystery. Although he seems to pour out some of the most intimate and personal of his feelings and memories to his listeners, people seem to think of [him] still as some kind of mythical man, a poet-prophet-whatever-you-call-it.”

            There’s discord in the community. Another says, “I’m divided on discussing Sufjan’s sexuality. On the one hand, it doesn’t matter. He is clearly not hiding his sexuality but neither does he feel the need to be ‘out’. But on the other hand, maybe it is relevant in understanding some of the conflicts in his work.”

            In an offshoot of the Facebook group “Is this Sufjan Stevens song gay or just about God?”, member Darcy Mitchell gets to the root of it: “I don’t really think it’s about what sexual identity [Stevens] has,” writes Mitchell. “That’s not the important part of it. It’s that a lot of the things he sings about are really identifiable to LGBTI people, and particularly LGBTI people that have grown up religious and [dealing with] that resulting guilt.”

            For them, Michael Cuby discusses Stevens’ involvement in Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 film Call Me by Your Name: “The artist has expressed his admiration for [André] Aciman’s original book, James Ivory’s adapted screenplay, and Guadagnino’s skill as a director, but his willingness to immerse himself in this story, in particular, speaks volumes.” Originally asked to create one song for the soundtrack, Stevens shared three. “When asked about his decision by Vulture,” Cuby writes, “Sufjan pointed to the profound physicality of Guadagnino’s work, as well the emotional experience detailed in this narrative. ‘That’s really what I was working on, this idea of first love being really irrational and sensational,’ Sufjan said, ‘and feeling boundless in its experience.’”

I came to Sufjan late, in 2018, in an embarrassingly obvious way: through Call Me by Your Name. The book was what I needed to begin understanding my sexuality––Aciman’s novel, like much of his writing, is more vividly bisexual than the film implies. Aciman tracks Elio’s sexual becoming with a man, a woman, and, of course, a peach.

            I first listened to the audiobook when I was in my early twenties, living in Maine and working in college admissions. In January, we worked from home, reading over a hundred applications for admission each week. Beaten down by my workload and the Maine winter, I wanted to dissolve into the text––sun-soaked Italy, intellectual sparring and mirroring, which amplified and refracted attraction in a way that seemed to unveil previously unseen parts of my mind. In the weeks after listening to Aciman’s book, I bought the film’s soundtrack. The Psychedelic Furs, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Sufjan Stevens scored my days reading college essays. The album––from poppy Bandolero to a brooding Moroder––became the soundtrack for my new imagined life. The cadences, the peaks and valleys charted my queer becoming. A coworker and I bonded over Sufjan’s lyrics and would sing along in carpool or flail to “Love My Way” at parties.  

            Two years later, I was dating my first boyfriend. There were so many things I needed to learn––queer history, gay bars, top and bottom stereotypes. Being with a man, I could participate. On Valentine’s Day, at a pizzeria in North Carolina, we were seated next to a lesbian couple, and I trilled my delight to my boyfriend. We weren’t the only gay people here.

            Among the books, movies, and music of my gay education––Giovanni’s Room, But I’m a Cheerleader, Lana Del Rey––Sufjan Stevens resurfaced. Throughout the pandemic, Carrie and Lowell animated my solitude. The Age of Adz retroactively soundtracked my high school and college years lusting for “friendship” with men. I’d known Sufjan from the outskirts, coming into an understanding of bisexuality and the queer community from mostly straight spaces (it seems fitting that Call Me by Your Name, criticized by some for packaging queerness for a straight audience,was the invitation). Many queer men found comfort and visibility in Stevens’ lyrics when they were coming to understand their sexuality. Sufjan captures the longing for connection in same-sex attraction, in the coded ways we so often operate.

            His music was unknown to me in high school when the lyrics might have meant something significant. But back then, I leaned hard into the mainstream, readily supplying Coldplay as my favorite band whenever anyone asked. Taste in music was a way to fit in, or else something to hide (nobody could know I had Howie Day’s CD, though I only ever listened to “Collide”). In college, we sang one of Sufjan’s songs in my a cappella group, but instead of paying attention to the lyrics I was more annoyed at the arrangement and how it never quite cohered, the dins and jens of “Chicago” reverberating diaphanously in the campus chapel.

            In the summer of 2020, I read a news report that revealed a handful of universities had funded studies to discover whether bisexual men “exist.” I sometimes feel as if I straddle groups and it’s easier, less confusing to say I’m gay. I watch bisexual characters on screen, and so often they are only used to create mystery or deceit. From Jennifer’s Body to the men of Bret Easton Ellis’s novels, the “Depraved Bisexual” listing on TVTropes constellates a universe of bisexuals using sex to manipulate people for their own ends. I even think of Summer Finn, the subject of Tom Hansen’s manic pixie-ification in (500) Days of Summer, whobecomes ever more illegible to him when he learns of a girl from her romantic past. These characters are nearly always women and sexualized. I missed out on some of the unifying experiences, the coming-of-age narratives common to gay men peers because I didn’t know what I was looking for. But now I listen to Sufjan’s lyrics and feel everything too. Play a song of his and you’ve got a soundtrack for an angsty gay memory, for the nights you felt dejected when you were ignored by your high school role model or that “friend” who drove you crazy with longing.

            Representation often asks about the person behind the work. There’s an abundance of essays about whether Stevens might be gay; some people on the Sufjan subreddit speculate he might be bisexual. We seem to prefer stories and lyrics that embody and are borne of, instead of only speaking to, experiences like ours. We want to know he’s one of us.

            I understand this desire to know, to be recognized. Think of the rare bisexual male character in a romcom. Think of bi men who come out and are told they’re in denial. Perhaps we feel something more when we know an artist creates from a space we occupy, too. That they have been through something like we have and ended up creating something beautiful out of it.

Though his love life remains enigmatic, Sufjan is quite candid about his faith. He said of the first song, “Make Me An Offer I Cannot Refuse,” from his 2020 album The Ascension, “I think in some ways that song’s about giving God an ultimatum.” In 2020, this song was an expression of frustration with his “divine creator.” Sufjan is Christian Orthodox and enjoys going to church and singing, still. While he’s had to interrogate his beliefs and admits to their changing contour, he says, “I feel more confident in my faith than ever. That has enabled me to then make these remarks and think about these things, and have the bandwidth and the wherewithal to really question them. I think that’s just part of the nature of belief.”

            Perhaps there’s something prickly to our questions. The presumption can create pressure, a prescription for someone whose understanding of identity might look different from what we assume. Just last week, fully out and with nothing to hide, I talked with a partner about how work re-closets you– buttoned up, better to blend in. In the right (wrong) setting, I’ve flattened men I’ve been with to “friends.” One could argue that there’s privilege to this––straight-passing––yet I know it’s also emblematic of the larger system that we’re always navigating and negotiating.  

            I don’t think we’ll lock the doors for Sufjan if he never comes out, or never gives us more to go on. I love how we’re all hanging onto every word of his. The thing is, people are asking for genuine stories. People are asking to be seen, to be validated. We don’t want to be reduced. We can sniff out bullshit because of the bullshit we’ve lived through. But Sufjan knows us. It’s telling that fans call him by his first name. His music is held––wielded––intimately. His lyrics are real, dug in, embodied so we can feel the pain, the longing, the love, and lust behind each word. We feel seen when he sings. We want him to know we see him too.


Dan Condon and Zan Rowe, “In some ways, Sufjan Stevens has started caring less as he grows older,” for ABC.Net Double J, September 29, 2020.

“Gay-ish references in Sufjan’s music” on Reddit.

Jared Richards, “We Can’t Stop Wondering if Sufjan Stevens Sings About God or Being Gay” for Vice, August 29, 2017.

Matthew Schnipper, “Luca Guadagnino on the Music of His Movies, and Why He Had to Have Sufjan Stevens for Call Me by Your Name” for Pitchfork, January 23, 2018.

Michael Cuby, “Sufjan Stevens’ Music Is Queer — And He Deserves an Oscar Tonight” for Them, March 4, 2018.

Michael Colbert is a queer writer based in Maine, where he’s at work on a novel. He holds an MFA from UNC Wilmington, and his writing appears in Esquire, The New York Times, NYLON, and The Florida Review, among others.

@mjcolbert16 on Instagram and Twitter

Categorized as Issue Nine