Two country singers came out as gay Thursday, an event every bit as significant for their industry as the public emergence of gays was for professional sports.
Singer Ty Herndon announced first. He had an immediate impact on double-platinum country artist Billy Gilman, who, hearing of Herndon’s move, came out in a YouTube video on Thursday as well.
From what appeared to be his living room, the 26-year-old Gilman said: “It’s taken me a good many weeks to figure out how I was to approach this video that you’re watching right now. … But today, actually, a fellow country artist and friend made it easier for me to make this video. And I wanted my fans, who have stuck by me for many, many years, to know.”
It’s the fans performers worry about. “People in the industry – studios, labels, radio programmers – are generally open and understanding, but the fanbase is a different thing,” country singer Chely Wright, who came out as a lesbian in 2010, told the Guardian in April.
She recalled attending a country music concert where she didn’t feel comfortable holding her wife Lauren’s hand in public. “I wouldn’t call the industry homophobic, but they’re afraid of the fear lots of fans have about gay people. So they package us as straight, and we let them.” Why? “Because we all want to be part of the big game.”
It might have been an ill-kept secret in Nashville, for example, but Herndon always shied away from coming out publicly for fear it would kill his career.
Herndon, whose latest album is “Lies I Told Myself,” said the biggest lie he told himself was “that I couldn’t be gay and be in country music. … I’ve dreamed about being in country music since I was 6 years old,” Herndon, 52, told Entertainment Tonight’s Nischelle Turner. “It’s my life, it’s what I do, it’s who I am, and I went to great lengths to cover up that fact to be to be a country star.”
Saying that out loud on camera hasn’t come easy for Herndon, who’s twice been married to women and has struggled with drugs and alcohol.
Herndon said both ex-wives knew he was gay, and that he got married because he felt it necessary for his career. He has known he was gay since he was a child.
“I was 10, sitting in church and horrified that I might be a homosexual. Whatever that word meant, I knew that I probably was one,” Herndon told People magazine. He came out to close friends and family members in his 20s, Rolling Stone reported.
Of his marriages: “It was unfortunate that I had to do that,” he told Entertainment Tonight, “but I felt that’s what I had to do to have my career.”
Rumors about Herndon’s sexuality surfaced in 1995 after an undercover officer claimed he exposed himself in a park. Herndon said he was on drugs at the time and doesn’t remember the incident well.
Today, he says he is clean, sober and looking forward to the future with his partner of five years. He hopes to have kids one day and get married.
“God, I’m hoping he asks me right after this interview,” he told Turner.
Herndon told People attending a seminar given by motivational speaker Anthony Robbins moved him to come out. “I realized I had an incredible story that could possibly help someone’s son or daughter or grandchild’s life not be as difficult as mine has been,” he told People. “Maybe they wouldn’t have to go through as much pain and suffering. It’s time to tell my truth.”
Gilman said he and his partner of five months were photographed together recently by a reporter. He decided to tell his fans because he thought they should hear he is gay from him first. Rumors of his sexuality, he said, dogged his career after early successes.
“Being a gay male country artist is not the best thing,” Gilman said in the video. “After having sold over 5 million records … I knew something was wrong when no major label wanted to sit down and have a meeting and listen to the new stuff. I threw a showcase in Nashville and no major label showed.”
Gilman said coming out was hard not because he’s ashamed of being gay, but because “I’m in a genre, in an industry that’s ashamed of me for being me … I can honestly say I’m scared to death.”
Gilman may have good reason to be nervous. Country singer Carrie Underwood sparked controversy, especially among religious fans, when she came out in favor of gay marriage last year. Also, a popular subgenre of country music right now is “bro country,” which is all about booze, girls and the traditional trappings of masculinity. A sign of the subgenre’s ascension is the popularity of Jason Aldean and groups like Florida Georgia Line.
But the rise of artists like Kacey Musgraves could be a sign country music is changing. Her hit “Follow Your Arrow,” which she co-wrote with two gay songwriters, approvingly references same-sex relationships, and won “Song of the Year” at the Country Music Awards.
Herndon is optimistic. Musgraves’s win, he told Entertainment Tonight “gives me a lot of hope that that Nashville is ready for this.”