by Jewly Hight
Consider for a moment the ingredients that yield successful contemporary Christian music acts—a personal statement of faith, blatantly Christian lyrics, some measure of talent, knowing the right people and a pinch of luck. But what if the group in question happens to be openly gay?
Both The Indigo Girls and George Michael invoked the name of the Christian Savior to comment on human love in songs such as “Hey Jesus” and “Jesus to a Child,” while Rufus Wainwright scandalized with his overtly sexual song “Gay Messiah.” Because of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community’s alienation from evangelical Christianity, the thought of its members voicing Christian orthodoxy has been entirely unexpected, even offensive to some. But now members of Nashville’s GLBT community are making unapologetically Christian music.
A couple of weeks ago, six men clad in stylish black and white gathered around four microphones and belted out a song by African American R&B gospel diva Yolanda Adams. Nailing close harmonies, taking brassy, syncopated solos and subtly swaying their hips, Jeremy Ryan, Brian Copeland, Steve Baggett, Michael Popham, Josh Johnson and Jeremy Lee, all members of the gay gospel group Willing Grace, delivered their blue-eyed soul rendition of “Victory” to an appreciative audience in the Blair School of Music’s jam-packed Ingram Auditorium during Pride Fest’s Spirituality Night.
“It is so refreshing, because you’re singing the music that you love so much—six-part harmony, big belting gospel numbers,” gushes Ryan, who is also a solo artist and a co-host of the bi-monthly WTVF-Channel 5 GLBT news program Out and About Today. “When you come from where you thought you would never ever get to experience that music on any level, unless it was in your car with the CD blaring—and then you’re actually getting to perform it for people—it is so refreshing. It’s like, ‘Oh my God. Thank you so much. I get to do what I love to do.’ ”
The members of Willing Grace (a tongue-in-cheek reference to the TV show Will & Grace) all attend Covenant of the Cross, a rapidly growing affirming church—one that isn’t strictly comprised of GLBT attendees, but that welcomes people of all races and sexual orientations—based in Madison. They often sing during church services, and they’ve been known to orchestrate impressive song-and-dance routines for The Chute’s monthly Gospel Night.
Ryan’s story documents the distress that goes along with being a gay Christian artist. His 26 years have been deeply conflicted—Pentecostal Kentucky upbringing, a lifelong desire to perform religious music, a conservative Christian college experience, an internal wrestling match over being gay, relocation to Nashville to pursue a CCM career and a headfirst collision with an industry that is unfriendly to his sexual orientation.
“In the Christian music industry, they see it in three phases,” says Copeland, who declined to discuss his industry background. “You’re either straight, you’re gay or you’re gay but you’re not practicing. You have those tendencies, but, oh, as long as you walk that straight and narrow path, hallelujah, it’s OK.”
Copeland is preparing to launch a GLBT faith-based record label in Nashville—the first of its kind—complete with savvy marketing, booking, publishing and national distribution. The plan is for Ryan, who plays piano and writes his own material, to be the first signing.
“There’s nothing there for the GLBT audiences that want blatantly Christian lyrics,” Copeland explains. “I see a need for people who don’t compromise their Christianity just because they’re gay. There are people out there like Jeremy, like [Los Angeles-based duo] Jason and DeMarco, who have a message to say, but just nowhere to accept them. I would argue there is a place for it; there is a place for this type of label out there.”
Others are also blending the strange bedfellows of homosexuality and Christian music. TRiLiGi is a gospel group comprised of Steve Morris, Daniel Vincent and Bob Allen, all of whom are gay and attend Holy Trinity Community Church, a Nashville-based congregation. In addition to appearing at The Chute and at the Lipstick Lounge’s Gospel Brunch, the trio has sung at denominational events and opened for established Southern gospel acts at the Grand Ole Gospel Café. An independent album is on the way.
“We don’t necessarily advertise [ourselves] as a gay gospel group, though we’ve been labeled that many times over,” says Vincent, who grew up singing in a Pentecostal church. “We’re a Christian singing group. The three of us just all happen to be gay. No, we’re not going to hide it, and, yes, that will be more and more of an issue as time goes on, if we get more visibility. Media likes to peg you. They want to put a stamp on you, and we’ll probably end up being ‘that gay gospel group.’ ”
The Christian music genre is, by definition, message-oriented and rife with faith references. Gay Christian music is no different, though these artists feel they have an added responsibility—more spiritual than political—to speak to their own GLBT community.
“I’m hoping they realize that they can reconcile the two demons, their sexuality and God,” Ryan says. “It’s kind of ironic calling God a demon, but if you are a gay person, God becomes your demon. When people walk away from hearing my music, I want them to at least start that process, to spark the questions, spark the desire to find out more on their own, to pursue what they can be through God. I want it to spark the healing process, because no one is going to have this grand realization. It doesn’t happen like that. It just doesn’t, because you go through so much anger, so much hurt, so much pain. Those wounds, they are deep. It’s not my job to fix it, but I want to be there to help.”
Such a surprising message doesn’t arise in a cultural vacuum. The GLBT community is inching toward greater religious sensitivity—recognizing the significant number of GLBT people of faith, as well as the churches who welcome them—and the Human Rights Campaign, a national organization seeking equal rights for GLBT individuals, is launching its own faith-based initiatives.
Peter Nielson, who is on the HRC Board of Governors and co-chair of the HRC Nashville Steering Committee, says, “Before, it was kind of taboo for GLBT people to admit that they were religious or went to church because of the connotation that religion is against GLBT people, which isn’t correct. With this initiative, people are realizing that, ‘My friends are going to church, and this isn’t a bad thing, and there are affirming denominations.’ So people, I think, are coming out of the closet even further, even with their religion and their beliefs and their faith.”
Nashville’s gay Christian performers don’t expect an easy road ahead of them. “I mean, look at what just happened to the Dixie Chicks, and they’re straight women in country, which is different from a gay men’s group going into gospel,” says Allen. “If what has happened to them has happened just because of one comment, you know, it’s real hard for me to imagine the people in the gospel music business not being even more frightened of what could happen.”
“Is it even going to change enough for us to be mainstream in our lifetime?” Vincent adds. “Maybe not. I would hope so, but that’s asking a lot from millions of Americans that are not really ready to go there.”
Still, this burgeoning group of artists—like most GLBT religious individuals—would love to someday receive spiritual validation from their heterosexual Christian counterparts, including those within the CCM industry. Until then, the issue of homosexuality remains a formidable dividing line.
“I mean, we’re Christian music,” says Copeland. “We’re just like everybody else. It’s a matter of getting in there and letting people know we’ve got the same message. It’s just that the delivery of it is done in an affirming spirit. So, yes, we’re going to be our own thing, because I’m realistic enough to say we’re not going to be accepted. But I’m also realistic enough to say these folks here on the other side of the argument need to know somebody [who is doing gay Christian music]. They need to say, ‘Hey, they’re talented. They’re doing quality [music] here. Look at the lives that are being touched.’ ”
The implications of establishing a gay Christian music scene in Nashville, a Southern city that just happens to be home to numerous conservative religious organizations, are not lost on these artists. As Morris points out, “If we can do this here, then, you know what, we could go anywhere.“