The Southern Gospel Closet

Writer explores gay singers and fans among the South's iconic Gospel scene

by Jason Yonce    defeatedcreek@yahoo.com
Published: November 1, 2012 in A&E / Life&Style

From left: Cindy and Marsha Stevens-Pino, Bill Gaither and Mark Lowry. Photo taken backstage at Gaither Homecoming Concert, Phoenix, Ariz., Dec. 3, 2002.

Southern gay men, specifically rural southern gay men, often miss the exposure to the arts that their urban peers take for granted.  This is a combination of several factors ranging from public school funding to repression of personal expression in rural Bible Belt communities. Without major concert venues in small communities the musical upbringing of these young men and women is fostered in one of two places usually – band or church. The latter has historically brought Southern Gospel music to several rural communities with many small churches hosting local or regional singing groups, traditions themselves rooted in the history of southern settlers as far back as centuries.

As a musical genre, Southern Gospel rose to its regional prominence through a mostly evangelical audience and during its early years was controversial due to its instrumentation and some of the rhythms perceived as too much like rock and roll.  Family groups like the Speer Family, Happy Goodman Family, and others formed one side of the coin. The other was a cluster of all-male quartets with seismic bass singers and stratospheric tenors.

After a period of decline in sales and popularity Southern Gospel re-emerged under the leadership of songwriter and singer Bill Gaither who launched the “Homecoming” series in 1991 bringing together disparate family groups and quartets many of whom were elderly by then. To call Gaither’s success unexpected would still be a tremendous understatement. Gaither revived a fledgling niche genre into a multi-million dollar video and album franchise. In 2004, Gaither was recognized by Rolling Stone for placing in the Top 50 highest grossing concerts of 2003.

Aside from musical familiarity, many gay men found appeal in Southern Gospel’s campiness. Vestal Goodman’s hairdos, dresses and vocal style drew her a number of gay male fans. Sandi Patty’s gained a Judy Garland-esque following for her operatic singing and adultery scandal. There was the showy vocal styling of quartet tenor and bass singers. Gospel music was now more than a staid rendering of old hymns, it was a fun and involved stage production replete with flashy wardrobe and, whether the industry ever recognized it or not, it’s share of gay (and in many cases “questionably heterosexual”) men.

While gospel showmanship could take one’s mind off the repressive and homophobic nature of many southern churches the internal power structure of Southern Gospel formed a difficult closet for its gay patrons and artists. Wrangling between its traditionalists (who largely forgot Southern Gospel’s controversial roots) and those embracing contemporary Christian music caused schisms in the genre resulting in two bodies, the Gospel Music Association and the break-off group Southern Gospel Music Association, driving the music and promotion of new artists. The SGMA more or less took the older performers of Southern Gospel with it and, later on, the oldies formed the core of Gaither’s “Homecoming” series. Southern Gospel also found itself alienated as its popularity led to the formation of its own awards category at the Grammy Awards and, rather humorously, JD Sumner and James Blackwood found themselves in an audience watching Madonna and Boy George.

In the 2000s this closet began fracturing. In 2003, the FBI arrested a man who extorted tenor singer Kirk Talley after discovering him in a questionable, gay-themed chat room. In a 2008 interview with the Washington Blade artist Ray Boltz, then 55, came out of the closet and began working with the Metropolitan Community Churches. The most memorable scandal came in 2006 when details of a 2002 Gaither “Homecoming” concert emerged. In attendance that night was openly lesbian songwriter Marsha Stevens whose hit “For Those Tears I Died” was a Gaither concert staple. Following a friendly photo shoot with Stevens, her partner and fellow singer Mark Lowry, Gaither spoke to her from the stage during the concert:

“But we sang a song by a young lady who’s here tonight, Marsha Stevens, and Marsha, we have sung that song all over the country and I love it because you may have seen and grown up with a Jesus that maybe was pushing you away, that wouldn’t let you in, and you were never good enough. The only Christ I know is the Christ in that song, with his arms out very wide, saying, come to the water. That’s the only Christ I know. Come as you are.”

This otherwise very touching statement (the audience of nearly 15,000 broke into wild applause) was marred in 2006 when, for some odd reason four years after the fact, a scandal erupted and the friendly photo was released on the internet. Gaither’s damage control led him to accuse Stevens of misusing his comments on stage, stated their photo was spontaneous and unplanned and referred to Stevens’ “story” as a “sad one.”

Cynthia Clawson, whose career was bolstered by Gaither, began a ministry directed at the LGBT community. The late Dottie Rambo maintained a friendly stage relationship with openly lesbian Lily Tomlin. Rambo’s daughter and son-in-law pastored a gay-friendly church in Nashville but when Dottie’s potential gay-friendliness arose post-mortem in 2008 her former manager Larry Ferguson published his response to the hateful Gay Christian Movement Watch:

“I would like to publicly state that Dottie Rambo didn’t subscribe to the ‘Doctrine of Inclusion’…This being said she and her daughter Reba and son in law Dony McGuire DID NOT share beliefs concerning Christian teachings. I’m not speaking of one particular issue but nearly an entire life body of work and ministry. Though Dottie lived in Nashville, TN where her daughter’s church is located she refused to go to the church due to their doctrinal teachings as she believed they were contrary to God’s word. She never attended one service at the church her daughter pastors and was adamant that she never would.”

With the passing away of the older performers Southern Gospel music has found itself in a crisis of relevance. Sales and popularity have declined and new scandals have come and gone. The annual performance pinnacle, the National Quartet Convention, shifted from its long-time location in Louisville, Ken., to the less accessible Pigeon Forge, Tenn., where Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood, hosts a number of Southern Gospel artists. Florida Gulf Coast University professor Douglas Harrison, perhaps the lone scholar of Southern Gospel and sexuality, noted in a blog post recently that this shift in location may very well mark the decline of Southern Gospel as a nationally-recognized genre.

Waxing personal, despite a rural upbringing I discovered Southern Gospel on my own when I was 16. I became an avid Happy Goodmans fan and saw Vestal Goodman in concert at a Gaither “Homecoming” at Western Carolina University’s campus in 2003. Though my interest has mellowed in the last 12 years, Southern Gospel’s nearly two-decade resurgence as a bestselling genre and its bizarre appeal to gay men, has fascinated me as I tried to look back objectively at my life. As I have traveled in the last six years, I realized that the genre’s appeal and audience was never as strong as it was in the Appalachian South. Speaking to gay men as far flung as California and Maine, I have encountered amused bewilderment when trying to explain it. Yet when I became involved with the Metropolitan Community Churches in 2010, I noticed that in many cases the music choices would reflect the common upbringing of many in the congregation. In Norfolk, Va., it was not uncommon to see the music to come from black churches and derived from black spirituals. Farther south, I have seen many Southern Gospel songs rescored and sang by MCC congregations. Despite my own criticism of the power structures and privileges of repressive Christianity I found myself worrying that this phenomenon would eventually be forgotten. There was a time, and it was in my own lifetime, that Southern Gospel music was a form of gay escapism and that is worth remembering, if for nothing else, for its bewildering irony.

For further reading see:

Harrison , Douglas. Then Sings My Soul: The Culture of Southern Gospel Music. University of Illinos Press, 2012.

Goff, James R. Close Harmony: A History of Southern Gospel . University of North Carolina Press, 2001.