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For gay country singers, it was time to face the music

Is country music becoming more accepting of the LGBT community?
Billy Gilman
Billy Gilman photographed in 2012 in Nashville, Tenn.

For former Nashville heavyweight Ty Herndon, Thursday was finally time to face the music. The country singer who sang in a recent single “some lies I told myself I’m glad I didn’t believe,” admitted he’d been keeping a very big secret of his own for years.

Despite being married to women twice, the singer told People magazine that he was, in fact, an “out, proud and happy” gay man, and he’d known it since he was 10 years old.

“I realized I had an incredible story that could possibly help someone's son or daughter or grandchild's life not be as difficult as mine has been," Herndon told People about his revelation. "Maybe they wouldn't have to go through as much pain and suffering.” 

Within hours, former country star Billy Gilman also came out in a YouTube video, saying Herndon inspired him to tell the truth. But while Gilman celebrated his new-found freedom, he also admitted his fear of being open about his sexuality in a historically intolerant genre of the music industry.  

“It’s difficult for me to make this video, not because I’m ashamed of being a gay male artist, or a gay male, or a gay person,” he said. “But it’s pretty silly to know that I’m ashamed of doing this knowing that because I’m in a genre and in an industry that’s ashamed of me for being me.”

Herdon’s mentor during the coming out process was Chely Wright, the first prominent Nashville vocalist to come out. In an appearance on "The TODAY Show" in May 2010, Wright famously recalled the moment when John Rich of country music duo Big & Rich confronted her about her sexuality. If it was true, he told her, it would be sick, deviant, and unacceptable to fans. The next thing Wright knew, she was trying to commit suicide.

"I had a 9-millimeter gun in my mouth," Wright said on "TODAY." "I was living a secret life, and I was very much a country-music celebrity … I gave up hope, and I was ready to take my own life." 

The need Herdon felt to hide his secret also took a considerable personal toll. He was charged with indecently exposing himself to an undercover cop after a drug-fueled incident in 1995. And he admitted on Thursday that his two marriages to women were shams.  

"I had a lot of people around me that I trusted at a time and I was like, 'Hey, you know this about me but the world doesn't. So I'm gonna need to call on your services for a little while,'" he told "Entertainment Tonight." "It was unfortunate that I had to do that, but I felt that's what I had to do to have my career. Standing on some pretty solid legs today, so I get to tell my truth today."

Since then, country music has made some notable steps toward equality. This year, singer Kacey Musgraves won the Country Music Award for LGBT-friendly ballad “Follow Your Arrow,” in which she tells fellow women to “kiss lots of girls if that’s something your're into.” She co-wrote the song along with two openly gay musicians.

"There's never been a song more affirmative of that in country music, and it's our CMA Song of the year," Herdon said to People.

"I realized I had an incredible story that could possibly help someone's son or daughter or grandchild's life not be as difficult as mine has been. Maybe they wouldn't have to go through as much pain and suffering."'

In another recent development, country music’s reigning queen Dolly Parton very publicly called out those who are intolerant of the LGBT community.

“I think everybody should be allowed to be who they are, and to love who they love. I don’t think we should be judgmental. Lord, I’ve got enough problems of my own to pass judgment on somebody else,” Parton said to Billboard magazine.

But as progress remains slow, time will tell how these two men’s brave revelations will affect the bigots within the country music world – and their own careers.

Herdon, who burst onto the scene in the mid-90s with a string of three No. 1 hits – "What Mattered Most,” “Living in a Moment,” and “It Must Be Love” – is sober, touring, and busy prepping a new album. Gilman has returned to Nashville to shop new music. But he says that no major record label showed up at a recent showcase.

“Being a gay male country artist is not the best thing. You know, if people don’t like your music that’s one thing," he said. "But after having sold over 5 million records, having a wonderful life in the music industry, I knew something was wrong when no major label wanted to sit down and have a meeting and listen to the new stuff.”

Gilman’s debut single, “One Voice,” was a Top 40 hit when it was released immediately after his twelfth birthday in 2000. In the song, Gilman sings about the impact one voice can have on the rest of the world. Now that he’s also faced the music, will his revelations will make it easier for young gay men and women to do the same?