In 1994, a year after Premiere Networks launched the overnight radio show After MidNite, host Blair Garner faced a crisis behind the scenes. A disgruntled former employee blackmailed Garner, threatening to “out” him in a national, mainstream publication.
“I tearfully had to tell my business partners that, in fact, I was gay. I was crying. My business partner once told me, ‘Don’t screw this up, or my kids won’t go to college,’ and we ended up having to pay a significant amount of money to this person to go away. That wouldn’t happen today.”
Indeed. You can’t blackmail someone with information they have already revealed publicly. Garner, who now hosts Westwood One’s The Blair Garner Show, came out to his audience on Jan. 6 by posting a photo on Facebook that revealed he had married a man, Eric Garner, on Sept. 24, 2016.
Meanwhile, on Jan. 12, Cody Alan — the host of cable TV’s CMT Hot 20 Countdown and the iHeartMedia overnight radio show CMT After MidNite — similarly came out via an interview with People magazine.
Neither knew in advance that the other was taking that step. But both are making a statement by taking a career risk in a genre with an audience that’s considered conservative. Garner took a low-key approach, while Alan worked with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) to enact a more carefully orchestrated reveal.
“If I was going to tell this story, I wanted to be sure that I could make a difference for those who might not yet understand what it means to be gay — or may not know anyone in their own lives who is,” reasons Alan. “I saw it as a chance to spread a little more love and acceptance.”
Plenty of entertainment figures have announced their homosexuality during the last 30 years or so, including Elton John, Melissa Etheridge, Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres. Such sitcoms as Will and Grace and Modern Family have made gay characters central to their casts.
But making such an admission is still new in country. Chely Wright came out in May 2010, and Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman followed suit in November 2014. All three made their announcements more than a decade after they had last been in commercial country’s mainstream with hit singles or gold albums. Alan and Garner are the first in the genre to take the step while at the height of their public reach.
“It’s encouraging that the landscape is evolving to a place where people feel comfortable being their authentic selves,” says GLAAD vp programs Zeke Stokes.
In the not-so-distant past, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals typically kept their gender preferences hidden, fearful of such repecussions as being attacked physically or verbally, or losing their families and/or jobs. Hiding their tracks required effort: They held back conversations about big chunks of their personal lives, sometimes dated inappropriate people to keep up appearances or changed speech to hide genders. They might have changed the pronoun “he” to “she,” for example, or changed the structure of a sentence to avoid lying while also avoiding detection.
“You get very good at it very quickly to where you can do it on the fly,” says Garner. “It’s presented its own share of troubles in that you sometimes have to rework your wording or your stories.”
A 2007 study by the American Civil Liberties Union indicated companies bleed $1.4 billion annually in lost productivity from LGBT employees who are essentially hiding — they exhibit higher rates of absenteeism, and covering up details about their lives reduces their ability to focus on their work.
“It’s amazing,” reflects Garner. “You think back to those early years of After MidNite and being so concerned about being seen with another man. None of that exists in my life anymore.”
Stokes says that public opinion “has moved dramatically forward on LGBTQ rights and acceptance” since Wright came out in 2010. And acceptance is likely to increase, since each new generation is more comfortable with gay people than the previous age group. Roughly 45 percent of adults age 70-plus favor same-sex marriage, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center poll, while 75 percent of millennials approve.
“As we see the country music fan base become younger and younger, and more progressive and more diverse, this kind of acceptance is a natural by-product of that,” says Stokes.
Acceptance is a key word. Alan says he didn’t get any negative feedback.
“I choose to focus on the positive,” he adds, “so it probably wouldn’t have made much difference anyway.”
Garner is amused by the two disappointed comments he received: “a couple of divorced women who thought they were the ones” who would marry him.
Neither lost affiliates because of their admissions, and the country artist community was vocal in its support. Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley and Toby Keith were among a sizable list of acts who tweeted affirmative public messages to Alan. Keith Urban was touched when Garner asked his permission to use a song from his Defying Gravity album, “My Heart Is Open,” at his wedding. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood were reportedly excited to meet Garner’s spouse.
That kind of response makes it more likely that others in country radio will come out to their audience. And while no one said it directly, it probably means the day is coming when the genre has an artist or two that comes out when they’re in the middle of their peak commercial period.
While their detractors may demonize gay people, the people who do come out often do so in an effort to live more honestly.
“[I had] this feeling that I wasn’t bringing my whole self to work,” notes Alan, “and I don’t think anyone should have to leave a part of themselves at the door to do a job they love.”
In turn, they’re likely to make a difference among their listenership.
“The common denominator when it comes to accepting LGBTQ people is knowing someone in your personal life who is one of those things,” says Stokes, citing research that 80 percent of Americans now know someone who is homosexual, bisexual or transgender. “Nothing can replace that personal relationship, but the second-best thing when it comes to making sure that people are accepting is seeing it in the media.”
Thus, Garner and Alan, whose combined daily audience is in the millions, have the ability to indirectly assist numerous families as they face the same issue.
“I hope that through what Cody and I have done,” says Garner, “that if ever some 15-year-old boy tearfully walks into his parents’ living room and says, ‘Mom and Dad, I need to talk to you,’ that those parents will have thought, ‘Well, that guy I listen to on the radio is gay, and he’s happy.’ I hope to take away some of their fear.”