The season 14 finalist, who placed fourth in the competition, spoke with Billboard about his decision to let the world know he’s gay, a fact he kept to himself for most of his life, including his time on Idol.
“First I had to become comfortable with myself and who I am as a person. For the longest time I kept that part of my life separate, away from music, away from a lot of things. As I was growing as an artist, I realized I was missing out on so much of my artistry by not connecting the two. It’s easy to ignore when there are only a few thousand people who are fans and know who you are, but after Idol millions of people know me and I’m much more public.”
A series of events in the 24-year-old musician’s life led him closer to being open about his sexuality. “Someone I knew passed away. He never got to live his truth, and there are many people who die young and never get to leave their mark or make a difference. I’ve been given such an awesome platform so why not use it to help, when there are so many people out there like me who haven’t come to terms with who they are or even worse, have been kicked out of their home or who have been bullied or who have committed suicide. As long as this is happening, it’s worth bringing this to people’s attention. Since Idol and music in general have given me an opportunity to reach people’s lives, why not get the conversation started?”
Owen’s decision to come out was also accelerated by meeting LGBT activist Shane Bitney Crone at an event in Detroit last year. “His story really inspired me,” says Owen. Crone starred in the 2013 film Bridegroom, which documents the death of his partner, Tom Bridegroom. Crone was denied the right to visit Bridegroom in the hospital before he died and was warned by his partner’s family not to attend the funeral. Crone is the stranger seen kissing Owen in the final seconds of the video for “Can’t Fight It,” which is appropriately being released today, Valentine’s Day.
Billboard asked Owen why he didn’t come out before he competed on American Idol. “I was afraid,” he candidly admits. “Here’s a show that reaches so many people, including a lot of small town, conservative people, who grew up in the same environment I grew up in. I was afraid that if I shared this part of my life, would people vote for me? It’s sad that I had to think that. I never said I dated a girl or I’m straight, but I never said I was gay, either. I just let people think what they think. Not just publicly but with the contestants, with the producers, with everybody. I decided to keep that to myself. Do I regret that decision? You can’t go back and change it. You just learn from it.”
There was another reason Owen wasn’t public about being gay before Idol. “I hadn’t come out to my mom. That was something I wanted to take care of before I went on the show, even though for all these years, I was afraid to tell her. I wanted to be the first to let her know.”
Owen explained the difficulty of coming out to his mother. “I grew up in a Christian home in the South. In those communities it’s still, to this day, very taboo. People are still getting kicked out of their homes and parents are still disowning their kids. My mother still loves me but it wasn’t easy at first. And she said some things that she apologized for. She only knows what she knows from the community she grew up in, which is very similar to how I grew up. That’s another reason why I’m doing this. I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had in the church, especially as an African-American. There are so many LGBT people in the black church who are either leaving because they don’t feel welcome or they’re afraid to be who they really are. These are the people who are running the church, the worship leaders, the piano players, the singers, the choir members -- a lot of them are gay but don’t say anything. They can’t talk about it because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs. Or get kicked out of the church or be seen differently. Kirk Franklin, who is a huge gospel star, apologized to the LGBT community because of how a lot of us have been treated. He said there is room at the cross for everybody, which is true, and God loves everybody and makes no exception. You’d be surprised at the amount of times I tried to pray the gay away from me or tried to tell God to take this away from me. No kid should have to do what I did and pray to not be who they are. That’s why I think it’s important even in 2016 to say this.
"It took a lot for me to come to this point to want to talk about this. I think this issue is bigger than me. If I can contribute to that and help get the conversation started, it’s really important.”
Owen co-wrote “Can’t Fight It” with Mylen, Nate Merchant and Isaiah Tejada.
“For a long time I fought wanting to be with a guy, even though I was attracted to and connected with men,” Owen concludes. “This is the perfect song to say there’s nothing you can do about that, accept who you are, and when you love someone, that’s OK. It took me a minute to come to the point of knowing there’s no sense in fighting anymore, so I hope that resonates with people when they hear the song. I get that it’s so easy to be afraid in this society, but why let it stop you from loving someone that you feel naturally led to love.”