Country music has a lengthy and not-so-proud reputation for being intensely homophobic. Gay country singers were, sadly, not warmly welcomed.
Singing queer love songs was even enough to end careers. For instance, Patrick Haggerty, whose band called Lavender Country, released what is widely believed to be the first explicitly gay record in 1973, ultimately leading the band to fade into obscurity. Even artists coming out many years later, like Chely Wright, said their careers stalled after making their sexuality known to the public.
However, the country music scene has become much more inclusive over the last decade. It’s wonderfully making a quiet shift toward greater diversity and acceptance of queer artists.
From gay country stars singing odes about loving who you want to country artists encouraging listeners not to be afraid to embrace their gender identity, the genre – both its artists and its fans – has finally reached a place where acceptance is the new standard.
So, today, let’s take a look at some of the most celebrated gay country singers – from Grammy Award-winning stars Brandi Carlile and Lil Nas X to T.J. Osborne, who is the first gay artist signed to a major country label. Check them out below.
1. Brandi Carlile
In her memoir called Broken Horses, the lauded singer-songwriter details just how complicated her early life was as she tried resolving her sexuality and upbringing as a Baptist.
Brandi Carlile spent most of her childhood being told that “to be gay was a one-way ticket to hell.” She even had never met another gay person – until she watched Ellen DeGeneres’ historic 1997 “I’m gay” episode, which she recorded on a VHS tape so she could watch it repeatedly. It was then that Carlile came to terms with the fact that she was gay. She was only 15.
Now, she’s married to her wife, Catherine Shepherd. The two are parents to daughters Evangeline and Elijah. In a social media post, the country singer even revealed that she’s listed as Evangeline’s father on the birth certificate.
2. Lil Nas X
When Lil Nas X (whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill) was growing up in the tiny and conservative community of Lithia Springs, he was determined to do two things: to become an entertainer and never come out of the closet.
He once witnessed the pain of people who had come out and saw the amount of torment they went through. He knew blending in would be much easier than risks being different.
“The honest truth is, I planned to die with the secret,” Lil Nas X said.
However, things changed at the height of his career when he came out as gay during the last day of Pride Month in 2019 through a series of tweets and his song called “c7osure.” He admits that his fame has made it easier for him to come out.
3. Ty Herndon
In 2014, the Nashville artist revealed to PEOPLE a part of himself he has kept secret for his entire career: being a “happy gay man.” Ty Herndon revealed that he first began wondering about his sexuality when he was only ten years old. A decade later, he started coming out to close family members.
However, he has dreamed about being in country music since childhood, so he thought making his sexuality public would equate to career suicide. So, he went to great lengths to keep the truth a secret, including getting married twice to “some amazing young ladies.”
Herndon said that Anthony Robbins’ seminar in 2009 sparked the courage for him to come out, thinking how his story might help terrified gay youth.
4. Orville Peck
While Dolly Parton got her huge blonde hair just like Johnny Cash got his all-black suits, Orville Peck got his fringed mask that conceals most of his face and a cowboy hat with an upside-down brim. You might even never ever see Peck without them. “There is something very gay about the imagery of it,” the singer said.
However, there is one thing he never felt the need to mask: his gender identity. Growing up in South Africa before moving to Toronto with his family, Peck said he’d been out since he was little. Today, he’s still standing out loud and proud. Even his music videos are celebrations of LGBTQ pride.
5. Billy Gilman
Billy Gilman – a country star who earned his first hit when he was only a child – came out shortly after Ty Herndon made his announcement on the very same day. The country singer posted a message on his YouTube, expressing his gratitude to Herndon for breaking the ice.
Gilman admitted that making the video was a challenge, not because he is ashamed of his sexuality, but because it felt pretty silly to him to be mortified coming out “in a genre, in an industry that is ashamed of me for being me,” he said.
Gilman also revealed he’s been in a happy relationship with his longtime partner.
6. Chely Wright
Chely Wright became one of the first country singers to come out as gay openly. Growing up in a small town in Kansas, Wright sang her way to stardom, thinking country music would never be able to handle her secret.
She then lived in fear that the truth about her sexuality would destroy her career. So, she guarded the secret so intensely and even tried dating men, which includes country sensation Brad Paisley.
Wright said the weight of her secret led her to the point of suicide. So, she one day decided to stop lying to her family, friends, and, most especially, to her fans. “Nothing in my life has been more magical than the moment I decided to come out,” Wright said.
7. Shelly Fairchild
In 2004, Shelly Fairchild was signed to Sony imprint Columbia and was enjoying some success with her debut single, “You Don’t Lie Here Anymore.” However, in her words, she was “marginally out” at the time, which terrified her manager’s labels as fans and radio tastemakers might find out and would disapprove.
Fairchild then revealed that she and her partner went to great lengths to hide their relationship. They would even drive out of town so that they could walk around and hold hands. Sadly, this was never enough with her label.
They shifted directions and tried softening her image, afraid she might appear too masculine. However, her shift tanked on the radio, and Fairchild was later dropped.
Today, she continues making music independently and sticks with a supportive fan base where she can be publicly open up about her sexuality.
8. Joy Oladokun
Like most artists on this list, Joy Oladokun struggled with self-acceptance. She grew up with parents who were devout churchgoers.
In fact, Oladokun spent most of her younger years working at a church, where she was in charge of planning the music for worship services. However, Oladokun was silently battling inside as she tried to reconcile her faith with the fact that she was gay, which she had been aware of at a young age.
When she turned 22, she began coming out to some people in her life. Shortly after that, she left the church. Her decision to come out of the closet came from feeling a big responsibility to little queer girls like her who are very scared, so they turned to Christianity.
9. Brooke Eden
Brooke Eden started releasing music in 2014, and she got what every up-and-coming country artist wants: a record deal and a calendar filled with show dates. However, there’s one thing she didn’t have – something that’s killing her inside – and that’s authenticity.
Then, she felt she only had one choice: to come out publicly. After all, “how is an artist supposed to be an artist and be completely open,” she thought. In 2021, Eden reintroduced herself to country fans with nothing to hide. She also brought into the open her long-term relationship with her now-wife, radio promoter Hilary Hoover. She followed it up by releasing singles, which she said were inspired by the woman she calls “the love of my life.”
10. T.J. Osborne
T.J. Osborne, one half of the popular country music duo Brothers Osborne, had known he was gay since “before I even understood what it was.” However, he decided not to ever talk about it with anyone.
While he went through some hardships, like feeling very isolated in his early days in Nashville, he found the right moment to publicly come out as gay as the band’s career picked up – and his announcement went off really well.
In 2022, the country duo won their very first Grammy Award, taking home the Best Country Duo/Group Performance for their song “Younger Me.” The award-winning track was written after T.J. came out and centers on his experience of coming to terms with his sexuality.
11. Katie Pruitt
Growing up in a traditional Catholic household in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, Pruitt did not have the easiest coming-of-age experience. When she finally told her parents about her sexuality, it created a seismic rift between her and her mother and father. It led her to navigate complex issues such as mental health and feeling out of place.
Luckily for us, those all went into her music. Her sexuality is just one part of her artistry as she took her real-life struggles and weaved them into lyrical tales, as evident in her songs “Georgia,” “Loving Her,” and “Normal.” These songs speak to all the adversities she faced to embrace her queerness.
12. Allison Russell
Allison Russell has been a professional musician for more than two decades and a key member of various bands – most of which feature queer women of color – including the supergroup Our Native Daughters, a quartet of Black women artists.
Russell admits that she falls halfway of the spectrum of orientation in which she’s been in love with women, men, and trans people. She also said she’s even been in love with non-binary people. Russell is also married to her Birds of Chicago bandmate, Jeremy Lindsay.
While people might think she’s straight, “it is really important that people understand that nothing is black and white,” Russell said.
13. Patrick Haggerty
Patrick Haggerty died in 2022, leaving behind a legacy of his music and refusal to fit into the straight-laced genre. He has since been considered the pioneering gay country musician.
Haggerty knew he was gay from an early age. However, unlike most coming-out stories, he credited his parents for accepting and supporting his sexuality.
In his early 20s, he was discharged from the Peace Corps for being gay, leading him to become a queer rights activist. A few years later, Haggerty founded the Seattle band Lavender Country, which mostly performed at pride and LGBTQ+ rights events.
The band released a self-titled album featuring songs “I Can’t Shake the Stranger Out of You” and “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears.” The album was widely regarded as the first-ever openly gay country record.
14. Paisley Fields
As an openly gay man working in country music, Paisley Fields is boldly being himself as he continues to drive forward in an often-perceived conservative music genre.
He’s released two albums: this includes his debut album, Glitter, and Sawdust, in 2018 and the follow-up Electric Park Ballroom – which is actually a real place, a ballroom in Waterloo, Iowa, where he and his family would go as a kid to take line dancing lessons. It was the first place he felt connected to country music.
While he has always felt like he was no part of the country scene and people like him were not always welcome, line dancing made him feel the opposite. “I just felt like, ‘Oh, girl! Line dancing is gay as hell!’ I felt like I fit in there,” he said.
15. k.d. lang
Grammy-winning country singer k.d. lang stunned the world in 1992 when she came out as a lesbian during an interview with The Advocate, an LGBT magazine while promoting an album. Unfortunately, some radio stations stopped playing her music after her revelation. Lang said she felt detested by the country music industry.
A year later, she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair when she rocked her androgynous looks, as she appeared on a barber’s chair with her face being shaved by American model Cindy Crawford. k.d. lang quickly became the face of a movement at the time.
Did you know that k.d. lang was only five when she realized she was gay? She was also only 13 when she came to terms with her sexuality.
16. Cameron Hawthorn
Country music singer Cameron Hawthorn used the music video for his song “Dancing in the Living Room” in 2019 to address his sexuality to his fans. The music video to the heartwarming ode for dancing at home with a loved one features Hawthorn on a black-and-white TV as various couples, including straight and interracial lesbian ones, dance to the song.
As the video wrapped up, Hawthorn left the studio where he played and returned home to his lover – a boyfriend waiting for him in their living room. The couple then embraced and shared and sweet dance together.
The country artist first came out in 2018 after he was inspired by the film Boy Erased, which tells the story of a teenage gay.
17. Harper Grae
Harper Grae has always been publicly open about being gay. In 2022, she released her EP Confessions of a Good Southern Lady, which centers on her coming out story during her 20s.
It includes the track “Devil Worship,” where she looks back to when she fell in love with her church’s female worship leader and how she received a not-so-great opinion from that young woman’s mother just for loving someone.
Now a mother herself, Grae is using her voice and platform to help others facing various challenges, especially those suffering through harassment simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
18. Tommy Atkins
In 2020, Tommy Atkins made history on country radio with the first-ever hit to feature openly gay lyrics in Europe and the United Kingdom. It is for Atkins’ song “Freedom,” which racked up four No. 1s across the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand. Such a feat definitely placed Atkins at the center of conversations about the genre’s diversity.
Atkins’ first EP, Kiss Me, Cowboy, on the other hand, wonderfully documented young love made complicated by the ravages of homophobia. Atkins said this is his way of making sure that LGBTQ+ listeners would hear themselves represented.
In addition to that, Atkins also founded and is the current host of the trailblazing radio series, Proud to Be Country on ARC Radio, where he showcases his queer country peers.
19. Shane McAnally
Country singer-songwriter Shane McAnally got his big break when his song “Last Call” was recorded by LeeAnn Womack in 2008. The success led McAnally to move to Nashville and pursue country music full-time. Two years later, he scored his first No. 1 hit by penning Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere with You.”
While McAnally appeared to be unstoppable, he was nervous about one thing – and that’s what would artists’ reactions be once he was out. But the moment he did, the country music community welcomed him with open arms.
In 2012, McAnally married his husband, Michael Baum. The two also welcomed their twins, daughter Dylan and son Dash, via surrogate.
20. Amythyst Kiah
For most of her career as a rising country singer-songwriter, Amythyst Kiah was a Black woman from Chattanooga, Tennessee, trapped by her passionate, queer human desires and the closet where they were stuck.
Eventually, hiding herself to please everybody started wearing her down. So, she released the album Wary + Strange in 2021 – a raw, crystal-clear statement of gay pride and Black power. Kiah made bold, self-aware statements about her hard-live experience in the lead single “Black Myself,” where she finally assesses and repossesses her self-worth and self-respect.
Kiah thought she needed to embrace herself in every way to be truly happy and fulfill her purpose in life.
21. Lily Rose
Out and proud lesbian musician, Lily Rose, has released songs that often focus on her same-sex relationships. It is Lily Rose’s way of changing the hearts and minds of many country music listeners – amidst its homophobic reputation.
While Lily Rose admits that it’s a heavy role, she’s taking it day by day. “I hope with my music, I can now show other parents and kids that there is no fear,” she said.
In 2022, Lily Rose made history after winning the Outstanding Breakthrough Music Artist from GLAAD Media Awards – making her the first country music artist to do so.
22. Mercy Bell
Up-and-coming Nashville star Mercy Bell describes herself as “an openly queer Filipino-American woman” who “grapples with the hard truths of life” through her music.
Bell started making a name for herself in the country music scene after graduating from UMass Dartmouth in 2008. Even so, Bell admits she didn’t want to reveal she was gay in her songs when she first released her album. However, it was also the same moment that she came to terms with her sexuality and became comfortable with it.
So, she tried to be more free. “I have no qualms about being labeled as a gay artist. I just would never want it to limit how people saw me or how people listen to the music,” she said.
23. Sam Williams
In 2022, Hank Williams Jr.’s son, country singer Sam Williams, released a music video for his song “Tilted Crown,” where he came out as gay. The music video chronicles his upbringing as a country icon’s son and shows him kissing another man.
Sam Williams revealed that people in his personal life, including the ones on his label, knew about his gender identity. But the music video is the first time he went public about his sexuality. “It is scary, but it feels good,” he said.
However, this doesn’t mean Sam Williams had it easy. Growing up in the small town of Paris, Tennessee, the country explained that he spent plenty of “energy” pushing against his true emotions just to hide his sexuality and fit in.
Now, he is coming out in the open, hoping his story can help another child struggling with the same issues.
24. Waylon Payne
Born in Nashville, Waylon Payne comes from country music royalty. His mother was country singer Sammi Smith. His father, Jody Payne, was Willie Nelson’s longtime guitarist. Meanwhile, his grandfather is none other than country music legend Waylon Jennings.
Sadly, his parents divorced when he was young, and he had to live in Texas with an aunt and uncle who were devout Baptists. At age 18, Payne came out gay, and his family disowned him. Still, this did not stop him from chasing after his musical dreams. Payne headed to Nashville, where he played honky-tonks six nights a week.
However, due to his past painful experiences, including sexual abuse, meth addiction, and never-ending turbulence, his career derailed after the release of his debut album in 2004.
Nearly two decades later, Payne released the album Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher, & Me, where he recounts his journey to live as an out gay man.
25. Brandy Clark
Brandy Clark describes herself as a “late bloomer.” She did not know she was gay until her early 20s. That said, now she’s a hundred percent certain that there’s no gray area when it comes to her sexuality.
Additionally, Clark, being her authentic self and carrying the torch for LGBTQ people, is being rewarded handsomely. She even has nine Grammy Award nominations under her belt.
Today, she’s considered one of this generation’s most critically acclaimed country songwriters, with songs recorded by country stars such as Kacey Musgraves, Billy Currington, and LeAnn Rimes, among others.
Clark was already out of the closet even before she became an artist on a major record label – yet the genre welcomed her warmly. The gay country singer admits feeling fortunate never to have her sexuality held against her. “I hope that me just being who I am helped that,” she said.
So, there you go, the gay country singers who have led and are currently leading the way to acceptance! How about you? Who inspired you the most?
Billy Gilman, Brandi Carlile, Brooke Eden, Chely Wright, Joy Oladokun, Lil Nas X, Orville Peck, Shelly Fairchild, T.J. Osborne, Ty Herndon