When Allies Come Out: Dolly Parton and Dan Haseltine

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Given the broad support LGBT rights have garnered in the entertainment industry, the recent statements by Dolly Parton and Dan Haseltine might not seem noteworthy at first glance. But both are Nashville residents who have large fan bases – including people who are no supporters of gay marriage – and their comments have caused media storms.

When Dolly Parton reiterates her support for gay marriage, it should generate no shock in the LGBT community. Dolly has most recently been making waves by speaking her mind on the issue of gay marriage. Her most widely repeated comment from her recent British magazine interview is:

I don’t want to be controversial or stir up a bunch of trouble but people are going to love who they are going to love…. I think gay couples should be allowed to marry. They should suffer just like us heterosexuals. Ha ha ha! 

But Dolly has been publicly using the old “suffer like the rest of us” joke to lighten the mood over her support for marriage equality since at least 2009, when she used expressed the same on The Joy Behar Show. Earlier, in February 2009, on Larry King Live, she responded to rumors that she herself is gay, not simply denying the charges but also reasserting that, “I think all people have a right to be who they are. We're all God's children and God should be the one to judge, not other people.” She’s even stood up to notable evangelist Joel Osteen on his views on homosexuality.

So why the fuss? Dolly is a megastar and a gay icon, but she speaks to a fan base which is not universally in support of LGBT rights. As a Southern born and raised Christian, with folksy with and wisdom, she is influential with groups that LGBT activists cannot reach. These people can empathize with Dolly’s own hard scrabble story of overcoming adversity, which she uses to explain her affinity with LGBT people, where their imaginations might not make the leap to empathizing with struggling LGBT people. Nevertheless, Dolly is largely insulated from backlash. An accomplished singer, actor, and business empress with a net worth of nearly half a billion dollars, Dolly can take the hits.

The same is not true of Dan Haseltine, whose band, Jars of Clay, is appearing at Nashville’s Musicians’ Corner in Centennial Park tomorrow, Saturday May 3, 2014, as part of their Spring Season Kickoff.

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Jars of Clay is a contemporary Christian band, whose fan base includes evangelicals and social conservatives. Haseltine recently had stirring series of moments, which included a panel discussion of same sex marriage and watching 12 Years a Slave. This led the Christian artist to take to Twitter in an attempt to generate discussion.

By expressing his own inability to justify marriage inequality, by comparing the LGBT rights movement not only to civil rights but also suffrage, and by denying the slippery slope to social breakdown, the star “came out,” if not as a strident activist, then as someone whose evolution on LGBT issues is well under way. The backlash to these comments was immediate.

Conservative blogs minimize Haseltine’s comments, pointing to his blog, where he explains his evolution and then “apologizes” for stirring up controversy that harms his bandmates (stations are already pulling their songs from play lists). He also apologizes for using Twitter for such a serious discussion, as the 140-charachter limit led him to speak loosely about biblical authority. Haseltine does not, however, apologize for his evolving views on homosexuality and his desire to bring an open discussion into evangelical Christian circles.

Haseltine’s revelations, and his engagement with conservative Christians, is significant. His and his band’s careers depend on the support of the very people his views risk alienating, so Haseltine has everything to lose from speaking out. In this respect, one see the immediate similarities between the risks of coming out as an LGBT and the risks of coming out as allies. It’s a risk he didn’t have to take, but it is a courageous challenge to evangelical orthodoxy on same sex marriage. In this regard, whether he intended it as such or not, Haseltine has done a service to the LGBT community, and has already begun to pay the price for it.

Whether we’re speaking of Dolly, who keeps coming out as an ally and reinforcing her support of equality, or of someone like Haseltine, who is driven by principle to openly and honestly interrogate the dogmatic views of his own tradition, the importance of the coming out of highly visible allies is almost as great as that of prominent LGBT persons doing the same. Quiet and invisible support by an individual doesn’t change hearts and minds. Just as a family member, or friend, or respected person coming out can cause radical evolutions on LGBT rights, the visible and public support of allies, both private individuals and prominent personalities, generates conversations and helps reorient people’s thinking. So Dolly can and should keep coming out all she wants!