Saturday, November 22, 2014

Reflections on Throwback/Coming-Out Thursday with Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman

It's been such a gay week. In some ways, it feels like my career suddenly came full circle, and it had everything to do with Thursday's coming-out announcements of two retro country stars, Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman.

I'll get to why in a moment, but first, let me just say, what perfect timing! A day or two before Ty and Billy both came out, I turned in my latest Huffington Post essay. Title: "Why I Hope One Direction's Harry Styles Is Really Straight."

Also, there's the gay-country-singer-with-a-bratty-but-(surprisingly) talented- wife storyline on the ABC nighttime soap Nashville. It's currently my favorite arc on the show, and it's the most timely one, too, with the reality-TV angle and all. Too bad it's spent most of each episode on the backburner this season.

It's such a perfect cautionary tale about the dangers of being gay in country music. It hurts my soul that the first music l genre I ever loved, one that has been a part of my life for as long as I've been able to mangle a tune, doesn't have much use for me or my kind.

The reason why Ty's and Billy's coming outs make me feel as if my career has come full circle, though, has nothing to do with a fictional prime-time character or homophobia in country music. It has everything to do with how both Ty and Billy factored into my career at key stages in it.

One of the most memorable stories I worked on during my early years as a staff reporter at People magazine was the one we did on Ty Herndon's arrest for allegedly soliciting sex from a male undercover cop. At the time, I remember wishing that the implications of the story might be true. I so wanted Ty to just come out already.

It had nothing to do with political or social concerns. I was in my early 20s at the time, and when it came to sexuality, I didn't really think much about the world outside my bedroom. Not yet. I wanted Ty to be gay because I secretly fantasized about going to Nashville to interview him, falling in love and living happily ever after with one of the hunkiest guys on the country charts. It seems pretty silly now that I look back on it, but I've always had a weakness for that slow southern style, and it's not like country music was overflowing with eye-candy bachelors who were eligible for me.

While I firmly believe we all should have complete control over when we come out, and yes, better late than never, I'm going to hold my applause for Ty -- or keep it muted. It's disappointing that he had to wait until age 52 to publicly declare himself "an out, proud and happy gay man."

It's a shame that he had to go through two marriages to women. It's too bad he had to spend as much time as he did living behind a curtain, though from what I've read, he's been pretty much out in his private life for a while. He says he realized that he had an important story to share five years ago, so why did it take him five years to share it?

I'd be more likely to extol his courage if he were still in his commercial heyday and therefore was risking a hot career by publicly coming out. As it is, Ty's chart peak is nearly two decades behind him. So when he made his announcement, ironically enough, in People magazine, my old alma mater (like I said, full circle), I was more impressed by how great he looks than by his belated coming out. Sadly, I still don't have a shot with him. He's taken.

I never had any designs on Billy Gilman. After all, I met him when I was an editor at Teen People, and he was only 12. I'll never forget the time he visited the Teen People offices with his publicist and mom. He was such a sweet, chatty tween. Before he treated my colleagues and me to a live performance of his then-hit "One Voice," he spent some time hanging out with the entertainment department.

Two things about Billy stand out in my mind to this day. First of all, he was obsessed with the movie Arthur, which I found pretty odd for a 12 year old. Dudley Moore was never a tween sensation, and the movie was released nearly a decade before Billy was born. I was surprised he didn't belt out the chorus from "Arthur's Theme" right then and there.

The second thing that stood out was how he took an immediate and particular liking to me. At the end of the visit, he even invited me to a Broadway performance of Reba McEntire in Annie Get Your Gun that he was going to that evening. I politely declined because as nice a kid as he was, I wasn't really interested in socializing with a 12 year old. When he left, my colleagues joked that the little boy had asked me out.

I think we were all pretty sure Billy would turn out to be gay. I'm not saying that Billy knew he was gay back then, or suggesting that he secretly wanted me. What I am saying is that he must have known a kindred spirit when he saw one.

Although Billy credited Ty Herndon with giving him the courage to come out, I love that he did it a quarter of a century earlier, so to speak. I also love that like a true post-millennial, he didn't release a public statement through his publicist but rather came out via a YouTube video. I also love that he referred to his boyfriend of five months as his "partner."

I know. That's so 26. But it confirms something else I suspected when he was 12. I always had a feeling he'd grow up to be a great guy and an unjaded romantic. Welcome to the party, Billy.

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