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Exploring The Gap Of Queer Representation In Australian Country Music

22 July 2022 | 9:45 am | Twistie Chaney

“I'd love there to be an understanding of how accepting the country music industry is, as artists are of each other, not only from a sexuality point of view, but also mental health and trauma.”

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Queerness and country music are two things that one might not instinctively put side-by-side. But today, queer visibility in the country music scene is a long-awaited worldwide triumph that is thankfully becoming more and more normalised here in Australia. Yet while music has historically been a rare space for queerness to thrive, it’s interesting to dissect why certain genres, such as country music, have had such a distinctly disparate scope of representation.

We spoke to Michael Waugh and Beccy Cole to explore coming out in country music, delving into both the barriers and open arms they have encountered throughout their separate journeys, and to discuss country’s often stigmatised culture to uncover the reality of this empathy-driven genre.

If anyone new to country music had watched the 2022 Golden Guitar Awards, it’s possible they might have been amazed by the number of out and proud queer figures gracing the night. Co-hosted by country music legend and long-time champion for LGBTQIA+ advocacy, Beccy Cole, the evening was off to a firing start from her opening gag with co-host Adam Harvey.

“I don’t know why, but I’ve always been drawn to you,” says Cole, “and you know, recently it occurred to me…” She continues as Harvey turns to the crowd with a smile, “No, I know the reason why I’ve always been a little bit attracted to you... You look exactly like k.d. lang.”

Needless to say, the floor shook. And as the night progressed, another face took to the stage, or rather the screen due to COVID isolation, as Michael Waugh publicly came out while accepting his award for Heritage Song of the Year via video. 

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But for Waugh, this bold declaration of his identity was not absent of fear. Leading up to the event, prior to his COVID diagnosis, Waugh had clearly envisaged the night: “TJ and I are gonna to walk down the red carpet. We’re gonna look fantastic in these suits. We’re gonna hold hands. It's gonna be beautiful. It's gonna be a moment. And it is gonna be about confronting that voice in my head that was saying they're gonna reject you. They're going to hurt you. They're going to disown you… which is all of those voices that, when you grow up queer, you get those messages anyway and you feel that fear. It's internalized homophobia and it's taking their voices and those people who said those things to you who have moved on, but the little boy or little girl or little non-binary person inside of you still hears those words.”

While the beginnings of their coming out journeys are plotted a decade apart, Beccy Cole and Michael Waugh still share a significant overlap across both their experiences. As Cole reflects on her own coming out in 2012, she recalls a similar thought spiral running through her head at the time: “As a queer person, you think what's it gonna be like going to regional Australia and are they gonna wanna see me? Are they gonna understand? And to me, what it showed me was the amazingly positive response to my coming out. What it showed me was there was a gap in visibility in regional Australia. And sometimes, I think there still is.”

But to Cole’s surprise, the reaction she received was overwhelmingly supportive. “It was such a beautiful, kind of almost endearing response that I had from regional Australia. I felt like I was given this great big hug, you know. And any negative response was so little that it just didn't matter.”

And ten years on, Waugh too was met with an enormous embrace from his fans. Even before the Golden Guitars, when Waugh’s partner had updated his relationship status on Facebook, the unexpectedly public post was greeted with a wave of love.

“By the time I looked at it,” Waugh recalls, “there were 200 people who had responded and there were all these people from Country music and fans who'd already gone ‘This is amazing’ ‘So proud’...”

But moments of acceptance from experiences such as Waugh’s are often preluded by a scarring battle of overcoming shame. Throughout his childhood, Waugh was repeatedly confronted with the sinking weight of humiliation attached to his queerness, which he has since navigated through his music. “There's a litmus test that I have when I'm writing that if I'm afraid to say it, then that's probably a good reason why I should.”

“It kind of feels like a natural progression about speaking out against the voices I'd internalised that were trying to silence me… There's lots of traditional stories about traditional gender roles and traditional relationships and I've sung some of them myself, you know. But I think that we're kind of bigger than that as a community.”

But by coming out, Waugh worried that homophobia might distance himself and his storytelling from fans of his music: “I think the thing that I feared was that those people who resonated with those stories about my dad, and about my mum's journey with cancer, and my brother's journey with cancer, and relationships with my brothers, and growing up in a small country town, that they would stop listening to those stories, because they were only hearing about this one part of me, which is that I'm also queer.”

While Cole has persistently led her advocacy with a loud and proud front, she also experienced a period in her career where she was treading eggshells. “I was worried about what people thought, and I remember even doing an interview and I used the word tolerance and I look back with regret because I didn't mean that.”

“It kind of tapped into our own internalised homophobia when we go ‘Oh, sorry. I hope you're tolerant of me and I hope you still come and see me play’. And now I'm more like, ‘You don't wanna come and see me ‘cause I'm gay? That’s on you.’”

But to try and unravel these issues tangled amidst the country music space, such as its severe lack of queer representation, Cole notes that we need to reflect back on the history of country music and its enduring ripple effects. 

“As far as [queer] representation in country music,” Cole says, “I think maybe there's a follow on from Nashville, which is very much driven by a place that's on the Bible belt.” With the revered Grand Ole Opry sitting at the heart of American and wider global country music culture, the honour of being an Opry member has not yet been extended to a queer person. And as this question of representation arises, the unwelcoming message projected to queer country artists from such a gesture is well summarised by a quote near and dear to Cole: “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

When we attempt to dissect the dominating influences of country music, it is clear that these religiously-rooted anti-queer beliefs steeped in some of the genre’s birthplaces have continued to persevere. Yet within the country music community itself, it seems this widespread notion of normalised homophobia certainly does not reflect reality.

“Within the industry, the acceptance from artist to artist has always been incredible,” Cole says. “I'm experiencing now just this incredible, beautiful history that I've had with all of these artists.”

“I'd love there to be an understanding of how accepting the country music industry is, as artists are of each other, not only from a sexuality point of view, but also mental health and trauma.”

And for Michael Waugh, it was a high school teacher of his that became one of his biggest supporters and most enthusiastic cheerleaders. “She wanted me to have a voice and she still turns up to my gigs… the loudest person in the room. And she’s still there supporting me, 30 years later.” Now spun full circle, Waugh himself is a high school drama teacher, encouraging teenagers to be free to express themselves and to feel safe, celebrated and accepted for who they are.

But it was also Waugh’s professional team who have been a crucial pillar in his coming out journey. In the lead up to the Golden Guitars, his publicist, manager, and his album producer Shane Nicholson stood proud by his side: “Their response was unanimously, unconditionally ‘we love you’ full stop.”

“It is not just about me being brave. It is them being professionally brave and, and also trusting and loving and supporting.”

With more and more role models like Beccy Cole and Michael Waugh making space for queerness in country, such as TJ Oseman, Brooke Eden, Orville Peck and countless others flying the pride flag abroad, the future of country music is only continuing to open its doors to greater diversity.

“You get amazing artists like Brandi Carlile, who does all sorts of genres, but does a lot of country and she's up there talking about her wife and her kids and it’s so beautiful,” mentions Cole.

“And then, someone like Dolly Parton who has always had gay fans and has always been an advocate for gay people. And she is from that real Bible belt kind of Southern Baptist… So someone like her, even though she's not gay, her acceptance of everyone… Of all of God’s children… She’s done a lot for representation.”

And here in Australia, we are steadily seeing more queer country artists, like rising 20-year-old Tamworth talent Logan Hoswell stepping to the front and paving a new generation of visibility and pride. 

While there is still a significant gap in terms of queer representation nationwide in country music, when we recognise country’s conservative roots, it’s clear that the genre has come a long way. And with trailblazers like Beccy Cole and new role models like Michael Waugh forging a path for the future of queerness in Australian country music, hopefully it’s only a matter of time before the idea of coming out in the country scene is no longer a brave feat, but a normalised stride into open arms.