KICKING IN DOORS
BREAKING DOWN WALLS
~ by joel martens ~
Opening the closet door is something that we all must face at some point. Easy for some of us who enjoy a more accepting environment perhaps and more difficult for those who live in a world that can exact a dear price for being “outside the norm.” Indeed, in some parts of the world, that price can still mean the ultimate sacrifice…Life itself… As sadly witnessed by horrifying images of our LGBT brothers and sisters being casually tossed from atop buildings.
Though an extreme example and one that might seem an isolated event, it illustrates a deeply poignant reality for some in the LGBT community. The idea that though we have come far, there is still a pall of darkness behind many a closed closet door and an immense amount of work still to be done in the pursuit of basic human dignity. The dichotomy of it all? Having the concept of “telling the truth” drummed into our heads, indeed, from our earliest moments as sentient human beings; “The truth shall set you free…” and all that.
Rejection and isolation can still be a painful price paid by far too many an LGBT person and for that reason, telling our stories to the wider world is as important now as it has ever been. If truth is the price we pay for living in the light, then we have to pay it.
Coming out in the country world can have its price and was one born heavily by Chely Wright, one of the first to do so in the genre. It was challenging at best and career-stunting at worst. But, as she expressed powerfully, her reasons for doing so were based in a deep concern about bullying and hate crimes toward gays, particularly gay teenagers and the damage being closeted caused to her life by “lying and hiding.” She bravely, eloquently and gracefully blazed the trail, making way for others who would soon follow her lead: People like Ty Herndon, Billy Gilman, Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and most recently, CMT Radio personality Cody Alan.
Two of them share their powerful journey in the following pages: Ty Herndon who first told his story to The Rage Monthly in 2015 and now shares his perspective as an out “elder.” Next, Cody Alan, just freshly out of the closet and learning how sweet the light of day can feel.
HOUSE ON FIRE
I had the pleasure of chatting with Ty Herndon a few years back about what life was like just after his first steps out of the closet. His world had changed dramatically and in some ways, it felt like he was still reeling.
Today, his perspective is that of one who has been in the light of freedom for several years and it shows in his honesty, wisdom and clarity of purpose. All you have to do is listen to the music from his latest album to know this is a man who is comfortable in his own skin and willing to share how he got there…Be it in conversation or through the lovely sound of his music.
It’s a wonderful thing to have a perspective on how it all looks in his world these days.
It’s so interesting to listen to your catalogue and the evolution of your music. It’s like a biography of your process and how you arrived at the place you’re in now. There is a certain irony in the titles too—it’s like you were dropping hints—your discontent and that something big was coming. Is that something you were aware of?
With Lies I Told Myself, I was laying down some hints…Definitely. I was in such turmoil and in the middle of deciding, was I going to or was I not going to come out and that really showed in that music. The album before was a faith-based record and was Grammy-nominated, but it was a real cry for help. It was very honest, though I wasn’t necessarily singing about myself. It was about the relationship with my faith and was the beginning of my journey. There were three albums in my process of coming out, securing my faith in Journey On, then Lies I Told Myself was about believing that a different way was possible and then my full on Diana Ross, “I’m Comin’ Out” moment, with House On Fire. (Laughs)
I love this story because I think it reflects the power of music so well. My sister who was pretty heavily into Evangelical Christianity came to see me many years back and I dragged her to a San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus concert I sang in. Many months later, she told me that it really changed her perspective, because she realized that nothing that sounded so beautiful could ever be bad.
That’s really beautiful. There’s a number one country song in that for sure. (Laughs) what a beautiful change of heart and how awesome. That’s what we’re seeking from everyone, right? I just this week had a good friend who turned the page herself and is not marrying a woman. It’s interesting to me that the work we’re doing out there and creating an imprint of a normal life in the LGBT community and all lives matter, I think that the concept of “Hey this could be your neighbor, take a look around,” I think it’s setting a lot of people free. It’s one of the reasons that I do what I do.
We’re in such a unique time right now. It seems like country music is opening up to the gay community and in many ways, the LGBT community is becoming more aware of the country world.
It was a world that was off-limits for so long. If you think about it, if you were gay and liked country music, you kind of had to do it closeted. Sort of a “These people don’t like me and if they knew I was gay, I wouldn’t be welcome at a show.” I admit it, I used to cringe if an openly gay person was in my meet-and-greet line for fear that they might see through my mask. So, I understand that fear and when I talk to people, that’s one of the things I talk about. ]
Chely and myself, Billy Gilman and some of the new out artists that are coming up have to make a safe arena for people who like country music. There are people like Reba and Little Big Town, and most of the artists who are doing well in country today, are helping too…sort of a “Yes, why would I not want you to like my music?” I like you, please like me! (Laughs)
The down side to blazing a trail is that there isn’t always a map…The good thing about it, is that you get to create the path.
You make it up by the seat of your pants for sure. Luckily, I have the incredible Chely Wright to lean on and she’s always great for questions. She’s five years in front of me in this process and has been an amazing lead to follow.
She has always been so graceful, even in the face of some pretty difficult opposition.
Her middle name should have been Grace. She is the epitome of class, education and wonderful, all of it.
Now that you have the perspective of time, is there anything that has completely surprised you about the process and your life since coming out?
Two things: Number one, the amount of support that I got from straight allies and straight country fans. I received very few, “I’m going to burn your CDs” and “I hate you’s.” That isn’t to say I didn’t have some of the trolls and haters online, which I’m still in the process of handling two years later… I just filed them away. They are going to hear from me, but it’s going to be in love and in an educated response. I don’t always win that fight, but I’ve learned when to shut it off at this point.
Number two, I had no idea of the organizations that were available within the LGBT community worldwide that are so active in changing people’s lives. I knew they were out there, but it was such a surprise to see how much of it is actually going on. From GLAAD to HRC and all the Gay Choruses across the world, to GLSEN and all the other organizations who are out there fighting. Basically just found out about them a couple months before I hit that “send” button on coming out. It made me feel safe and secure to know that I had such strong organizations and people who had my back and supported the work I wanted to do. Those were the two biggest surprises for me.
Look, I lived so closeted and was so afraid for so long that I wouldn’t be able to have my career in country music. The surprise was that I could have it living authentically and have it better, bigger and healthier than it has ever been. You take something out of the darkness and it’s going to grow…And I’m not just talking about my career, I’m talking about me as a human being.
I love that response…There’s a country song in that line. (Laughs) I wonder, how much has your perspective on songwriting changed since coming out?
I think I pretended to be a writer until I came out. I was writing about other people’s lives and afraid to write about mine. I was just living through someone else. I was doing as much as I knew how to do then, but basically, I was not being truly authentic. I guess it’s like writing a book, you’re writing a story and you’re writing the truth you know. Now it’s the truth and nothing but the truth, so help me…Music.
I love music for that reason, it’s such an equalizer. It’s hard to have hatred in your heart when something is beautiful. Lies I Told Myself is such an emotionally vulnerable album, it’s a real tearjerker throughout. Perfect for a country album, I guess.
I posted a version of “Lies I Told Myself,” it’s a guy who did a sign language version of the song and it’s one of the few times that I’ve listened to something I’ve recorded and cried. I was almost embarrassed. I wasn’t crying over my own song, I’m crying over this interpretation. It was beautiful.
What’s your process for writing, is it typically a one shot deal or do you return to the music over and over? The emotion on this new album would make it seem like a challenge to stay “in it” in some ways.
Depends. On the new album, the hardest time I had writing for that was the title track. It was very emotional because I was writing about the damage the church did to me. Mind you, it’s the church that built me and that I still love, but it’s about the pivot that happened when I realized that I didn’t “fit in.” When I look back on it now, the emotion that came, was about knowing what a gift it was to not be like everyone else. As much shit as I went through as a kid and into my adult life—all the drugs and alcohol I used to medicate and try and fix that—I would have grown up not being able to change hearts and minds as I hopefully am doing now. I’d go through it all again, simply because without it, I would have ended up in the very place that I’m trying to change people’s minds about. All that was going on…and behind the song “House On Fire,” so those were emotional days of writing.
Joy makes us who we are, but in many ways, it’s pain that really defines us. It’s the fire from which we are wrought.
Isn’t that the truth. Man, I’m going to use that for a song for sure. (Laughs)
It’s the universal appeal of music and in your last album, for me. Anyone can relate. It isn’t about one thing, it’s not just about being gay or straight, a woman or a man, it’s about being a human and getting through it. It’s notable too, that the album is pretty gender-free. Was that intentional?
Yes and no…It became intentional. My cowriter said after we’d written probably four songs, “I notice you’re staying away from any gender…Do you want to do that?” Somewhere in the back of my mind, I was thinking about all of the country fans out there who have stood by me for so long and now the whole new world of other people who might check out my music simply because I’m gay.
The more I thought about it, I felt that it should be that way. It’s an album that everyone should be able to apply to themselves and their stories. That’s what we do in country music, we tell stories about people’s lives.
It’s a big part of why I love what I do and why I think it’s so important to talk about it still. The cat is out of the bag so to speak and it won’t ever go back in…But especially right now, it’s such an important thing to keep getting them out there.
I agree with you completely. Here in the South, there is still a lot of work to be done, especially when it comes to youth here. I don’t want to hear any more stories about kids being thrown out of their churches and killing themselves, which sadly is still happening…Even as we speak. With all our success stories, there are also those that are not. For me, it was one of the reasons that I came out as a gay man from the South, those stories could have easily been me. Coming from a kid who thought that and for all those who think that they are not loved by God and their families because they are broken, it’s so important to get out there. Even at a Pride festival, I might end up teaching and preaching a bit when I sing, but that’s alright. Right in the middle of a party like that, it’s a great way to spread a message.
We are an interesting tribe, man. We’re all learning to survive outside of secrecy. We’ve come a long way, but you and I both know that we still have a long way to go as far as human rights are concerned. I’m not trying to get political necessarily, but if you listen to this album, as much fun as I’m having, there is also some strong messaging in it as well. You hit the nail on the head when you said that music is a message carrier, a healer, a mood-alterer and we use it for many different things. As an artist, it’s so important to me to have that vessel, as well as helping to make people feel good, maybe make them think just a little…
Ty Herndon will be performing two shows in Southern California in the coming weeks. He’ll be headlining the Country Stage at Long Beach Pride on Sunday, May 21. For more information, go to longbeachpride.com.
He will also be in San Diego on Monday, May 22 at Martinis Above Fourth, 3940 Fourth Avenue in San Diego. For tickets and more information, call 619.400.4500 or go to ma4sd.com.
BROADCASTING OUT LOUD
His story is as fresh as can be. It’s just over two months since he told his secret to the country world…And so far, as he says, “The response has been so incredibly positive.” One more bright light is shining in that world and based on the support he has received from fans and the stars that populate that sky, it shows all of us that even in some of the darkest corners in our world, change can happen.
You grew up in South Carolina, correct? What was that like for you?
It was great. You don’t really know anything else when you’re a kid and I enjoyed it there very much. I was back about three weeks ago and every time you go back, I kind of wonder, “Wow, I came from here? (Laughs) It’s a little small now and so rural and the life there is very simple by comparison to what I know now, with so much traveling and living in a much larger city now. Nashville isn’t a big city by any means, but it’s growing fast. It still has a small-town feel, but with a ton of showbiz going on and a lot of business happening. It’s sprawling right now and booming big time… It’s a pretty great place to be right now.
When did you first take your first steps into broadcasting?
It was very early on. I remember as a kid, loving television, radio and music and all the different aspects of it. My dad was a huge music fan and so I would listen to the radio and hear DJs tell the stories behind the songs, music and artists and I just kind of fell in love with the medium. Television as well, at one point I wanted to be a meteorologist and I remember drawing weather maps as a kid. I was a complete dork and would pretend I was on TV and giving my mom and dad weather reports. (Laughs) It was the same with radio; I would pretend I was a DJ in my room and I’d play music and talk about the songs and artists and I’d give away prizes, too. It was all pretend, but I did it until I was in my teens. Then, I got a job at a local radio station when I was at fifteen and it was awesome. I started on-air work then and have ever since.
That’s amazing, to know what you wanted to do so early on in your life. To have such clarity about it.
I think some people are given a gift to know what they are supposed to do and I feel so thankful for that. I’ve seen friends struggle to kind of figure out what they want to do and it’s tough when you don’t know what your calling is. I was lucky to know early on that that was exactly what I wanted to do careerwise.
The work you do gives you access to so many different ideas and people from different walks of life. I think it gives you a unique perspective on the world.
Completely. You learn along the way how people think and how other people’s lives work and how similar we all are. The more I travel, the more I realize how similar we are number one and secondly, how different everyone is too…And to celebrate those differences. We can’t all be the same and in the end, that’s a positive. Everyone struggles, everyone has pain and challenges, they may look different, but it’s part of the human condition we all face.
If you think your way is the only way and everything is black and white, I think that it’s dangerous…And sort of ignorant. There is a much bigger picture, filled with different people and different ways of thinking. Turning that into a positive instead of a negative is something, hopefully, we’ll all learn at some point.
The internet has so completely changed the conversation process. It’s great that everyone has a voice, but it’s often to the exclusion of listening to other points of view. It’s why telling our stories is still so important…As you said, it illustrates our similarities and our differences.
I agree and as I’ve shared my story I’ve discovered there is not only a degree of acceptance, both collectively and individually, there is a sense of taking a step forward in life and just progressing.
For me personally, it’s so great to be a part of a community and to meet people who are similar in interest and who have had experiences like I’ve had. For me too, I just needed to be honest with people. I didn’t really set out to be an advocate or an activist, ultimately I just wanted to get cool with myself, if you will. Then, because of being a public figure, it was about being honest with audiences.
Even though none of us necessarily intend to be an advocate, being out does go a long way towards advocating by default.
I think it was a good thing for me and hopefully, good for others. I’ve heard from a lot of people over the last month and a half, folks who have shared on social media and through emails, their stories. If they felt I was a part of some good step forward, I’ve loved hearing from them and that it has made a positive difference.
It’s such a different world now, compared to where we were, say when I was a kid in the ‘60s. We are integrated into society in ways that I couldn’t have even imagined back then.
Absolutely. We have so much representation now. We have media personalities, heck, we’re on Tylenol commercials. (Laughs) We’re showing up in lots of places that we never have before and that’s true of country music, as well. Who would have thought?
Beyond wanting to be honest, I did feel a bit of a calling to do this. I didn’t want to live in the shadows. I’ve tried to be a good person and a man of integrity and when you want to live that way, having this thing that I covered up for so long, well, there is no way to live in peace. It’s impossible to follow a life of honesty if you are not completely truthful and transparent, with something that is so integral as being gay was and is to me.
I interviewed Ty Herndon two years ago and we talked to Chely Wright back in 2011 and it’s amazing how much has changed in the country world, even in that short amount of time. Have you found that to be true in your experience?
Completely. It’s been tremendous over the last few years, seeing people within the industry either come out and the changes in the willingness to accept that’s happened with them. Even still, pushing that send button wasn’t an easy thing, I had fear the moment I posted that message. Even though the industry and Nashville is pretty accepting, there was still an unknown with a great number of the people who listen to country and the greater audiences who watch and hear me.
I still had a fear about how they, the people I don’t know would react. But, I have to say, in the couple of months since, the response has been so incredibly positive. You can see that from those who commented or posted on social media, or the people who emailed and called. Literally, maybe 20 people had negative reactions, versus thousands of positive.
That’s because of the progress we’ve made and partially because in 2017 we’re living in a different time then we were even five years ago. It helps too, that people like Carrie Underwood and Toby Keith said nice things the moment I came out and Tweeted about it…As did others.
My goal is to have conversations with people and show the world that we’re like anyone else. We get up in the morning, drink our coffee, work, cook dinner and socialize just as everyone else does.
Like I said, I felt a little bit of a calling to speak up, because I did feel there were kids out there in small towns, living down a dirt road who are alone and feel a little different, be it gay or whatever else. I felt maybe because people knew who I was that I could possibly effect them. Just to know it’s not weird to be a little different and that it’s pretty normal.
Posts that I’ve shared with my partner have been so well received, but I feel a little like that when people see that we’re just a regular couple like anyone else it’s kind of cool. A lot of people who know me from my career, probably don’t know many gay people and the more they are exposed, I feel the more normalized it becomes for them. We fold laundry too… (Laughs).
I have had a lot of LGBT friends over the years and they have been so accepting and loving, but there was an inkling of a fear that some might say, “Why did you wait so long?” or a “What do you mean you have kids?” kind of thing. I haven’t experienced that or anything negative like that, but I was still nervous. I really believe that everyone has their process and the timing is up to you. everyone’s journey is different and they have too feel it out in their own way and time. As I’ve spoken more about this, I’ve realized that everyone has their own little journey around this and who am I to judge?
Understanding, wisdom and acceptance, it’s not always an easy thing to come by in this world.
It kind of goes back to that social media thing a little too. It works both ways, as much as we want to be understood, it’s just as important to understand those we might disagree with. It gets lost in this web of judgment constantly, be it from someone’s photo on Instagram, or Tweeting a smart aleck remark, we often judge too quickly. We are all human and filled with emotions that we don’t always understand because we’re complicated creatures. To have a little more love, patience and understanding for each other is just a much better way to live.
And it works both ways, as much as we want to be understood, it’s just as important to understand those we might disagree with. Having lived a life where I have really seen what it’s like to be in the shadows and live a straight, religious life, one that I was trying to “get right with god,” to the one I’m living now, where I feel okay with being and saying that I was gay…It’s been a journey and is definitely a positive thing.
Was there anything that really surprised you about the process?
I knew it was a different time and I knew that people were more open than they ever had been. That gave me comfort and helped me know it was the right thing to do. If in my heart and soul I knew I could be at peace with it, then nothing else really mattered. I felt concern and some fear, I did have peace about letting this go and letting it be, because it was the truth and that’s just it. The truth will set you free…And I wanted that. This has always been me, I didn’t change and I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to be gay.