For all the “liberal Hollywood values” associated with the entertainment industry, it certainly has its share of homophobia. Music is performed by people, after all, and any segment of the population is bound to demonstrate both the good and the bad. Of all the genres of the music industry, Country music has the most conservative traditions and the most entrenched homophobia. Despite this, there are some out and proud Country performers, blazing trails into historically hostile territory.
Doug Stevens, who performs with the aptly named Out Band, formed the Lesbian and Gay Country Music Association in 1998. The organization is little known, sadly, but does host tours regularly and provide outreach to performers needing support. Stevens has been out his whole career, perhaps accounting for his relatively low profile. Stevens is a powerful force for good and a strong voice for LGBT equality in Country music.
Chely Wright is equally amazing. Not only did this rising Country star recently come out, she had a very public wedding and acknowledges her role as an advocate. She stars in the documentary Wish Me Away and tours the country with the film talking about being an out lesbian in country music. Wright is brave, self-effacing, and witty as well as being a talented musician. Let’s hope her bold approach will not damage her success.
Another remarkable out Country performer is Canadian Drake Jensen. Not only did he come out, he included his husband in a recent video. This is a very bold move for the genre. He also added an anti-bullying message to the YouTube version of the video. Jensen received the Coup de Chapeau (Hats Off) award from the Fondation Emergence in Montreal for his contribution to the fight against homophobia. The last recipient was Lady Gaga for Born This Way.
Honorable mention goes to the amazing kd lang. She came out publicly in 1992, one of the first celebrities to do so. By that time she had largely left Country behind, embracing her broader musical palette. Lang has long been an LGBT pioneer, and her career — especially in Nashville — has suffered for her boldness and authenticity.
There are also a number of strong LGBT allies in Country music. For every yahoo like Brad Paisley and John Rich (of Big & Rich), there are plenty of wonderful Country stars who are open, accepting, and supportive. Dolly Parton recorded the amazing song Travelin’ Thru for the movie Transamerica and is an outspoken friend of the LGBT community. Willie Nelson is well known for his leftist politics; he contributed a song to the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack and had a hit with the charming Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other). Country megastar Garth Brooks is very supportive and won a GLAAD Media Award for his song We Shall Be Free, which includes the line “We shall be free, when we’re free to love anyone we choose.” Just this week, Carrie Underwood announced her support for full marriage equality, risking a Dixie Chicks backlash from her Evangelical fan base.
Every medium has room for improvement. The music industry, for all its U2/R.E.M. liberal reputation, has plenty of Ted Nugent and Buju Banton to go around. These brave Country pioneers deserve thanks and recognition for taking a uniquely American musical form and demanding that it truly embrace American values of equality and freedom.