Are Christian Music and LGBT Artists Compatible? Music Execs Weigh In About the Tough Road for Out Artists
The shows Nashville and Empire have incorporated subplots dramatizing how difficult it is to be out and gay in the worlds of country music and hip-hop, respectively. But if someone wanted to write a storyline with a gay character in a genre that would make for even more heightened drama, they might want to set it in the world of Christian music, where the proscriptions against being proudly gay have made for a complicated scenario.
That became clear as a social-media firestorm erupted around the coming out of Trey Pearson in an emotional letter he shared on May 31. It hardly mattered that Pearson and his group Everyday Sunday (which found success on the Christian charts in the late 2000s) are not household names, even in evangelical homes: His declaration became the basis for a heated debate among thousands who, regardless of whether or not they’d heard of Pearson, had an opinion on whether he was a backsliding apostate or brave pioneer.
Billboard gauged the reaction to Pearson’s coming out among a number of people in the contemporary Christian music -- or CCM -- industry, many of whom did not want to be identified. The consensus: Although many are personally proud of Pearson, none would contend that an out gay person could have a viable career in the mainstream of a genre this driven by theological conservatism. But he may well have a future playing in more progressive Christian circles, although there’s little in the way of a business model for that yet.
Since Pearson went independent and hadn’t enjoyed much airplay recently, it’s not as if the reaction could be measured by a sudden chart drop. But Everyday Sunday songs are unlikely to show up as recurrent on many Christian programs. Program directors have been circumspect. “We and other Christian stations that I know are in prayer for this situation,” says Anne Verebely, general manager of Current FM in Virginia Beach, “and at the time we will not be adding the band's music.”
“I’m a little bit taken aback by how much people are wanting to talk about this,” says one prominent exec with decades of experience in Christian radio. “I think it would be fair to say that there’s a somewhat progressive view of this on the part of individuals in the label world. But there are less people -- far less people -- embracing this in the radio world. How do I say this? There’s no way an openly gay artist who identifies as a Christian will get played on Christian radio. It’s not gonna happen. The PDs and the MDs at these radio stations are paying attention to their constituents, and it’s too much of a lightning rod. This is a kiss of death for any kind of a career in the Christian music industry as it currently stands.”
Says a longtime festival promoter: “It’s about time a CCM artist came out. I just wish it were a more popular artist. Unfortunately, unless this artist drops the adjective ‘Christian’ from his music, his career is over. The primary audience that supports CCM prefers closet living.”
“I don’t know him,” says the lead singer of a Dove Award-winning Christian rock band, who preferred not to be named, “but I’m sure his CCM career is over, unless I’m living on another planet.”
The gay CCM artists who’ve preceded Pearson in going public with their sexual orientation -- and there aren’t many -- aren’t lending Pearson any rose-colored glasses about what he’s likely to face within the genre, though they believe the personal rewards outweigh any professional losses.
“I’m so glad that Trey has taken this brave step,” says singer and worship music writer Vicky Beeching, who made headlines in the U.S. and especially in her native Britain two years ago. “As a a Christian recording artist, coming out means putting your whole career on the line. When I came out as gay in 2014, I knew my full-time Christian music career would most probably be over as a result -- and it was. I haven't played a single concert since. Last month I finally made the big decision to sell all of my guitars, which was an emotional moment. It's not a viable livelihood for me now that I'm out. It's been a tough road to walk.”
Jennifer Knapp, by far the biggest CCM (or ex-CCM) name to have come out, says that “if you’re not reaching the satisfiable conservative evangelical model, it’s very difficult to survive in that environment. That’s not a criticism; that’s just recognizing what it is and what it does. That being said, there are plenty of faith communities are there that are LGBT-supportive. I did not know that until after I came out, when I actually was deluged with churches asking me to come do shows, because they wanted to show the community that they’re not the same anti-gay that a lot of the public perceives the church to be, and they want to do that reconciling work and show the world where they're at. So, within the industry itself, no. But are there churches and denominations that would gladly call Trey and beg him to come and play worship music? Absolutely. I don’t know how economically feasible that is, just in terms of surviving on that alone.”
Role models for any other Christian musicians who might have considered coming out are few and far between. When Knapp came out in 2010, “I think there was concern from pastoral leaders that everyone might run out of the closet in some swarm,” she laughs, “but that didn’t happen.”
Even being supportive is a risk for straight Christian music artists who want to be supportive. “You saw what happened with Dan Haseltine and Jars of Clay a couple years ago,” points out the radio exec. After he made a statement on Twitter that Christians shouldn’t get hung up on same-sex marriage, “people had Jars of Clay record-burning parties.” That may be an exaggeration, but the perception that the Jars of Clay singer might be pro-marriage equality “had a huge impact on the band, even though he was speaking just as an individual and people made it into the band taking this stand now.” Haseltine subsequently issued an apology, albeit not for anything having to do with gay issues, but for using Twitter to delve into such a serious subject.
Billboard contacted several prominent Christian rock figures known to be supportive -- publicly or, mostly, privately -- of Pearson and other gay Christians who’ve come out. Haseltine was the only one to respond. “Trey texted me before the announcement hit the public,” the Jars of Clay frontman said in an email. “We both took deep breaths… I cannot speak to the overall reaction from the fans or industry community… What I know to be true is that Trey has the freedom to be who he is and bring the fullness of his faith, passions, and humanity to every conversation, performance and relationship that he has, and that was not the case for most of his life. We all can relate to the burden that it is to live life pretending to be someone we are not, or hiding things we feel are condemning out of fear or self-protection. That isn't living. When the Christian church doesn't elbow room for people to continue to wrestle with the most intimate issues of humanity in ways that are life-giving, then all that is left are buildings full of lonely pretenders. I hope that great art, deep faith, and robust living will follow for Trey.”
The history of it happening prior to Knapp, or even since, is a short and sporadic one. Ray Boltz was well-known in the inspirational/AC subgenre in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, winning a song of the year Dove Award in 1990 for “Thank You,” before he dropped out of music in 2004 and subsequently revealed his sexual orientation in 2008. On the completely opposite end of the musical scale, Doug Pinnock, former singer/bassist for the prog-metal band King’s X, was beloved in Christian rock circles -- even though the group recorded for Atlantic and chafed at the CCM label -- before Pinnock divided that audience by coming out in 1998. Anyone hoping he might become a role model for gay Christians was disappointed when he later announced he’d become agnostic.
More recently, it’s been Knapp and Beeching who have tested the waters by staying in the public eye after coming out and continuing to make faith proclamations, even as they dropped out of CCM as an industry, by choice or inevitability.
Knapp was such an instant success in Christian music circles that her major-label debut, 1998’s Kansas, went gold and got her a new artist of the year trophy at the Dove Awards. But after two more successful albums that made her a favorite in "thinking man's" Christian-music circles, she announced a hiatus in 2004 and disappeared from music altogether for close to six years. When she returned in 2010, it was with the intention of coming out with her sexual orientation and reorienting herself as a secularly minded singer/songwriter. Before she had a chance to do either, though, she reluctantly accepted a co-headlining tour with Derek Webb, another artist whose CCM-bucking sensibilities found an eager audience among the Christian intelligentsia. Their tour found enthusiastic audiences until the day her coming-out interviews with Christianity Today, the Advocate, and a wire service simultaneously created headlines. She laughs about the “brutal” experience of playing for just 50 people at the stop immediately following that, on a tour that’d been playing to hundreds or thousands.
Knapp subsequently signed with Righteous Babe Records, Ani DiFranco’s label. In her 2014 memoir, Facing the Music, Knapp discussed being “complicit in the segregation between my old life and my new,” and says it was an overcorrection on her part to completely disavow playing faith-based events for a season. Now she occasionally plays a so-called Christian gig -- like the LGBT-friendly Wild Goose Festival -- but mostly performs for mainstream club audiences that may or may not be peppered with fans from the days when she was a Christian pop star.
“I’ve been really pleased with the diversity of people that come to my shows,” Knapp says, “from people who are just there because I’m gay and they’re gay and they like listening to gay artists, to some people who are old-school Christian fans and don’t really understand everybody else around them, to people who have no idea about my history with CCM. It’s amazing to watch a room that’s just not full of a homogenized group of folks, which is what I absolutely adore about moving from CCM. It can be weird. I’ll get an audience that comes in there that totally wants to have a praise and worship session, and then the next show I have a party crew that just wants to get down and cut loose on a Friday night. I’ve really had to listen to my audience. I’ve gotten it wrong some nights!”
What you don’t get in a Knapp show is a lot of overt advocacy. “I think it took a few years for people to feel like it wasn’t some big statement they were making one way or the other to show up,” she says. “Even some more conservative Christian audiences may be accepting of LGBT people but they worry if a concert is going to be a super-angry, super-militant, circa-1980 'We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it' kind of thing. They haven’t been around it enough to realize that, oh my gosh, we’re just normal people, and you can let an artist be an artist and enjoy it for what it is.
That’s kind of why I stepped away from CCM. It’s a real fine line between expressing an interest with a common community and propaganda. I wasn’t any more interested in doing that in CCM than I am necessarily with LGBT issues when I’m doing a show. You don’t become gay to make a political statement. You tell people about it because you’ve got to move on with everyday issues of real life, and then it becomes a challenge to navigate that in public life. That takes a lot of political acumen that’s not natural to most artists, and Trey is probably discovering that a little bit himself.”
Beeching, on the other hand, has favored talk over music since coming out. She’s working on getting a theology PhD from Durham so she can speak to the biblical texts about homosexuality, and she’s a constant presence on British television as a commentator about these and other issues.
“My songs are still sung each Sunday in churches around the globe, in multiple languages, so in that way, I feel like my music ministry is still alive,” Beeching says. “But there was a boycott on my songs when I came out, with people saying that now that I'd revealed my sexual orientation, they would never sing my songs again in their worship services as the songs were now polluted by the sin of being gay. That hurt. And it seems theologically very bizarre, too, as surely God can use a song regardless of the person who wrote it.”
Whether attitudes will change slowly, quickly, or not at all is debated even among the gay-affirming in the industry. Says one exec who attends a pro-LGBT church in Nashville, explaining his need to stay off the record, “I’m very nervous about people on the other end of the phone that I work with and have decades of good relationships with," he explains. "It’s just such a divisive issue in the church, and there are so many things we could agree on. If this is one thing we can’t, then I’d rather that not be the stumbling block in our relationship.”
Phil Madeira, a songwriter/producer who’s made his name in the Americana world after starting out in Christian music, sympathizes with Pearson but also, to an extent, to a CCM world that can’t suddenly embrace the gay community with open arms. “Trey has unfortunately tried to build a career in a world that has a set of standards that that world has to be committed to,” he says. “Most of the people that I know who would probably not be warm to the idea of homosexuality would also be very gracious about that. They’re not the Westboro-type people. I certainly sympathize with him, but he’s in this world that has these standards. How long ago did Sandi Patty go through her divorce?” (It was announced in 1992.) “That pretty much was the end of her huge career in gospel music. Now you can be divorced and it’s not that huge of a thing. But I just think it’s going to be a long time for Christian music to catch up to this issue.”
Jeff Clark is the president of the Wild Goose Festival, an annual gathering of Christians in North Carolina that is so LGBT-friendly, Madeira half-jokes that “you’re kind of guaranteed a spot there if you come out.” This year’s headliners at the fest, which will take place in Hot Springs, N.C.: the Indigo Girls, who had a significant Christian following at the start of their career, before publicly acknowledging they were gay. The duo will be performing a live set one night and leading a discussion about North Carolina’s bathroom laws the following day.
Clark sees the publishing industry as being ahead of the recording industry as far as having a place for LGBT Christians. “There was a whole host of authors who became a little more open to some controversial issues that were simply jettisoned by their longtime publishing houses,” he says, citing one of Pearson’s mentors and heroes, progressive Christian author Rob Bell. “You could argue that Bell’s reach became much greater when he was no longer bound by religious bigotry. His audience was much larger for Love Wins” -- a book that became the scourge of some evangelicals -- “than it was for Velvet Elvis (his un-controversial breakthrough). There may not be the same obvious channels for Trey to be able to distribute music in, but there’s also an openness to development of those channels. This is a transitional time. If you’re Trey’s agent, there’s going to be fewer phone numbers that will answer your call, but I think those who do answer are going to let Trey and others like him know there’s a safer place to be and you’re not all by yourself.”
“I’m sure Trey will lose a number of things by coming out, and gain a lot on a personal level,” says Matthew Vines, a self-proclaimed gay evangelical and author of the highly controversial God and the Gay Christian. “Maybe we’ll see more of a niche within the CCM industry that’s LGBT-accepting, but it’s not there yet. Within a conservative Christian world it’s absolutely still the exception, but an exception that’s gaining ground. People in evangelical circles are only changing their opinions in one direction, which is from non-affirming to affirming. Fifteen years from now things could look really different.”
Beeching says “it’s possible to fund your own albums and rely on social media to spread the word. But major touring still only exists within mega-churches and conservative Christian festivals. So it'll take time to change. I hope that other Christian recording artists can find the strength to come out too. Perhaps a domino effect is possible. The church talks about the 'gay community' as though it's people out there.’ We need the church to realize it's us in here, too, inside the walls of the mega-churches and Christian festivals.”
One thing is clear: as much condemnation as Pearson is getting on social media, he won’t find much overt evidence of it in the industry. That’s partly because he has sympathizers in the business who are reluctant to speak on the record, and partly because most of those who are conservative on the issue figure little good can come from publicly pressing the issue. “They don’t have to say anything on the record,” says Knapp. “They’re already passive-aggressively saying, ‘Well, we’re not gonna say anything bad about you in public, but we’re not gonna give you a job.’”
Country singer Ty Herndon, who came out in late 2014, says he spoke with Pearson on the phone and gave advice after hearing from mutual friends that the rocker was thinking of going public. “I respect the time he took to make that decision,” Herndon says. “In Christian music, he’s going to save a lot of lives, because there are a lot of young people who need to know that God loves them, they’re not broken, and they’re made perfectly in his image. Trey will be a huge spokesperson for that, and I told him I’m glad to not to be alone in (saying) that.”
Herndon took a brief detour into CCM with his own Dove-winning gospel/bluegrass album. “There’s a very line between country and Christian music sometimes,” he says. One difference? “I think country is a little more accepting. I think Christian [music] is not there yet.”
And Pearson himself, who spoke at length to Billboard about coming out (click here for the full interview), is realistic about the path ahead of him. But whatever happens, he is at peace with his decision. "If there are radio stations that want to support artists like me that tell my stories of faith, I’ve been thankful for that for my whole career and I always will be, whether it stops existing or continues to exist," says the singer. "But what I want to do is be honest and transparent and write great songs that are either about my faith or have to do with the rest of my life, just like I always have.