Steve Grand has barely slept in days. He hasn't showered. He's lost weight. His family is worried that he isn't getting enough to eat. It's the 4th of July, and two days ago, the 23-year-old singer and Chicago native released his first music video, an independently produced pop-country love song, "All-American Boy," about one gay man's unrequited love for a straight man.
The story, based on Grand's own experiences as an out gay man, was relatively innocent. But as the video uploaded to YouTube, he tells BuzzFeed, he obsessed over how the world — especially his church, where he works as a wedding and funeral singer — might respond to its same-sex content. "I had no idea what people were gonna think," Grand says. "I had no idea how people were gonna respond. I couldn't sleep."
The video wasn't necessarily Grand's coming out. He'd done that officially years earlier, but doing this was a terrifying act of vulnerability. "It's me coming out as totally myself and just standing naked before the world," he says.
Despite the risk and fear, Grand says it was something he felt compelled to do. "I think that we're at a time now where there's no room to be anything but totally honest and totally who you are," he says. "I decided this is who I'm gonna be to the world. Just my true, raw self. I'm putting it all out there."
Within hours, the video racked up tens of thousands of views and hundreds of supportive comments from both gay and straight viewers who identified with the singer's heartache. "I'm still in awe," says Grand. "I'm not a crier, but the comments have been so overwhelmingly positive. They're thanking me for telling my story because they feel like it's a story that hasn't been told before. And that's all I could ever hope for."
Grand started working on music when he was just 12 years old as a way to cope with his own struggles. The singer says he fell for a male counselor who took a particular interest in him at camp when he was 13, and was heartbroken when they eventually separated. "That's actually what made me realize I was gay," he says. "That deep longing, that achy feel, for someone that's just out of reach, someone that you'll never have. I remember driving away from camp after I said good-bye, and I felt the deepest ache of my life. I felt that was the end of my childhood."
Then, when his parents discovered an incriminating AOL instant message, he was sent to ex-gay therapy to talk to counselors about his sexuality. "That was pretty much my high school experience," he says. "My parents became really obsessive about making sure I didn't go out because they were so scared of me acting out on my unwanted same-sex attraction, as it was referred to."
So he turned to music. "I was quite eccentric," he says. "And that eccentricity comes from being broken, in the ways that we're all broken."
That's why the release of "All-American Boy," with its foregrounded same-sex details, was an important risk for Grand. "I needed to do something to share the ache and share the pain that I've felt for most of my life," he says. "This is the story I wanted to tell. This is who I want to be. I owe that. I owe that to all the people who have felt this."
Grand rushed to have the video produced in just a couple of months, pulling together friends and acquaintances to lend a hand with the production when money fell short. "I sacrificed a lot of things, financially, to make it happen," he says, "but this is what I had to do. This is all I could have done." Grand's friends and advisers suggested masking gender pronouns to appeal to a wider audience, but he insisted on staying true to his own story. "I'm sending a message to people," he says. "The power of music transcends. The gender pronouns are just a little side part."
"My sexuality hasn't been a secret for a long time," he says. "It's something that's not really talked about in my family, so this is kinda like a big move. Me and my mother have shed a lot of tears over it. It's one thing to say 'I'm gay,' but to see it and to see that kiss and to see it all up on screen, it's something the world is gonna see."
But his family and friends have been overwhelmingly supportive throughout the process of making his video. "[My mother's] proud of me, and she's been looking at the comments and she's so touched and she's so moved," he says. "She's come such a long way." He's still waiting to see how his church, where he sings, will respond. "I'm not sure what's gonna happen now that this is all out in the open. That was just another sacrifice I had to make because that was a big chunk of my income."
Whatever the outcome, he's committed to this path. "I couldn't live with myself if I wasn't true and honest," he says. "That's what people deserve. People don't deserve a lie. We have a whole new generation that's counting on us to be brave and to not be afraid of pigeonholing ourselves. People need to be brave for the world to change. If it puts me in a hole, I'll accept that. But I did what I needed to do."
Grand says that the story of "All-American Boy" is ultimately meant to appeal to everybody. "It really is a human story," he says. "It's a universal story of longing. An 'all-American boy,' it doesn't mean 'American,' it doesn't mean 'boy,' it just means that person that you love, and that you idealize, and that person you ache for. There are guys who sing along to Taylor Swift songs, and I don't understand why they can't sing along to my song. To me, there's really no difference. It's a story about longing."
"All-American Boy" has been viewed over a half million times in less than a week, and it has caught the attention of gay music icons like Lance Bass, who was among the first to tweet the video. Grand has made a meager profit off the attention thus far, but says he's happy to scrape by if it means he's creating something that has an effect on people. "I've scrubbed toilets, I've cleaned up puke and shit off the floor. I worked at a gay bar and had my ass grabbed one too many times and my nipples squeezed," he laughs. "[But] all that matters to me is that I'm putting out real art into the world."
Grand has no concrete plans for what's next, though he's started aligning himself with friends and advisers who can help plan his next artistic endeavor. Whatever it is, it won't necessarily be country music, but more likely pop-rock. "To be honest, I wasn't trying to write a country song," he says. "At the end of the day, people can call it what they want. I'm just gonna keep being honest in my songwriting."
"All I know is that I've passed the point of no return," he said. "There's no going back now."