As part of its 2020 Pride Issue, Billboard is spotlighting the experiences of artists and executives working in genres that are not always included in conversations about Pride in the music industry. Here, iconic metal screamer Rob Halford of Judas Priest gives some insight into being closeted in the ’70s and ’80s and coming out on MTV in the ’90s.
Obviously, there have been gay metalheads since metal was invented, but [back in the 1970s and ’80s] we were invisible. After a Priest show, a lot of us went back to working at the Ford plant or a Walgreens or working as a schoolteacher, but we were gay. We had to hide, basically.
There was a time when disco music was huge, and for a lot of gay people and minorities, that was our music. We embraced it and danced to it, and we expressed ourselves with joy. But then there was a rock DJ who had [Disco Demolition Night in 1979 in Chicago] where you went to a stadium and burned disco music. The vast majority of the people who burned that music were rockers and metalheads, and I remember that was really upsetting. It was all wrapped up in the psychosis of “disco music is for gays, disco music is for black people.” It was a very xenophobic expression, with gay people included in the whole mix of things.
[When I came out publicly in 1998 on MTV], I didn’t wake up in the hotel that day in New York and think, “I’m gonna come out.” I was there to talk about the 2wo band [Halford’s project with guitarist John Lowery, whose sole album was produced by Trent Reznor] and I just happened to make that comment because I felt very comfortable at the studio and I knew the interview people. It was just maybe something psychologically triggered in me and I didn’t really understand the repercussions or ramifications of coming out that way until many days later. I count my blessings there wasn’t social media. I did receive some very moving letters: “Because of you, I was able to tell my mom and dad.” And that hits you in the heart. It was tremendously powerful, cathartic and uplifting. All the innuendo falls away, it vanishes into thin air.
Those are the incredibly powerful, wonderful psychological effects of coming out as a gay man. If you stay in the closet, you’re going to lead a double life. Then if you come out, for the most part, it’s one of the most uplifting, thrilling experiences of your life – but equally, you have to be prepared for the pushback. We had a few letters: “I’m never gonna buy a Priest record again, I just burned every album that I owned by Priest.” Like it was the guys in the band’s fault as well that you’re gay, that kind of mentality, that Trumpist mentality of attack, attack, attack.
We are everywhere. My gaydar goes off and on when I’m onstage. I know my gays are with me, it’s like a catty mom, “Where are my gays?” I know my gays are there and I see that on my social feeds and elsewhere, so there’s just a different sense of visibility in that respect.
I would just like to feel that younger gay metalheads hopefully have it a little bit better than we did – or at least I did – as a teenager growing up, when people like me were treated like a pariah. We were horrible, filthy, disgusting abominations — that’s how we were looked upon. The journey is still a very long one and miles away from completion, but we’re not hiding anymore for the most part, and it’s a better place than it was when I was a kid growing up.
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