(L-R) Ty Herndon, Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Luke Bryan and Chely Wright
(L-R) Ty Herndon, Carrie Underwood, Kacey Musgraves, Luke Bryan and Chely Wright
Getty Images; Design by Jessica Xie

A New Frontier: How Country Music Is Openly Embracing the LGBTQ Community in the Modern Age

by Stephen Daw
June 14, 2018, 2:35pm EDT

In January 2017, CMT host Cody Alan decided that after years of hiding his true self, it was time for him to come out of the closet. But his decision to do so was filled with uncertainty -- how would the world respond to an openly gay country music TV and radio personality? “I just didn't know what to expect, what people would say or what they would do,” Alan tells Billboard. “I had doubts and fears that this would change completely afterward.”

On January 17 of last year, a day Alan says “I will never forget,” the star posted a photo of himself on Instagram, revealing to his fans that he was gay. “This is not a choice I made, but something I've known about myself my whole life,” he wrote. “Through life's twists and turns, marriage, divorce, fatherhood, successes, failures - I've landed on this day, a day when I'm happier and healthier than I’ve ever been.”

 

2017. As we start a new year, there is something I want to share with you. You see, I’m gay. This is not a choice I made, but something I've known about myself my whole life. Through life's twists and turns, marriage, divorce, fatherhood, successes, failures - I've landed on this day, a day when I'm happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. And I’m finally comfortable enough for everyone to know this truth about me. Thanks for following me and supporting me over the years. As we continue our journey, I hope this news won't change how you see me. I’m still the same Cody I always was. You just know a little more about me now. My hope for the future is to live the most honest, authentic, loving, and open life possible. Here's to being happy with yourself, no matter who you are, who you love, where you come from, or what cards life has dealt you. Thanks again. With much heart, Cody

A post shared by Cody Alan (@codyalan) on

A year and a half later, Alan stood onstage in front of nearly 2,000 screaming fans as an out and proud country celebrity, hosting the third annual Concert for Love & Acceptance in Nashville. The crowd was there to celebrate LGBTQ culture, country music, and how they intersect.

Over the last decade, the country music industry has been under a quiet shift toward greater diversity and acceptance of queer artists and fans from around the globe. From international country phenomenons singing lyrics about loving who you want to love to smaller artists embracing their identities as queer people, the genre has become a place where acceptance is the new standard.

There have been a series of what GLAAD’s vice president of programs Zeke Stokes calls “watershed moments” in the genre’s move toward acceptance, starting back with country singer Chely Wright’s decision to come out of the closet in 2007. Stokes says that her decision to be open with her fans and her collaborators allowed other people to feel like they could find the bravery to do the same, all while risking her career to do so.

“[Chely] sort of burst the door open by coming out herself a decade ago,” Stokes says. “I think looking from the outside in, she paid a price for that about a decade ago, but someone had to go first.”

What came after was a series of moments that showed the slow progress of the country community toward being a place of acceptance for all: country star Ty Herndon officially came out in 2014 to an open embrace from the country community, including artists like Reba McEntire; Carrie Underwood tweeted out her unequivocal support of marriage equality back in 2015; Cody’s coming out as a TV and radio star became a shared moment of love from a number of big names in the community, including Dierks Bentley, Toby Keith and Little Big Town. Today, there are a slew of country music artists who identify as LGBTQ, including Herndon, Wright, Brandy Clark, Billy Gilman and many more. 

“In 2018, things are changing,” country star and “The Middle” singer Maren Morris wrote in her recent love letter to the LGBTQ community. “Walls are coming down, tolerance has turned to acceptance and incandescent support. However many revolutions we get around the sun, we’re all here to love and be loved.

Sugarland’s frontwoman Jennifer Nettles said in a recent interview with Pride Source that her band’s new record, Bigger, is meant to champion their LGBTQ fans. “When you hear those messages of self-love and of inclusion on this record, absolutely the LGBTQA community was on our minds when we were writing this," she said.

But one moment in particular became a national headline for weeks after its release — country superstar Kacey Musgraves released her smash-hit song “Follow Your Arrow” in March 2013 from her major-label debut album Same Trailer, Different Park. The lyrics of the chorus unequivocally support the idea of queer romance in a song about being true to yourself, as Musgraves sang “Kiss lots of boys/ Or kiss lots of girls/ If that's something you're into.”

Out country songwriter Shane McAnally worked extensively with Musgraves on her debut record, and says that when the two were working on the song, no one had any idea that they would be creating a stir within the community thanks to these lyrics. “Because we're in country music, that became the focus because people were so surprised by the lyric,” he says. “And I think we were surprised that they were surprised.”

But McAnally says that “Follow Your Arrow” did more than just put Kacey on the map — the songwriter says that Kacey’s open-armed embrace of her LGBTQ fans, followed by its mainstream success, allowed other country artists like Luke Bryan to see that they could approach their fans in the same way. Bryan’s latest hit, “Most People Are Good,” features a lyric where he preaches for acceptance, singing “I believe you love who you love/ Ain't nothing you should ever be ashamed of.”

“What does have to be acknowledged is that because Kacey was able to do what she did, it then gave someone like Luke Bryan the idea to follow, and he has such a bigger platform,” McAnally says. “His message is truly speaking to people that may never have heard ‘Follow Your Arrow,’ and that is great! That's the point of this sort of social change.”

Stokes and Alan also point to events like GLAAD’s annual Concert for Love & Acceptance as proof that the community of country artists and fans is not just moving slowly toward acceptance, but that it is something that is quickly becoming the new norm. Stokes says that the event was apolitical, because the message of love and acceptance is not a partisan one. “They're really human values, and they're values that we all, I think regardless of politics or region of the country or other personal identifiers, see as universal truths,” he says.

Alan says that he was surprised to meet so many people after the event who came to Nashville during CMA Fest specifically to attend the concert. “So many people I talked to had just flown in from Michigan or Atlanta or St. Louis or California,” he says. “A lot of people came just for that experience, and I think that supports not only the idea of what we were there for and to say it's for everyone, but also to show that country music really can bring us together.”

For a long time, country and its fans were inundated with stereotypes — the people who listened were categorized as southern rednecks who just wanted music to sing and drink beer to, while the artists themselves were pigeonholed as millionaires in cowboy hats singing about booze, babes and blue jeans.

But Alan reaffirms that those stereotypes don’t hold up under scrutiny  — the CMT host says the country music industry has always been a welcome place for all people, and that painting its fans as a monolith is wrong. “Just hearing the audience and meeting them ... you begin to realize that these are real, good, honest, open people, and maybe different than what these perceptions of them really are,” he says.

McAnally agrees, but says that there was a point where country fans were not as accepting as they are now. The change, he says, came when the artists that those fans looked up to started showing their love and support for a community that was often left disenfranchised by the industry.

A good example of this, he says, can actually be seen on the reality show RuPaul’s Drag Race. McAnally recalls an episode from the show’s second season, when country star Wynona Judd appeared on the show as a guest judge. “The Judds probably have a lot of gay fans, but at the time of their major success, they were very vocal Christians,” he says, adding that those two identities can coexist with one another. “If her fan base saw that, and people that loved her and follow her and respect her see that she's doing something like that ...  to me, they go, ‘Oh, maybe that's ok!’”

There are still hurdles that the industry will have to jump on its forward march towards total inclusivity — Alan says there’s always room for more major label artists to speak out in support of the community, while McAnally says he’s still waiting for an unapologetically and already-out country superstar to step into mainstream success, a la Troye Sivan or Sam Smith in the pop music world.

But Alan says that gradual progress is just as good as overnight change. “It's kind of an evolution, not a revolution,” he says. “It's been this evolving and changing of hearts and minds over time, and I think that sort of allows people like me to feel more comfortable to say who we are and who we love, to express ourselves openly and honestly.”