Gay country singers challenge how we define gay men — in a good way

Nov 21, 2014 at 6:11 p.m. ET
Image: WENN

Within hours of one another, country music singers Billy Gilman and Ty Herndon both revealed they are gay. Gasp! Masculine, lumberjack-like men who sing about dirt roads and beer can also be gay? Yes. When men who we would generalize as being heterosexual come out, it challenges us to reevaluate how we define gay men — in a good way.

As someone who has always loved gay people (or, as I call them, "people" — yes, I borrowed that), I recently had a beloved relative tell me he is gay. I jumped up, gave him a huge hug, told him how proud I am of him and then said, "Look at how hip I am. I have a close relative who is gay!" My gay family member rolled his eyes and said, "Way to make my gayness about you."

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Aside from an incredible sense of humor and a generous heart, my gay relative is 6 feet 4 inches tall and masculine. You could park a semi across his shoulders. He is systematically tearing down every preconceived notion about gay men I never knew I had. He doesn't talk a certain way. He doesn't walk a certain way (not that there's anything wrong with that). He dresses in jeans, sweatshirts and flannel. He drives an SUV. We have the same taste in men — we both prefer outdoorsy, rugged types. When we go out together, we crack ourselves up by pretending to bicker over who the men in the crowd would prefer, him or me.

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We have regular "date" nights, which at least half the time consist of us hanging out in our sweats, eating copious amounts of pizza and watching movies. Imagine how excited I was to have someone else in my immediate circle willing to watch Steel Magnolias with me! Here again, my dear relative surprised me. One such date night, I said, "Hey, wanna watch that Nicholas Sparks movie with Zac Efron in it?" He replied, "I don't know — that looks kind of gay."

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What! I threw a pillow at him and told him he's doing it wrong. Not only was he supposed to watch hot guys in sappy chick flicks with me, he wasn't supposed to describe things as gay! When I asked, "Why do you call stuff gay?" he shrugged and said, "Because it is."

To my relative, "gay" is not an ugly, insulting or derogatory term. To him, it's just another adjective — just another word to describe things. To me, there is so much beauty in that. "Gay" is just another word to him, just like being gay is just another trait — nothing to make a huge deal about. Because he doesn't see being gay as a negative thing, he doesn't view the word "gay" in a negative way. It just is what it is.

When men like country singers challenge how we define gay men, it shows that we shouldn't define men or women by sexual preference at all. When I introduce my heterosexual niece, I don't say, "This is Kim. She's straight." When we're out, I don't introduce my friend by saying, "This is Amy. She has blue eyes." What does it matter? My gay relative is a lot of amazing things — gay is just one of them, and it doesn't in any way define his entire existence.

Much like Billy Gilman and Ty Herndon, my dear family member is the gay guy next door. As someone who loves this relative with every fiber of her being, I tip my cowboy hat to the Billy Gilmans and Ty Herndons of the world. It forces us to think outside what we think we know about people — gay or otherwise.

It gets us thinking that the bearded hunk at the coffee shop may be gay. The stud in the flannel shirt at the end of the bar might be gay. Half the NFL may be gay. Whether they be masculine or more in touch with their feminine side, gay people (like straight people) represent every group — cowboys, truckers, mountain men, athletes, stylists, florists. The sooner more men like Billy Gilman and Ty Herndon come out, the quicker we can dismantle our preconceived notions and move on.