When Dezman Lehman was a teenager, his grandmother decided to stage an intervention for him. Lehman, at the time a 15-year-old freshman at Lincoln High School in Oak Cliff, is gay, and his grandmother, a religious woman, called in God to fix him. She brought her pastor, her deacon and two of his cousins to their house to pray away his homosexuality.
“I thought after that, that maybe I was going to be delivered, maybe something was going to change,” Lehman, now 33, recalls. He decided to do everything he could to “cure” himself and devote himself to God, but it wasn’t what he wanted. “I wanted to be accepted, whatever it was going to take,” he says. “I was ashamed to be gay.”
More than a decade passed before Lehman found peace with himself, and when he did, he didn’t find it through the Bible or prayer or by meeting others’ expectations. Instead he embraced who he is: Dezi 5, a black, gay man who loves to sing pop songs and who learned everything he knows from drag queens. His real salvation came on the dance floor.
Lehman’s recovery will come full circle with a dance party at the Public Trust art gallery (2271 Monitor St.), where he will hang himself from a cross at 9 p.m. Saturday. It’s a symbolic act, and one he approaches with some humor. He came up with the idea when he realized he’s the same age as Jesus when Jesus was crucified. Promotional art for the show, dubbed Crucifixion on the Dance Floor (also the title of his upcoming EP), has featured the word “Bitch” with a cross in the place of the letter T.
Not everyone appreciates the joke; Lehman’s original guitarist for the performance quit because he found it offensive. But the exorcism is a serious one. “I’m not afraid to say it: I’m crucifying my fear of Christianity,” Lehman says. “So when I say 33 years of insecurities, it’s 33 years of me hiding myself — not even so much about my sexuality but about my sensibilities and ability to speak for myself and my ability to just say no.”
“All of it,” he adds. “I’m just going to shed it all.”
Growing up black and gay in Texas was a struggle for Lehman, who was “conceived in a Cutlass” by two drug dealers and raised by a grandmother who owned a restaurant. He says he got “beat up” in his youth — not physically but emotionally — by friends, family and even himself. “From the day we were born, boys were given blue and girls were given pink,” he says. As a child he was feminine, preferring to play with girls rather than boys and singing along to pop songs. “I was never in the closet,” he says with a laugh. But even at a young age he felt as though he was being judged: “Your family says that you’re ‘different,’ but then you’re out in public and they’re talking about you — your own mother.”
He faced the same treatment from his peers: His grandmother dressed him all the way through middle school, and when he got to buy his own clothes for his first day of high school — JNCO jeans and a tight, polyester shirt — the other students laughed at him. Being accepted wasn’t even the battle. Lehman felt as though he had to prove himself — by being in bands or pageants or excelling any way he could — simply to be treated like a person: “I made sure I’d show them I was smart, that I could at least do something else,” he remembers. “They’d be like, ‘Oh, he’s gay but he’s talented.’”
Lehman found some degree of acceptance in a group that called themselves “The Brick Clique,” who would get together to sing Aaliyah and Destiny’s Child and dress up for their own pageants at each other’s houses. Late at night, they would sneak off to clubs like The Brick. “My grandmother put a bell on the door,” he remembers, to try to prevent him from sneaking in undetected. But even then he felt conflicted, never completely comfortable in his own skin. “I always felt I was doing something wrong,” he says.
While he was out at the clubs, Lehman was exposed to the elaborate lives of drag queens. He soaked up the performances of queens such as Jody Malone, Shaniya and Narcisse, people who went “all or nothing” and brought caddies along to pick up the money people threw at them. “It takes a lot of balls to be a drag queen,” says Lehman. “Oh my God, the queens are judgmental, baby. You don’t want to walk in and not be ready to get served. If you want to do what you’re going to do, you better go get it.”
A self-described “band geek” through his middle school and high school years, Lehman seemed to have found an escape from all of his self-laceration when he went to Florida A&M to study music education. “I was in a band in college, I was a musician, I was great at everything,” he remembers. But during his junior year the bottom fell out: Lehman had to drop out because his family could no longer afford to pay for his schooling. He came home to Texas and gave up on his musical dreams. He took a corporate job and, driven by guilt, sang only praise and worship songs at his church. “I lost my soul for a minute,” he says. “I was so upset about being gay, I lost everything.”
That was Lehman’s life for the next four years, but when he was 26, he finally began to turn a corner. He quit his corporate job and began working as a server in Addison. A couple of his friends allowed him to live on their couch for the better part of a year, and he spent his free time writing — “my thoughts, what I wanted to do, what I wanted to achieve.” Soon he felt the urge to perform again, and with the help of one of his roommates’ boyfriend he began to play music, singing in clubs in downtown Dallas. “Once I was feeling confident musically, I started feeling confident sexually and humanly,” Lehman says. “Music has always been my shield.”
Lehman was able to earn a living playing in bands such as Top 40 cover act Emerald City, singing at weddings and doing voice overs. Then he heard Erykah Badu’s Worldwide Underground Pt. 1 and saw the video for her song “Honey,” an homage to different albums that had inspired her, and tracked down every record in the video.
“I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to play dance music, but I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do that because I’m already gay. Nobody’s going to buy my music already,’” he says. If Lehman was ever going to find fulfillment playing music, he needed to let go and play the dance music he yearned for.
So he became Dezi 5, an R&B and pop singer with a knack for over-the-top showmanship. While he doesn’t go as far as full-on drag, he dresses up in fishnets or leather jump suits and sings lavish, original pop songs inspired by Lady Gaga and Grace Jones. “Lose Control,” the first single that Lehman released as Dezi 5 earlier this year, celebrates his newfound sense of freedom with all the sass and outlandishness he can muster. A mix of window-rattling beats and bleary-eyed synth, it’s an ode to losing (and finding) yourself in the club, reveling in decadence and low-class thrills. As “Dallas, Bitch,” another song due to be released on Crucifixion on the Dance Floor, makes clear, it’s all rooted in a populist vision, one that’s tied to Lehman’s deep love for the city.
Now Lehman hopes he can use his music to inspire others who wrestle with the same guilt and self-doubt that held him down for years. No one else in Dallas is doing what he does: The few gay bars that do feature live music, such as Alexandre’s, are more traditional. “The music they play is jazz and blues and a little classic rock here and there,” Lehman says. That music is a far cry from the dance music played in popular clubs such as Round-Up and Station 4. “There are so many talented gay people out there,” Lehman says, but there are exceedingly few examples for them to follow in Dallas. Lehman, motivated by gay fans who’ve said his music inspired them to be creative, hopes to be just that.
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But, as the Public Trust show demonstrates, Lehman doesn’t limit his message to the gay bars and clubs. The message, and his talents, are more universal than that. “Everybody has insecurities they need to crucify to progress,” he says. If hanging himself on a cross is what it takes to get people to let go and dance away their inhibitions, he’s more than ready to make the sacrifice. “I’m hood. I’m classy. I’m gay,” Lehman says. Then, letting out an uproarious cackle: “I’m Dallas!”