Why 2014 Was a Breakthrough Year for Country’s LGBT Community
One brisk morning this past November in New York City, Ty Herndon went for a run. He woke up, slipped on his sneakers and headed out for his usual eight miles or so — just one of the ways he keeps himself looking at least a decade shy of his 52 years. It was the same way that he would start any other day – except this was anything but. After his exercise and his routine prayer and meditation, the country singer got dressed and headed to Le Parker Meridien hotel for an interview where he would publicly admit something he’d been hiding for his entire existence in the public eye: He is gay.
“November was a pretty monumental month for a lot of things,” Herndon tells Rolling Stone Country. Indeed. A few weeks earlier, Kacey Musgraves stood onstage at the CMA Awards next to her openly gay cowriters, Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, accepting Song of the Year honors for “Follow Your Arrow,” which, for all intents and purposes, is about having the freedom to get high and kiss who you want, same sex or not. Chely Wright, essentially the first openly lesbian artist in the genre, was still reeling from a record Kickstarter campaign that raked in $250,000, and Billy Gilman came out hours after Herndon. So yes, it was a pretty monumental month. But, to be fair, it had been a pretty rough run thus far for LGBT acceptance in country music.
“I made a lot of mistakes over the years trying to be in this business and trying to cover up that I was gay,” Herndon says. The morning of the interview he was “completely freaking out,” but, after the footage aired on Entertainment Tonight and was followed by a story in People magazine, he finally felt some relief. Hiding who he was “definitely almost took my life more than once,” he says. Drugs and alcohol sent him to rehab — they were easy tools to dull the pain of an existence shadowed by denial. He sang songs about being in love with women. He even married two of them. Nashville just wasn’t a safe place to come out, yet.
Country music, while essentially a genre that is centered on professing the stories of real life experience, has historically never been a very friendly place to be overtly gay. Even as many minds have shifted in recent years, and marriage equality has rapidly expanded across the country, Music Row stagnated. While Macklemore and Queen Latifah led a mass wedding ceremony at January 2014’s Grammys for many same-sex couples, country awards shows are still generally stuffed with safe, conservative humor. Coming out, and singing about free sexuality, hasn’t been part of the program.
But this year’s CMA Awards were different. When Musgraves won for “Follow Your Arrow,” her out co-writers in tow, the online sphere was quick to tag it as a banner moment for gay rights. Was country music finally embracing LGBT fans and musicians? Maybe. When Herndon watched the trio accept their trophy, he cried. “I’ve been in the fabric of this community for a while, so I know all the voters out there,” he says, “and for them to open up their hearts and do that, it was a monumental day.” But really, 2014’s shift didn’t start with the academy or voters. A lot of it began with one girl from Texas.
When Musgraves entered the scene with “Merry Go Round,” a song that is, at its core, almost more radical than “Follow Your Arrow,” she wasn’t shooting for mainstream stardom that might compromise her point of view. She was a transfer from Lost Highway, the now defunct label that became a part of Universal Records, and had once been home to Ryan Adams and Hayes Carll. In other words, more of a place to make albums that might land on critics’ lists, rather than launch its players onto any major-network awards-show stages.
From the get-go, Mugraves was not going to be silent on the subject of LGBT issues, particularly considering that two of her most trusted collaborators, McAnally and Clark, are gay and lesbian, respectively. She made early allies with gay gossip blogger Perez Hilton, was the first country performer to play the GLAAD Media Awards and eventually found herself on tour with Katy Perry, another woman who wove a song out of same-sex lip-locking — the difference being that “I Kissed a Girl” actually topped the charts. “Follow Your Arrow,” despite winning awards and riling opinions, still didn’t fare spectacularly well on country radio — though no one really expected that it would.
“The fact that I’m considered progressive in this day and age is kind of sad to me,” Musgraves told Out.com. “I’m not. I’m just writing and singing about things that inspire me and inspire a lot of people. Country music, especially, is supposedly a genre where you talk about real life, real things. I don’t think it should be considered that crazy.” Amazingly, her CMA Awards win indicated that the people voting – the infrastructure that makes up the bones of Nashville’s music industry, in a state that overwhelmingly vetoes any liberal policies – might not only agree with her in that, but also be gravitating towards a more open era.
“It’s been one of the most active years in terms of recognizing and acknowledging LGBT in country music,” says Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, which is working steadfastly to expand its hold in the southern states, particularly in the entertainment industry, through programs like Southern Stories. “But part of the resistance has been this misperception that you are either a person of faith, or you are pro-LGBT, and they are not mutually exclusive. You can be both. And we’re starting to see an evolution around that conversation as well.”
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