“I wanted to hide it from everybody,” said GRiZ. “Being gay wasn’t cool. It was something that people didn’t really talk about it.”
GRiZ, whose real name is Grant Kwiecinski, publicly came out earlier this year in a Huffington Post story that detailed his journey of self-acceptance. It was the first time that the Michigan-born deejay, electronic music producer and saxophone player, who is known for his funky, sax-and-dance music fusion, told the world that he was gay.
Nobody knew aside from a small group of friends, and even that took years to share.
“I was sad a lot about it,” said GRiZ, 27, who now lives in Denver. Growing up, he said, there was no gay role model in his life or a safe space who said, “It’s OK to be gay.”
Today is National Coming Out Day, and GRiZ wants his story to encourage others to be more accepting, loving, and to also not be afraid to come out.
October aims to raise awareness for mental health (yesterday was World Mental Health Day), bullying (today is also National Stop Bullying Day) and more — the month is dedicated to LGBT History, Emotional Wellness, Depression Education and Awareness, Domestic Violence Awareness and Global Diversity Awareness.
GRiZ’s story starts with a typical childhood. He loved recess and played music in his school band — it was always a respite, music, from life’s tougher days. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sum 41 and Blink 182 were go-to favorites. He went through two copies of the Chili Peppers' Californication and hid the second from his mother, who tossed the first because of its lyrics.
In middle school, his parents split up.
“It was pretty bad,” GRiZ recalled. “My dad ... treated my mom pretty bad. Stuff you wouldn’t want your kids to deal with.”
He moved around metro Detroit seven or eight times. Things weren’t great, but GRiZ’s older brother, Cort, 29, was his best friend, role model and rock. Cort was always there for him, he said: “Without him, I probably would have had a much tougher time. He was really good to me.”
GRiZ confided everything in Cort, except for one thing: that he was gay. “I loved Sailor Moon as kid,” he explained. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s probably not what everybody else likes.’ I was a little more curious with certain people.
“Then I realized, ‘Yeah. I’m gay for sure.’”
The first thing he remembers feeling is shame, and regret. The confusion was huge. Being gay wasn’t something he saw around him. “Every single love song was about some girl with beautiful hair,” GRiZ said. “The guy always kissed the girl. There just wasn’t a space (for people like me),” he said.
These feelings plagued him day and night. “I felt really conflicted,” he continued. “I was praying to God that this wasn’t true.”
GRiZ’s reaction was to fight it. He dated girls, lost his virginity and tried to convince himself that females were “super hot.” But it didn’t work.
At some point, he gave in.
“I was nervous, really, because I hadn’t broken that seal of telling someone,” he explained. “It’s not that I was afraid (my family) would disown me,”he said, adding that his mother was loving and supportive.
“I was afraid to tell them because I was so ashamed of it. I wasn’t cool with it.”
In high school, “gay” was a careless term used to describe something lame. “You know, that’s soooo gay,” GRiZ recalled. “It stings every time you hear it. That’s me, I’m gay, and I don’t think I’m lame, but everybody else does.”
Years of pent-up sadness and anger manifested itself in his mental health. “It was in my anxiety,” he said. Friends had prescriptions to Xanax and Adderall, and GRiZ would take them to ease the pain.
“I ended up eating lots of Xanax because I wasn’t able to deal with it.”
The anxiety was so intense that GRiZ was convinced he had a heart murmur. He saw doctors and even wore a heart rate monitor.
“The physical pain wasn’t even measurable,” he said. “It was just how I felt.”
GRiZ met his first group of gay friends in college at Michigan State University. By sophomore year, he was comfortable enough to ask questions.
“I couldn’t believe (they) existed,” he said. “You’re my age and look like me and act like me and like some of the things that I like.”
GRiZ was curious, he said, and finally, after some time, came out. “It was a major sense of liberation,” he recalled. "I felt like a more authentic person.”
Next he told his mother. But she had known all along, she claimed. “Once you tell that first person it’s a lot easier to let more people know,” GRiZ said.
The third big step was the Huffington Post story. But it wasn’t easy.
“I didn’t want people to know because I didn’t want my career to be about my sexual identity,” GRiZ admitted. “I didn’t want people to label my music as gay music. It’s just music music. It’s every people music.”
But after the story went live and circulated the internet, GRiZ was floored by the amount of support from fans and the music industry. “Everybody was lovely and beautiful towards me,” he remembered. “There was no judgement. My fans have embraced it. I think we’re finally in a culture now where being gay is normalized.”
Don’t be afraid to come out, GRiZ says: “Fear comes from personal self-acceptance and not the self. Most people in your lives will be very happy and supportive of you for mustering the strength to say something. And if they’re not, that’s OK, too. There are people out there who will be.”
Be genuine, be you, he continues. “There are always safe spaces. You can be a beacon for other people who are struggling. It’s hard to put your heart out there and put it in other peoples’ hands. But the receiving end is gentle.”
In his shows, GRiZ aims to create a safe space for all people. His fans are “accepting, amazing people,” he notes, and says that if anyone out there is struggling or wants to talk, to hit him up on social media. He’ll be there for you, he promises.
“Love knows no physical, visual thing,” GRiZ said. “It’s purely metaphysical.”
GRiZ can be contacted on Twitter at @Griz or through Facebook at @mynameisGRiZ.
Ashley Zlatopolsky is a Detroit-based journalist. You can follow her on Twitter at @ashley_detroit.