Queer musicians say the industry is facing a spiritual crisis: Adapt to a new generation of listeners, or die.
Throughout its 50 years as a genre, contemporary Christian music (CCM) has often functioned as a propaganda wing of the Christian right. Whether it’s the war on drugs, Christian nationalism, colonial missions trips, or prayer in schools, the industry has effectively used popular aesthetics to sell a conservative Christian message, often while demonizing outsiders.
This is especially true of the LGBTQ community, one of CCM’s most frequent targets. Whether a subtle jab, as in Scott Wesley Brown singing about “fools who march for the right to justify their sin,” or more overtly in the case of white rapper Carman warning of “the homosexual in San Francisco trapped in vile bondage,” prominent artists within the genre have often peppered their lyrics with reactionary homophobia. For multiple generations, this music was pumped into the ears of queer and straight children alike through music festivals, church-camps, youth groups, and mission trips—often paired with similar messages about abortion, women’s rights, and anti-socialist fearmongering.
But in the past two decades, the once-clear lines between CCM and secular music have been disrupted, and some queer Christian songwriters have begun challenging many of the genre’s long-held cultural norms. This is especially true as a wave of prominent LGBTQ musicians have come out publicly to an audience that once shunned them. CCM luminary Ray Botlz, whose “Thank You” scored countless evangelical funerals, announced in 2008 that his 30 years of attempting to “pray the gay away” hadn’t worked and that he would be living his remaining years with a man. British worship vocalist Vicky Beeching, who The Guardian called “the most influential Christian of her generation,” announced she was gay in 2014, followed by Trey Pearson, frontman of the 90s Christian pop punk band Everyday Sunday, in 2016.
Although some queer artists have found success marketing their work to Christian listeners, they have often had to leave the rigid confines of CCM to do it. Preacher’s Kid, recorded by the queer, non-binary musician Semler (whose real name is Grace Semler Baldridge), quickly landed at #1 on iTunes’ Christian albums chart following its February 2021 release, blasting its way past the mega-church soundtracks. Semler’s music explores topics that would have been unthinkable decades ago, criticizing “fame hungry pastors” and calling out mission trips as “scams” on the EP track “Bethlehem.”
Preacher’s Kid, which flourished despite the support of the traditional CCM pipeline, is an indication of an industry at a crossroads. If queer artists are finding that they simply don’t need the Christian music gatekeepers to live their truth and express their art, does CCM change with the times or double down on hate?
Baldridge, for one, believes the success of Preacher’s Kid shows that “Christian music needs a big dose of honesty.” “It needs to deal with the fact that faith—like people—is messy and complicated,” they told VICE. “I think the heyday of CCM is over. The days of creating a Christian alternative to secular music the way they did in the 90s came to an end with streaming. CCM is going through a transformation and search for identity.”
Hillsong, the L.A.-based, celebrity-obsessed, quintessential cool-kids megachurch whose anthemic, emotionally rousing worship music is performed every Sunday morning, has commonly come to characterize almost the entirety of the CCM genre today: conservative rhetoric wrapped in hipster clothing. Founded in 1983, the church has used the allure of access to famous congregants like Justin Bieber, Nick Jonas, and Selena Gomez to appeal to young worshippers more socially liberal than Christian music’s traditional demographics. A 2019 study from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that 51 percent of white evangelicals under 50 support LGBT rights, compared to only 34 percent of their parents and grandparents.
That divide has led Hillsong, whose beliefs are based in an offshoot of Pentecostal Christianity, to make statements that appear welcoming to the LGBTQ community but only at the most surface level. In a 2015 blog post entitled “Do I Love Gay People?” Hillsong founder Brian Houston said the church’s convictions mean it does “not affirm a gay lifestyle” or “knowingly have actively gay people in positions of leadership, either paid or unpaid.”
This rhetoric is a watered-down version of the homophobia peddled for decades by the Christian right, as well as its most prominent mouthpieces. In the 1980s, CCM often functioned as an unofficial marketing campaign for the Moral Majority, a Christian political movement whose leader, Jerry Falwell, once referred to AIDS as “a lethal judgment of God on the sin of homosexuality.” DC Talk would go on to be widely regarded as the most influential Christian rock band of all time after meeting at Falwell’s own Liberty University in 1987. In 1992’s “Socially Acceptable,” DC Talk appeared to parrot many of the same talking points in a song that appeared to comment on the AIDS crisis at its height: “Times are changin’, with morals in decay / Human rights have made the wrongs OK.”
As CCM grew into a commercial powerhouse in the late 90s and early 2000s, many of its artists were finding the genre artistically claustrophobic and began to spill over into the secular world. Jars of Clay, Switchfoot, and MxPx were beginning to appear on MTV, preceded by Amy Grant’s “Baby, Baby” a decade earlier. Five Iron Frenzy were writing songs that subtly addressed native American genocide and police brutality (which most censors at the time missed). But queerness was still incredibly taboo—and for no one more so than queer artists themselves.
While some straight Christian rockers could experiment with an androgynous or even outwardly effeminate look—such as DC Talk’s lead singer, Kevin Max—many queer artists have been forced to present themselves as conventionally heterosexual as possible. Growing up in Mississippi, Michael Passons had a lifetime of experience in the closet, which wasn’t likely to change when he moved to Nashville and helped found the massively popular vocal group Avalon. As the feel-good soundtrack for every evangelical housewife in America, Avalon was under more scrutiny than Christian art-rockers like Joy Electric or industrial rockers like Klank to be standard-bearers for all the nuclear families that attended their concerts.
“The best way to avoid scrutiny is to have a wedding ring on,” Passons told VICE. “I wasn’t wearing one, and I was almost 30 and wasn’t dating, so I was under the microscope. There were rumors about me that weren’t true, but some that were.”
While he wouldn’t come out for nearly 20 years, Passons was kicked out of Avalon for being gay in 2003. His band members forced him to go to conversion therapy if he wanted to stay in the band, and he attended a few sessions before eventually dropping out. After, Passon said he could no longer find work in the Christian music industry. “We had sold millions of records, Grammy nominations, a five-year record deal with EMI—a real pinch-me moment—and then I lost my way to make an income, had to sell my house, and was sleeping on couches,” he said.
Jennifer Knapp found herself navigating this cultural vortex in the late 90s and early 2000s when she sold a million albums and CCM anointed her the Christian alternative to Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton, although she never would have described herself that way. Knapp, who grew up in southeast Kansas, wasn’t raised in a religious household and said it was a “culture shock” to suddenly find herself entrenched in the evangelical world. While she said that it was initially exciting to explore her faith through her music, she encountered a number of “purity culture” tropes familiar to women who grew up evangelical, which conflicted with her identity as a feminist.
“I would arrive at a show in a tank top and be told I had to change before going on stage,” she told VICE. “People were asking me to be a spokesperson for sexual purity, because I was viewed as one of the role models for young girls. I would tell them that I didn’t agree with a lot of this, personally and theologically, and that cost me opportunities.”
Recording music in the CCM industry forced her to put her sexuality on hold for a decade, and Knapp finally came out as a lesbian in 2010. But it’s important to Knapp to note that she wasn’t closeted during her years at the forefront of CCM and that she didn’t leave because she was gay. She said that she disagreed with a range of ideologies of that world and found she couldn’t write the songs she wanted to within the genre’s corporate propaganda machine. She got her masters in theological studies, married a woman, and returned to music in 2010 with a new album and a publicly gay identity.
Among the changes in Knapp’s image in releasing her comeback record, Letting Go, is how the album was sold. Although her previous hits “Undo Me” and “Romans” had been favorites of radio programmers—reaching #1 on the Christian rock charts in 1997 and 1998, respectively—Knapp chose not to release any singles from Letting Go. The album was still a modest success, reaching #3 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk charts.
The decision not to market the record for Christian radio reflected a conscious choice by Knapp to forge her own path separate from the industry that once attempted to define and constrain her. “Too often CCM is made by Christians, for Christians, to make more Christians,” she said. “That undermines the experience of contemplating faith and spirituality through art, and that’s what I wanted to do then and do now. CCM has mostly given up on artistry. It’s just praise and worship music now.”
Although queer artists are creating music on their own terms, they haven’t yet found a home in the traditional channels of CCM—which include megachurches, right-wing political rallies, and national Christian radio stations like K-LOVE, a kingmaker of the genre. Shortly after coming out, Trey Pearson was ousted from the Christian rock festival Joshua Fest. Michael Passons came out in 2020, and while he is still making music, he has yet to enjoy the success that he did during the apex of Avalon’s heyday. Passons sang backup vocals on a 2020 cover of Avalon’s “Orphans of God” released by gay country singer Ty Herndon and Broadway staple Kristin Chenoweth.
In order to keep making music within the extremely rigid confines of CCM proper, many LGBTQ musicians are forced to hide who they are. Marsha Stevens-Pino, a prominent figure in what history has dubbed the Jesus Movement of 1970s California, would go on to form Born Again Lesbian Music (BALM) and discover a wealth of queer-affirming Christians that dug her music, but things weren’t always so easy. After she came out as a lesbian following her divorce from bandmate Russ Stevens in 1979, the wildfire of gossip lost Children of the Day their booking agent, and the band split up soon after.
Stevens-Pino said that many prominent producers and songwriters remain closeted to avoid the same scrutiny she and others have faced. The fact of their sexuality is an “open secret,” she said, even though they “don’t want you to talk about it.”
“The first Sunday of every month is gospel music night at the gay bars in Nashville, and I see multi–Dove Award winners there every time,” she said, referring to the evangelical equivalent of the Grammys. “The night before the Dove Awards there’s something called a Pink Party for all the gay nominees, and its a super gay, drag queens–and-fountains-of-champagne-type party.”
It’s unclear where the sexual battle lines of CCM will be drawn in the future. Amy Grant and Kevin Max both received heavy criticism among evangelicals for their divorces in the 90s, only for the same communities to support thrice-married Donald Trump for president in 2016. And without the isolation that the 90s music industry provided—where evangelical parents only bought their kids the Christian version of their favorite rock band—it’s difficult to imagine the industry existing in 20 years.
But that’s a pipe dream in many ways. So long as there’s a Christian right in need of a popular culture set apart from “Hollywood liberals,” and so long as that movement uses social issues like trans people in bathrooms and queer Disney characters to further its political agenda, there will be a need for a music industry that reflects the “traditional” American identity, however sidelined it might be in a given cultural moment. Although that still raises a question that CCM is struggling to answer: How powerful could such an industry remain if young people are increasingly jumping ship?
Jennifer Knapp thinks it would be smart for the Christian music industry to open its doors to queer musicians if hopes to appeal to millenial and Gen Z listeners, but she isn’t holding her breath. “There are evangelical queer musicians in those worship bands, living double lives, but that market won’t sign an out person until they’re a financial competition,” she said. “They have the right to have their own type of quality control for Christianity, but at that point, it’s not a genre that’s supporting the diversity that Christianity has to offer.”