It became hard for me to talk about Britney Spears around the time the #FreeBritney movement started. The mega-superstar's life — synonymous with fame, always under bad faith criticism — seemed to be hitting another peak. Her conservatorship of 13 years was ending, and her newfound freedom from her abusers became another aspect of her life for people to pick apart. But I've been following her life just as I've lived my own. I'm a Britney fan forever, finding her at some of my happiest times, and at some of the worst.

The release of her memoir this year, The Woman in Me, means she gets to reclaim her story after it has been told for her for too long. She writes in her book that fans share a connection with her, and I've never been able to comfortably talk about her until I finished it. My relationship goes deeper than the average reader of the eye-roll-worthy headlines the media has plagued her with. Many gay men have a popstar intrinsically tied to their identity — mine will always be Britney Spears.

Unlocking creativity and queer joy

Around 5 years old I became a stan when "...Baby One More Time" came out. That's all there is to it — she was just there in my life. (I was already expressing my sexuality with my love for the Spice Girls by then, but I can't remember much — I wonder what sort of repressed gay trauma I was introduced to by that point). It's upsetting to read the traumas Britney was immediately born into, making sense why she seemed like such a seasoned performer once her first song debuted. But when Britney talks about childhood, she paints the picture of such innocence, such that I relate to my own especially when it comes to defining queer joy.

Those years, I remember being so carefree and able to just love the pop of it all, the music, the videos, the outfits, the performances. "Music stopped the noise, made me feel confident, and took me to a pure place of expressing myself," she wrote in her book. "Singing took me into the presence of the divine." That's exactly how being entertained by her made me feel despite already experiencing homophobia growing up in a Christian household. Like Britney, I find the presence of the divine when I'm at my most creative, when I truly show up to be the person I love.

I'll always thank my parents for letting me and my sister experience pop culture from an early age. While I started to see cracks in my pop music bliss early, I still had moments where I felt really seen. My mom and dad bought me her albums, her Rolling Stone covers, watched Making the Video with me, took me to the art store because I liked to color blondes. I hold those fond memories deep in my heart, because they showed me that I can take up space.

I wasn't prepared for Britney's book to make me remember relatives no longer in my life, like my Uncle Stanley and Auntie Tina. Though they individually were dealing with their own issues as 20-somethings at the time, I can remember them embracing my joy for Britney. On weekends they'd watch music videos with me, where I felt safe dancing my best Britney choreography. I remember once, when my uncle took me and my cousin of a similar age to Toys R' Us. He let his son pick out a "boy's" toy, but he gave me time to look for a Britney doll, which we all know puts immediate eyes on you. I'd later go on to hide them under my bed when I reached elementary age — as if no one else in the house ever saw them. One Christmas, I got a now rare pillow capturing Britney in the music video for "(You Drive Me) Crazy," one of my favorite looks of hers (and probably one of the reasons why green is my favorite color). I wonder if Britney was able to grasp how much her likeness meant in the hands of a little boy at a time when she was experiencing rapid success, and how much more it means to that kid today.

The same-sex kiss heard around the world

Bubblegum pop of the '00s was seen as heavily shallow at the time. Though celebrated today in a nostalgic way, I'd argue it's still not taken as seriously as contemporary pop music is — which, still, is met with groans. Like Michael Jackson and Madonna, Britney was the face of pop music for a time with a story that goes beyond music discourse. A showman of her own, she was performing alongside them, staking a claim in pop culture with remarkable ascent. The hate and judgment grew, and as someone on the cusp of adolescence, I started to experience it too. We live in a world ruled by heteronormativity, and because of that, many LGBTQIA kids become aware of gender norms early on. It's suffocating.

Already being made aware I was different, I don't recall seeing a same-sex kiss that was more impactful than the infamous kiss that Madonna and Britney shared. They opened the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards alongside Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott with an objectively iconic performance that is just part of the collective consciousness for many my age — beat for beat and shot for shot. I thought about it all night, feeling electric by the spectacle and newfound curiosity which I now characterize as pride.

Come the next day, I had no one to talk about it with, a time where I started to let others' perceptions suppress me. Britney cites Madonna being a model of strength, something I hope she sees in herself. Once, a family member pulled me aside and asked, "Do you think Britney will be shaking her booty all the way to heaven?" My joy of Britney made me laugh it off, but looking back I wish I had a little more courage to respond with what I want to say now: "Hell yeah, me too!"

I was coming of age when Britney rebelled against what our culture had projected on her. She was soon to be put in a conservatorship, which meant that her life was under the financial, legal, and day-to-day eye of her father and a cast of lawyers and handlers. Her experiences during these years are so singular, and the amount of resilience is inspiring. The most incredible part is that her struggles — balancing intense fame and newfound motherhood up to her conservatorship — are so heavily documented, an unfortunate reflection of how ugly our culture can get, and still is.

"I became more of an entity than a person onstage," Britney recounts of her days in the conservatorship. All of this was happening during a time where classmates started to freely have crushes and relationships. Freshman year, my parents let me go see her during her 2009 Circus tour, which was the only time I'd get to see her in concert. A win for me, but now understanding the circumstances she was performing under, I have mixed feelings. Here was Britney under duress, and here I was having my last moment of validation before going quiet as a teenager. Instinctually, the rest of my high school experience would be on autopilot, closing myself off with probably my earliest bout of deep isolation. It was nowhere close to a conservatorship, but her feelings of longing, rejection, and solitude — these were elements of Britney's captivity that hit very close to home.

Making music that speaks to us

Britney has put out some of the best pop music to exist, with Blackout being her most acclaimed. It's often mentioned as a touchstone in pop music amidst the chaos of her life. I get it the love, but I'd argue In the Zone which came out before is just as important. I mean, have you heard "Breathe on Me?" In the Zone was recorded at a time when she was processing trauma and heartbreak all while facing public scrutiny. The book also reveals she had an abortion, giving more meaning to one of her best songs, "Everytime." Her songs can go from sex bop to anthemic to eerily prophetic, stretching herself to all corners of the genre that so many just cannot replicate. Pure confection, with vocals that one can only be described as Britney.

My favorite song by Britney Spears is "I Will Be There," from her first album. While her discography is littered with gems including her rumored unreleased songs, this one has always stood out to me as a source of strength, transporting me back to the "Lukie-Boy" my family used to call me. Admittedly saccharine, it's one of those songs where I can enjoy my longing, turning it into hope that I can dedicate it to a love one day. I guess I'm a little bit of a hopeless romantic. It's something I'm still learning to allow myself to be.

When you need someone, you just turn around
And I will be there
When you're feeling low, baby, let me know
And I will be there

A crossroad of self reflection

On a whim, recently I went to one of the fan screenings of Crossroads in celebration of the book. I didn't get the chance to see it in theaters back when I was in second grade, though I was probably too scared to ask. I wish I did, because I know my mom would've taken me. (We did go see Austin Powers in Goldmember that year; I knew Britney had a cameo!)

As a tall, lanky Indian and Puerto Rican, self-perception is something that I continue to work on. When I went to see the movie, I didn't realize how confident it would make me feel. Britney says during filming she couldn't separate herself from the role, something I could fully see in that crowded theater. As someone that's seen all the photos, the interviews, the docs, it felt surreal watching her on the big screen — her own Renaissance or Eras tour moment.

I was reminded of her beauty, not in a surface-level way but her womanhood. It's the woman you see dancing freely on Instagram, the artist you see singing Shania Twain in the car — oh, the grin I must've had on my face at this part. I was reminded of my younger self at the time, probably doodling pop star costumes on my homework. You couldn't tell me anything that night, because immediately after, I started to capture a sense of self-possession by taking selfies. I don't really like being photographed, but in these pictures I can really see myself. I can see the carefree inner child, the queer artist.

Brave New Girl

It took me a while to say with my chest that I'm an artist. Mainly because the times I've fully felt like it have been so few and far between. The earliest when I was a child, using my imagination to draw and get crafty. That artist also showed up my senior year of college. I had just come off a summer internship in NYC, which had some of my best memories of finding my independence. Inspired and excited, I worked my ass off that year in school, enjoying my friendships and honoring my childhood with work that helped be at peace with things I was previously ashamed of. I even did a fun little art show, curating work from my peers with pop music as a soundtrack. One of my roommates and I designed and typeset a 3d print of Britney's most iconic lyric, "It's Britney, Bitch."

I wasn't prepared for The Woman in Me to move me the way it did. Once you take your art to the workplace, it's so easy to lose sight of the reasons you liked it to begin with. Constant talks about career goals combined with how other professionals may perceive you through your art and presentation became exhausting. They don't prepare you for burnout and for a while the self expectations sent me into that isolation I'd experienced before. An ongoing battle, Britney's fight for herself in her words has given me a much needed boost to continue self discovery in my creative life. She asks at one point "How do you cling to hope?" When I think about my identity, I remember always feeling othered from the start. Continuing to explore my own story with pride is how I move forward. In her efforts to rebuild her life from the heaviest times, I do too.

Toward the end of the book, Britney speaks to the gay community and fans alike, "For me, it's all about love—unconditional love." It's the same for us in return, being seen and more importantly heard. The effects of parasocial relationships are not lost on me, but when I think about the connection to Britney and her journey, I'm able to see a path of my own — anticipating.

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