A Whole New World: My Life and Career Growing Up Gay | Conrad Benner of Streets Dept
One of my earliest memories was throwing my leg over the hallway banister of my childhood home and pretending I was riding gleefully on the back of a motorcycle while holding on to Aladin’s waist. Yes that Aladin, the cartoon character from the 1992 Disney film. It’s the type of innocent fantasy that my mind forged up based on the urges I was years away from being able to quantify. The truth I know now, of course, is that I’m gay and have long had a seemingly essential longing to be with another man (with or without the motorcycle.) Unearthing that truth about myself in a world stacked with friends, family, church, celebrity, movies, radio, books, magazines, and more that only ever showed me something opposite to what I felt was confusing as hell. But it’s navigating that experience that made me the person I am today and set me on the creative career path I’ve found myself on.
As a kid, I’m pretty sure that I thought most people felt pretty similarly about most things in their own lives. The houses on TV are all make believe, no one really lives like that. I’m sure most people’s families must order-in every night because their parents work so much too. Every guy masturbates thinking about other guys that’s just what jerking off is. A big part of growing up is learning that the world is much bigger than you ever thought it was and then working to figure out where you fit in. That is, if there’s a place for you to fit in.
I first suspected I was different when I was 14. It was 1999, and by then my house had a family computer in the living room with dial-up AOL Internet. Sometimes, when my parents would go to bed, I’d search for pictures of naked men. Totally normal, I thought! Or more accurately, I didn’t think about it or what it meant at all. I had a girlfriend at the time. I liked her, but she always wanted to make out and I...didn’t. In fact, over a glass of wine recently with my mom I asked when she first started to realize I might be gay. She said it was after my first date with this girlfriend, my last girlfriend ever not-so-incidentally, when I came home and told her I had fun but that, “All she wanted to do was kiss, ugh.” This last girlfriend of mine always wanted to go further than me too. After school we’d come back to my empty house, my parents still at work, and we’d usually get somewhere around 2 ½ base when I’d remind her that I wanted to wait until marriage to do anything more. We were both Catholic, in fact I was an altar boy through middle school, so she’d agree and we’d stop. Then one day it all hit me. I remember this day so clearly, I was sitting on my bed alone one afternoon and like a reflexive cracking of my jaw it just snapped into my thoughts: I’m gay. I said it so definitely in my head and immediately started to cry.
Growing up I had no gay role models. No one in my family was gay, no gay friends, and TV in the ‘90s only had a few gay characters that I ever saw. Honestly, if it weren’t for the gay representation on the first handful of seasons of MTV’s The Real World, it might have taken me another girlfriend or two to realize I was gay. But sitting on my bed that day sobbing I knew it so clearly. I had never felt so alone. The shadows of adolescence are among the most isolating. And it all left me numb. So numb I didn’t care, or I told myself I didn’t care, if my friends knew and completely rejected me. Though, I might have known on some level that they’d be supportive because they were, including that last girlfriend who remained my friend. It was a massive, life-sustaining relief.
Once I knew I had the support of my closest friends, I became less numb and more pissed. The church I grew up in and had loved called me a sinner and told me I was going to go to hell. How could this be a sin, I thought to myself? These feelings are about as natural a thing my body can produce as breath. It was innate! And anyone who thought otherwise could fuck off.
I started to realize that if the church, people on TV, and so many others could be so damn wrong about something I knew so fundamentally to be true that they were all probably wrong about other things too. It is not an overstatement to say that at this point in my life I was having a civil war in my head. I was questioning the things I had thought to be true about the world around me. I started to live and think more actively, to question the systems of things and how they came to be, and to not take what was given to me at face value. It was revolutionary!
When people today ask me why I started a blog about Philly street art, I always say it’s because I love that street art and graffiti have thrown away the traditional rule books about how and where to put art. Galleries and museums have many walls, and many people deciding who and what kind of art gets in and therefore gets viewed. It’s a broken system that has transformed art solely, it seems, into a commodity for a certain monied class. I believe that expression is an invaluable part of the human experience and that to make it so difficult to access is a detriment to society. The street art, graffiti, murals, public art, stickers, protest art, and more that I document for StreetsDept.com all meet the viewer in our public spaces. Much of it is made my people who’ve not gone the traditional art route and much of it is installed in ways that ignore some (relatively) absurd rules around public space, particularly around the public use of buildings and spaces in cities that have been left abandoned by business and/or industry.
Understanding from a young age that the world and its systems are not fixed things has pushed me to move through life differently. I didn’t go to college after high school. Instead I moved into an apartment with a roommate I found through Craigslist and worked at the clothing store Zara (until I was fired for being late,) then Whole Foods (until I was fired for being late,) then a gelato shop Capogiro (where I worked unfired thank God, despite being late pretty frequently, for four years.) I didn’t put pressure on myself in my early 20s to find some golden egg career path. I paid attention to my passions, and did my best to pursue them in various forms over the years. And when at age 25, like my jaw cracking, I realized one day that I could combine my love for street art and my growing interest in photography and turn it into a blog, I ran at it.
Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if I hadn’t grown up gay. I suspect I likely would have been attracted to following more well worn paths. I’m glad that wasn’t in the cards for me though, because life gets so much more creative when you have to carve your own way. And for the last seven and a half years I’ve been doing just that. I’ve been holding on to Streets Dept riding that proverbial motorcycle and showing my(damn)self the world, figuring it out as I go along. And honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Follow Conrad on instagram @streetsdept
Stay up-to-date on all the Philly street art happenings over on his website www.streetsdept.com