A conversation with Marsha Stevens
If we think of country music as an inhospitably conservative final frontier for LGBT musicians, it’s only because we don’t consider Christian music, particularly Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), to be a frontier at all. Yet we are just beginning to see artists like Ray Boltz and Jennifer Knapp managing to successfully navigate the coming out process, but the path out of the closet is generally “independent” music—largely supported by a tight-knit fan base and LGBT-affirming churches.
The ultimate irony is that CCM was rocked by its first major coming-out scandal thirty-five years before Ty Hendon and Billy Gilman became the most high-profile men to come out in country music. Marsha Stevens was a founding member of what some consider the world’s first CCM group, Children of the Day, and she has been dubbed by Christian Century and others as “the mother of contemporary Christian music.” Stevens, now Stevens-Pino, came out as a lesbian in 1979 during her divorce, after nearly a decade as a singer-songwriter in the industry.
Looking back on that time, Stevens-Pino recalled, “I really had no role model to follow in coming out in CCM. I knew of no other Christians who considered themselves gay, let alone gay Christian musicians. For a long time, I prayed that I would die before anyone found out that I was gay, not because I felt depressed or because I ever thought God would stop loving me, but because I felt that I would disillusion so many people! I'm not sure where I picked up the idea that it was up to me to ‘look good.’ But I thought I would hurt fewer people by dying than I would by letting others know I was gay. Even saying it now, it makes no sense.”
Thankfully, instead of giving up, Stevens-Pino let go of her fears. “I finally really prayed that if God wanted to strike me straight, or strike me dead, that would be fine with me,” she said. “Until then, I was going to live an honest life with the person I loved.”
The response was unfortunately predictable. “People tore my pages out of hymnals and mailed them to me,” she said. “They wrote me letters … they hassled my kids at the Christian school they attended. But somehow, God failed to strike me straight!”
Ultimately, Stevens-Pino paid an extraordinary price for her courage. “There was a period of time after I came out when I had lost just about everything I cared about. I lost custody of my kids briefly (in California, where even then they said that couldn't happen to you); I lost my home, my car, and my job, and I even had companies that wanted to stop paying my royalties when they found out I was a lesbian.”
Mainly CCM and its fan base may have mostly given up on Stevens-Pino, but she did not give up on her faith or stop seeking. “It was not until almost four years later, when I found Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), that I realized there were other gay Christians. Someone I met there ran up and pinned a button on me that said ‘Born Again Lesbian,’ and the only thing I could think was that if someone made this button, there must be more of us.”
Discovering the MCC also prompted her return to Christian music. “Troy Perry, the founder of the MCC, saw me in the crowd and recognized me…. He was the one who asked me to start writing and singing again as an out lesbian. When I told him I didn't do that anymore, he asked me how I knew that it wasn't for ‘just such a time as this’ (referencing the Book of Esther) that I became a Christian in the first place. Even the thought that I might be part of bringing peace of heart to other LGBTQ people made me want to sing again.”
As a vehicle for her music, Stevens-Pino founded Born Again Lesbian Music (BALM) and has released a number of albums and singles under that aegis. “When I did start writing and singing again, I finally had that feeling that my insides matched my outsides. I am who I want to be. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing and, miraculously, exactly what I love to be doing.”
And though Stevens-Pino had no role models when she came out, the “mother of CCM” has become a kind of spiritual mother, of sorts, to some Christian musicians struggling similarly. “For several years, anyone in CCM who came out seemed to get sent to me first. I had musicians fly me across the country on a Monday afternoon because that was the only day they could sneak away to come and talk to me. And most of them did feel as I had at first—it would be better to die.”
Stevens-Pino observed that a lot has changed in CCM since 1979: “There's less room for open discrimination and the sheer numbers of artists have meant that some things were taken off the judgment table—divorce, cohabitation of unmarried partners, single motherhood and so on. I think that any time we know and love someone who does things we disagree with, it opens our minds and hearts to different perspectives. For some reason, homosexuality in particular has remained the final stronghold of justified vilification in the Church.”
“Ray Boltz and Jennifer Knapp coming out made people rethink their views that God could not use LGBTQ people,” she said. “Both of them had the wisdom to step out of the spotlight for some time before coming out publicly. I stumbled so naively out of the closet that I didn't really see the push back coming until it was too late to hide from it.”
Change may be painfully slow in coming to CCM, but Stevens-Pino believes it is coming. “I watch the Dove Awards or a Southern Gospel special and wish all my people would turn purple at once, and I still get invited to ‘secret’ parties where CCM stars can safely be out. But we are Joshua marching around Jericho, and the walls are beginning to crumble.”