“All My Friends Are Queer”: A Pride Month Essay by CLAY

CLAY © Jamie-Lee B.
CLAY © Jamie-Lee B.
In honor of Pride Month, Atwood Magazine has invited artists to participate in a series of essays reflecting on identity, music, culture, inclusion, and more.
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Today, San Francisco-based neurodivergent pop star CLAY shares her essay, “All My Friends Are Queer,” a story of her journey with her queerness and self liberation, as a part of Atwood Magazine’s Pride Month series!
CLAY (she/they) is a San Francisco born-and-bred artist crafting songs for the soul. She has the smooth, rich kind of voice that melts tensions away with a single note. A perfect blend of R&B and pop, CLAY’s affinity for catchy melodies matched with her seductively smoky vocal tone make her a must listen. Keen to make music that moves people and makes waves, CLAY’s work is vividly relevant and also overwhelmingly personal.
Born and raised in the flower-child city of San Francisco, as well as a proud member of the LGBTQIA+ community, her diverse and politically potent upbringing has guided her work as a multidisciplinary artist into powerful new realms. The historic social justice movements of the Bay Area laid the groundwork for the work she does today to create liberation through music. Unafraid to get political in songwriting, her past work has seen her take on Trump at the height of his crippling power (“Orange”), and more. CLAY cares deeply about advocacy, community, integrity, and unity and you can always hear that in her art.
From the very beginning, she knew that using her voice was her true calling in life. At seven years old, CLAY joined the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Long feeling like an outsider, it was the first place she made friends and finally fit in. She was in the touring ensemble of the chorus until age 16 – performing at former President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and winning three GRAMMYs along the way. As a young adult, she cultivated her songwriting skills at a contemporary music school and began making music of her own. Calling herself a “neurodivergent pop star,” she approaches songwriting with deep reverence for storytelling and views it as a spiritual experience. She often isolates to pull from within, listening closely for the whispers of truth longing to escape her in the form of a song.
For some artists, the challenge of building yourself from the ground up whilst maintaining your authenticity and independence can be near impossible. CLAY is proving that she’s got what it takes to leave her mark on this sometimes-ugly world. Adamant to retain her sense of self and ability to appeal to the masses through her heartfelt lyrics and experimental style, there’s no doubt that more treats are in store for listeners, both new and old.
CLAY released the first installment of a 3-part EP series called ‘Breathing into Bloom’ in 2022, which featured collaborators including the likes of Alessia Cara, Stint, and Yakob. More recently, she released the second installment, ‘holy silence ‘fore the spring,’ with an extended version. She also has collaborated with the likes of mayé and Duckwrth. She has amassed over 20m+ streams across platforms. While Breathing into Bloom was optimistic about accepting that healing is a process, ‘holy silence ‘fore the spring’ delves deeper into more melancholy themes that came to her during reflection, when the air was brisk and the gray clouds sagged, heavy with rain.
This year, she was featured in a worldwide brand partnership campaign with Tinder that highlighted queer love. CLAY’s songs have also been featured in shows like The L Word and The Chi and she’s gearing up for her headline tour in the states.

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holy silence 'fore the spring - CLAY


trigger warning: sexual assault

One day, years ago, I woke up and I realized that everyone who I hold dearest to my heart is queer.

The friends who I call for advice or just to laugh, to check in, to vent, to mourn and to heal with, are queer. How did this happen? Most of my closest friends are ones that I met in my teenage years, from different parts of my life. I didn’t actively or intentionally seek out queer friends at that time. I wasn’t even out. When I say I wasn’t “out” I mean I wasn’t even out to myself. Frankly, because the culture of my high school was so traumatizingly heterosexual, I didn’t even have any inclination that I was gay. The first time I slept with a girl I was sixteen. Perhaps that should have been an indication of my overt homosexuality, but apparently, it wasn’t. I was so consumed with navigating the confusing and treacherous waters of my tumultuous adolescence that I hardly had time for any real self inquiry or discovery. I was too busy trying to survive. Especially as a young undiagnosed autistic woman, I was just trying to make it through the noise of the day without a meltdown.

In the height of this time I came across a few people who made my day a little more quiet. People with whom I felt I could finally exhale and relax my shoulders. They would later become my sibling friends, my comrades in arms, the people who I know I can be wholly myself around. They held me with gentle patience and grace as I fumbled into myself, stumbling clumsily one day into the realization of my own sexuality.

CLAY © Kanya Iwana
CLAY © Kanya Iwana

I think it took me so long to come to terms with my being queer, to even entertain the thought I could be anything other than straight, because I was sexualized long before I actually felt sexual. I learned at a young age that the way that I looked was a kind of social capital, a currency. To put it simply in this particular context: boys wanted me so girls wanted to be my friend. (It sounds crude because it was). It took me a long time to realize the dangerous root of both of these desires and how neither of them prioritized my own. Therefore my early experiences with sex and sexuality were never pleasure-centered. Instead they were traumatic, confusing and contributed to the growing fear in my belly that I would never truly know love.

People always ask me about my coming out story and I rarely tell it, because even to this day it feels silly, almost surreal. It’s like a photo that has been stained by the sun, the memory is faded and unclear but the outline remains. I had been living alone in LA, having just moved there and knowing no one except for the roommate I met on Craigslist and her 2 cats. I decided to go home (to San Francisco) for the weekend and walked from my dad’s house to my favorite park. I was lying in the grass when I dosed off in warm rays of a (rare) sunny day. I woke up to a flash mob happening some ways away from me and I swear to you, dear reader, I am not making this up, the idea like all of my best ideas simply popped into my head. “Maybe I’m gay???” or something along those lines. (I sometimes wonder what, if anything, the flash mob had to do with this revelation, very unclear but thought it a fun detail). From that day forward the seed was planted and I slowly began to water it. It wasn’t something I was ready to shout from the rooftops, in fact, very far from it. The growing fear that I held in my belly and now chest like a dirty secret, the fear of being unlovable was once again a prominent force in my life. I remember joining a queer woman dating app and sneaking onto it at 3am as if my roommate would burst in any moment, rip my phone from my hands, reprimand me and kick me out on the curb. Maybe if I went on the app in the quietest hours of the night, it wouldn’t count.

Fast forward to when I finally told my best friend (who by the way came out when they were in the 7th grade). They effortlessly rubbed a soothing balm over the burning shame in my chest. They told me that my sexuality was MINE and that whatever I identified as today, I didn’t have to tomorrow. They assured me nothing was permanent, that I wasn’t contractually bound to fulfill the imaginary obligations of whatever my chosen identity word “meant.” That I was free to be whoever I wanted, whenever I wanted. That I had full autonomy over myself. I cried and cried that night.

CLAY © Jamie-Lee B.
CLAY © Jamie-Lee B.

It was only a year or two later during the “me too” movement that I faced the full horror of my early sexual experiences.

That I took on another identity: “survivor.” In the context of this new deepened understanding of myself, I realize how transformative that conversation truly was. It was the first time someone gave me explicit permission to decide for myself. Gave me the freedom of choice, one that in my teenage years I didn’t feel I often had. That freedom, that fluidity, the feeling of being able to decide for myself who I wanted to be on any given day, and know that whoever and whatever I choose isn’t fixed, was my salvation.

I would describe queerness as liberation. Actively resisting and existing outside of the confines of the chokehold of a heteronormative, patriarchal culture that keeps us all in a cycle of harm and violence. My queerness was the light in me when I was living in such darkness that I couldn’t even see my own hand in front of my face. I am so grateful for hands of my friends, my community, who reached out to me. They seemed to know me before I did, and invited me to bask in the warmth of their light when mine was dim. I am so deeply grateful to be a part of a larger community of people who historically (and still to this day) have been at the forefront of every single movement towards justice and liberation. Because of them, today, I can say without any hesitation, I am so proud to be queer. – CLAY

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holy silence 'fore the spring - CLAY

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