LGBTQ+ Pride Month

Country Stars Talk What It's Like Being An Out And Gay Artist, How Far The Genre Has Come, And How It's Continuing To Evolve

"I think there are a lot of amazing hearts in place that are changing hearts and minds, and that's the main thing."

For those of you who don't know, it's 2017 and the country music genre is finding itself more open to and accepting of the LGBTQ community. Most people outside of this world think this particular style of music is full of ultra-religious and ultra-conservative stars, and fans closed off from anything deemed different or other. But, come to find out, that is far from the reality.

"My own feeling is that country music is a lot more open and has a lot more variance in the people who listen to it than we think. There's a stereotype as to what it means to be gay and I think there is a stereotype to what it means to be a country music fan. And the truth is that neither of those stereotypes is correct," CMT host Cody Alan — who came out as gay in January — told A Plus.

"The faces of people who are gay, as more and more of us have come out, has changed. The misconceptions and perceptions of stereotypes of what it means are different now. I'm proud to be one of those new voices and new faces of the LGBTQ world because we're as normal as a lot of folks," Alan continued. "Country music is maybe the most honest music ever. It speaks to people's hearts and real life. And to me personally, there's nothing more real than who I love and who I want to be loved by. And so many of our lyrics speak to that."

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What Alan, 31, says rings true. On the music side, look no further than "Follow Your Arrow" by Kacey Musgraves. Musgraves wrote "Follow Your Arrow" with singer-songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally — who are openly bisexual and gay, respectively. This tune was named Song of the Year at the 2014 CMA Awards and is seen by many as an LGBTQ anthem — something country music is lacking — with its call to make lots of noise and kiss lots of boys ... or kiss lots of girls, if that's something you're into. The theme of the song is to truly be who you want to be.

Even with TV, there are strides being made. Most notably CMT gave new life to the musical drama Nashville when ABC gave it the ax in May 2016. By bringing the show over, the network retained the openly gay Will Lexington, who is played by straight actor Chris Carmack, and have kept following the character's love life and didn't hide it. Not only that but it also cast Jen Richards, a transgender actress-writer-producer to play a transgender character earlier this season. And that's just how it's continuing to show the LGBTQ community, and not even touching on how it's handling storylines about race relations, death, and other important topics.

"I think there's a lot of really smart LGBT people in places of power here in Nashville now and with country radio. There's still a little bit of that 'good ole' boy network,' but I think there are a lot of people in place now that if somebody says something that's shameful, they get shamed for it here in town," 55-year-old singer Ty Herndon — who came out as gay in 2014 — said. "I think there are a lot of amazing hearts in place that are changing hearts and minds and that's the main thing. It's 2017 and it's the music business, and if you can't wrap your head around the fact that there could be amazing gay country artists, you probably don't need to be in a place of power."

For Herndon, deciding to come out after many years in the business was a big deal, but it was something he knew was important to do and he realized that it was time — if only for himself, even if, in the worst-case scenario, it mean he would have to leave country music forever.

"I had come to a place in my life where I made a decision that I would have to live without country music," Herndon added. "It was more important to me to live authentically in my skin and be with my partner. I was already out to the majority of my family and friends, but not out to the fans, and certainly not out to the industry. I just made the decision that I would have to probably not be in country music — and to my surprise that was not the case at all."

Looking back on his decision to not come out when he began making it big — say around 1995 when he debuted with a No. 1 single titled "What Mattered Most" and an album of the same name — doesn't know if he would have been able to continue in the genre that he loves so much. And that reality was something he had to accept even when coming out when he did.

"I realize now how paralyzing fear is. Just the fear of not being liked, to not be accepted, and having the fans bail on you," Herndon added. "And looking back on [the decision to come out] now, I don't think it was silly. I just think that was really based in fear."

Herndon — much like Alan — was thankfully met with an overwhelming amount of love and support with little to no backlash. It's the same for Billy Gilman when he came out coincidentally on the same day Herndon did. The 29-year-old — who first rose to fame at a young age with the 2000 hit song "One Voice" and later competing on The Voice — said he came out and continues to speak up in the hopes of "changing the world for the better."

"I think it's an unstoppable force that can't be ignored anymore. We are humans: we bleed, cry, laugh, dance, pray, and sing like everyone else. Secular finger-pointing I will never understand. I am truly happy that artists in such a stigma-driven town are being respected," Gilman said. "We don't know what the executives signing on to build our musical futures do in the bedroom. What we care about is the music and the opportunity they give us. It should be the same way for the artist. Clearly, the fans are there. Music transcends all differences."

Gilman also acknowledged that he knows LGBTQ people have a "long way to go," but that it's "a stand and a fight I am willing to partake in." Alan and Herndon both echo that sentiment.

"Now there are people you can look up [to] here and say they're OK, they made [it]. And if you're suffering or ashamed of who you are because you're struggling with feelings, I hope that I can be one of those voices to say I made it through the storms, I'm here now, and I still succeed anyway. There is a responsibility that comes with that," Alan explained. "And I knew that when I spoke up that there were probably some kids who live on dirt roads somewhere in the South who know they're different than everybody else, that they are wired differently, and they may be really ashamed of who they are. To them, I would say that you're loved, that it's OK, that there are others like you, and to be strong."

Herndon specifically mentioned getting to work with LGBTQ organizations, and being able to make a change in the world through activism all in the effort of "changing hearts and mind and working with the LGBT youth."

"When I go out and speak to kids today ... my main goal is to let them know that they can do anything they want to do in this town — they just have to be great at it," Herndon said. "If you want to be a songwriter, be the best songwriter. If you want to be an artist, be the best artist. If you want to be a producer, then work hard and be the best producer. Let that be your story, and let who you are be a huge compliment to your story."

Editor's note: While this explores the experience of three gay men, it does not set out to speak to the experiences of the entire LGBTQ spectrum within country music. At the time of publishing, A Plus had yet to receive responses from openly lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people contacted for this article. However, if things continue to improve and country music continues to show an openness to the LGBTQ community, hopefully, the pool of people who identify as LGBTQ will continue to grow and thrive, and eventually dominate in the genre.

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