Billy Gilman: One Year Later
A year ago, on November 20, 2014, the country music industry received a big wake-up call when, in a single day, two well-known male artists, Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman, came out of the closet as gay. In the year since, Herndon has been a near-constant presence in the LGBT community, attending events like the HRC Dinner in Nashville and working with organizations like Nashville CARES.
Gilman, on the other hand, has kept a lower profile, and has a very different relationship to the country music scene.
In 2000, Gilman, who was just eleven years old, was propelled to fame by his hit single, “One Voice,” which was certified double platinum in the United States. He would become the youngest singer to reach #1 on the Billboard Top Country Album charts and has sold five million albums worldwide. Yet there came a time when Gilman couldn’t get label representatives to come to a showcase of his new music.
Long before he came out, rumors swirled around Gilman's sexuality, which he believes had chilled his career prospects before he ever came out. “When I came out,” Gilman told O&AN, “I brought it to my management team, and they said they weren’t going to bring it up, but there had been so many whispers and comments and they just hadn’t known how they were supposed to handle it.”
They hadn’t known whether to deny it or downplay it, and they hadn’t wanted to bring it up, so it simply remained in the air. “Then I began to understand why it had been a little tough, why it had been so hard for people to get turned on to me in the Nashville music scene.”
The day after he came out via YouTube, Gilman appeared on Entertainment Tonight (which had just the previous night aired the interview in which Herndon came out). During that interview, Gilman explained: “Being a kid in the music industry, you hear comments, or you hear all kinds of opinions. It’s crazy to know that I’m in an industry that’s ashamed of me for being me.”
“I didn’t want to have to handle coming out in such a public way,” Gilman said. “I had thought it wasn’t necessary anymore. I thought we were past that—I turned down a magazine that wanted to make a big deal out of the story—but in the end I decided I did want to address my fans and also to be a voice to those out there who were struggling. That’s why it’s still necessary to come out. I just wanted to help the situation, not benefit from it.”
The fact that he released his video on the same day Herndon came out did raise the profile of his own message to his fans however. “Everyone asks if I knew [Herndon] was coming out, if we planned it that way, but I had no clue he was thinking of doing what he did the same time I was. I had been working on versions of this video for a while, but I kept holding off for about two weeks before I did it. Then I got word that Ty was coming out, and I decided to just take the plunge. When I met up with him a month afterward, we laughed about it.”
Despite having heard the negative messages about LGBT people in the industry as a kid, Gilman says growing up in that world didn’t make him feel oppressed, primarily because he immersed himself so much in his work that he didn’t really know himself. “I was a personality before I was a person! I was busy with music, and wrapped up in being with my friends when I wasn’t on tour, then there was practice and songwriting. I was always busy, and I never really paid attention to my sexuality. I was always more worried about screwing up and getting in trouble with alcohol and that sort of stuff than with sex.”
As his music career cooled, a time that led Gilman to doubt his skill and worth as a musician, he had more time to get to know himself. “I was in my twenties before I really started to soul-search and get to know more about me. Then when I met my boyfriend Chris [Meyer] I thought, ‘This is it,’ and that’s when I really got that love is love.”
Since coming out, Gilman has found a great deal of support. “My publicity and management team have stood by my side,” he said. “I have a fantastic family. My parents never missed a beat. When I met my boyfriend, I fell into such a wonderful extended family, they all just let us be us!”
“The thing that took my breath away,” said Gilman, “was the fans. Fans from 12-year-old kids to 90-year-old grandmas reached out to me. The true fans, none of them went away, and others came out of respect for what I had done and then began to like the music. I also got so much mail from young fans who were struggling with this! So many young people in Middle America don’t have a voice. I couldn’t believe the amount of emails I got from them….”
Within the industry, Gilman has also received some support publicly, and a lot more privately. “You know who’s always been a great source of encouragement,” Gilman said, “and he’s been that way through my entire career—that was Keith Urban. He’s one amazing person. LeAnn Rimes is amazing! Lucy Hale has been wonderful!”
Gilman says he hasn’t really been around many of the people he worked with in the past, so he doesn’t know how people in the industry will react to him. “I felt like people like Reba or Tim McGraw were like my family. I’m hoping that the rest of the industry can come around. I don’t want a parade or to be honored. I just hope we in country music can develop into a world that doesn’t care about your sexuality: there are plenty of people out there who would love the music but feel outside that culture.”
With Gilman’s vocal talent, why stay in country music rather than explore other options is an obvious question. “I adore, and I’m obsessed with, country music!” Gilman said. “Country music isn’t just a way to make a living, it’s been there for me since I was five years old. I stand behind country music, but hopefully in the years to come it can learn to stand behind me again. Country music is the way I write, it’s who I am. It’s hard when you love something and they’re like ‘Eh.’ It’s a tightrope, though, I understand that. It’s a new situation for them, and you just have to handle it with respect.”
So how has his year out of the closet been? Personally, it has been stellar: “Chris and I have been together now for about a year-and-a-half. We just got back from visiting wineries in New York. We’re enjoying life together, and the respect we’ve been given.”
Professionally, Gilman, like so many other LGBT artists, is striking an independent route to some early success. He recently released his video for “Say You Will,” the first solo single he has released since 2008, and he intends to roll our new singles regularly for now. With the air cleared, Gilman finds himself in the position of having “to re-introduce myself to country fans now that I look and sound a lot different than I did just 7 or 8 years ago.”
But Gilman isn’t a kid anymore, singing other people’s songs, literally or metaphorically. He’s found his own voice with “Say You Will.” This new, independent and artistic engagement with country music, he says, is a reflection of the happiness he has found. “When you’re confused and not happy, you can’t freely let music come out. Trying to truly convey truth in lyrics in that situation…? You can be complex, but I was distracted by it. Now that it’s all on the table, there is no cloud there, and I can sing freely like I used to as a kid, but from my own place.”
And even within the country music establishment, attitudes may be shifting on Gilman. “In the past few months, a few companies have expressed interest,” he said. “I can’t knock [my experience]—it could have been better but it could have been worse. I think they are moving forward the best they can.”