This Queer Christian Musician Is Raising Holy Hell
It was a November afternoon and Grace Baldridge was brainstorming lyrics while walking their dog. A musician who records and releases songs under the name Semler, Baldridge's acoustic folk songs often mine the rocky territory where personal faith and organized religion overlap, questioning mission trips and wealthy pastors. Baldridge, 30, also identifies as queer and gender nonconforming. In some genres, that wouldn't be a big deal. In the world of Christian music, where artists like For King & Country sing about being reborn to a throbbing bass drum beat, it can be a death sentence for an emerging career.
On a pre-pandemic episode of the docuseries State of Grace, which Baldridge hosts for Refinery29, they sat down with Christian musicians around the United States to discuss the realities of the scene and whether queer artists can carve out a place in it.
It's a complicated question. Musician Adam Palmer told Baldridge that most fans of the genre want their favorite stars to be "super Christian" -- i.e. people who make a sinless life look attractive and attainable. Ricky Braddy could never quite fit the mold. The worship singer, who came out as gay on The Voice in 2019, told Baldridge he was let go from his job as a worship leader at his church after revealing his sexuality.
An unnamed music executive who Baldridge spoke to for State of Grace said, in a roundabout way, that mainstream Christian music has no interest in including queer people. (According to Baldridge, the interview was cut from the episode after the exec expressed concerns over what they had discussed.) Instead of discouraging Baldridge, the pronouncement energized them.
"I almost received that as a dare. The wheels started turning and I was like, this is wrong. My faith has been so important to me throughout my life, my darkest moments, right? I have a story to tell about that. How dare you say that's not valid," Baldridge says.
At their West Hollywood home on that November afternoon, Baldridge plugged a USB microphone into a laptop, sat down and began recording Preacher's Kid, a raw, personal, eight-song EP drawing on their experiences as the child of an Episcopal priest. Baldridge rushed the tracks into production, recording some parts in a single take, and posted the EP online with barely any mastering.
Within four days of its February 5 debut, the EP landed at #1 on iTunes' Christian albums chart. It also caught the ear of Kevin Max, a former singer in dcTalk, and Jon Steingard, once the lead singer of Hawk Nelson, both of which were well-known Christian bands.
Max, who is now a solo artist making music for a more mainstream audience, tweeted: "Excited for you and for this breakthrough @GraceBaldridge ... it's high time christian music got a shake up with a message of reality & hope beyond the homogenized CCM ... kinda historic, definitely amazing."
Steingard, who disclosed in May 2020 that he no longer believes in God and now hosts the podcast "The Wonder and The Mystery of Being," tweeted: "Today a queer artist expresses her faith, sexuality swearing and all, and I couldn't be more inspired."
In the wider Christian music scene, the response to Preacher's Kid was muted. Christian radio stations don't play the song and labels haven't shown any interest in signing Baldridge. The reaction mirrors the way many modern megachurches either offer vague statements about acceptance while trying to shift the focus away from their anti-gay policies or stay quiet on the issue. In some cases, that's changing.
In the last 40 years, at least two dozen denominations affirming LGBTQ+ Christians have popped up around the United States. Baldridge and their wife found a small Episcopal church that supports LGBTQ+ Christians and it has become their haven.
The Christian music industry has been slower to catch up. Since hitting its peak in the 1990s -- the era of Third Day and Audio Adrenaline -- contemporary Christian music has been sluggish on queer inclusion.
"I don't know how you come out in contemporary Christian music and stay in contemporary Christian music," Baldridge says. "I haven't seen a label willing to risk it. I think the only way that it works for me is I'm already queer and I've already gone through the fire."
COME OUT, DROP OUT
The once-booming alternative side of contemporary Christian music -- think Jars of Clay and Relient K -- has evolved into the kind of modern worship music you'll find at Hillsong and other megachurches. Artists like Lauren Daigle earn millions of dollars annually from album sales and from licensing their songs to churches, who play them at events. (Churches can play the songs for free during services.) But musicians live on a tightrope. The pressure to conform to purity standards, especially for women, is high and same-gender attraction is taboo.
"We're in this really unique time where there are really talented people willing to step away from [Christian music] positions because there is acceptance in other places," says Jess Grace Garcia, a worship leader at New Abbey in North Hollywood.
Garcia, who has a wife and identifies as genderqueer, was being molded as a contemporary Christian artist through Sovereign Grace Churches, an international ministry with its own music label. Thirteen years ago, when she was 21, Garcia's church fired her from her role as a worship leader after she was accused of being queer. She stepped away from the church for almost a decade.
Today, she creates ways for queer people to reconnect to their faith through Q Worship Collective. Garcia, Tasha Holmes and Gabriel Mudd co-founded it in February 2021 to "rewrite bad theology from old music." In practical terms, that means they're reclaiming Christian music by writing songs with queer-affirming lyrics. While we've seen a growing number of progressive Christian churches, there hasn't been a parallel boom in Christian popular music.
Garcia thinks the genre's lack of queer inclusion is mostly about revenue. "I feel like fear is a big part of all of that, fear of losing consumers. If the Christian music industry doesn't come along on its own, then it's gonna get pushed that direction," Garcia says.
As someone working in a genre that has instinctively elbowed out people like them, Baldridge is in a strange position. Through viral TikToks, they've circumvented industry gatekeepers to amass more than 500,000 Spotify streams. But finding long-term success without the backing of a label is an uphill battle. Baldridge, however, has not plans to stop fighting.
One of their inspirations, Jennifer Knapp, came out in 2010. After a hiatus from her Grammy-award-winning career, she shared that she had fallen in love with a woman. As soon as the news broke, Christian radio stations took her songs off the air.
"It's a little bit hard to say that I've been rejected by an industry I don't want to be a part of," Knapp says. "I don't think it's fair to put that charge on contemporary Christian music. Nobody said 'no' to me. I didn't ask. But I think the truth of the matter is that there are other really subtle ways that CCM has said no to me."
On multiple occasions in the last decade, Knapp says people have backed out of recording projects once they learned they'd have to print her name on the record. She isn't sure what it will take for the Christian music industry to broaden its horizons. Right now, staying independent may be the better choice for queer Christian artists.
"I thought it would take exactly what [Baldridge] is doing. Until [the genre] can make money, hand over fist, from queer folks doing music [and] unless a queer artist actually wants to participate in that, I don't know that it's ever going to happen," Knapp says.
Not many contemporary Christian musicians have come out but we have seen an increase in the past decade. Singer-songwriter Julien Baker came out as queer in 2016 alongside Trey Pearson from Everyday Sunday, who came out as gay in an emotional letter to fans. Terrence Stone, an ex-gospel singer from American Idol, came out as bisexual in 2018. Singer Michael Passons came out publicly on a podcast in 2020, where he detailed how his former bandmates in Avalon asked him to get therapy and later kicked him out of the group. Since coming out, most of these musicians have walked away from Christian music or now use less strict labels for their faith.
REACHING FOR GLORY
Baldridge's EP is different from most current worship music but it has tapped into a large audience. Their live-streamed YouTube release drew so many fans, they created a server on messaging app Discord while in the live chat. It has now grown to nearly 400 members.
Gabriella, a 23-year-old who's bisexual and isn't out to her family, lives in Los Angeles and joined the server. (She asked that we not use her last name to protect her identity.) After following Baldridge's work for a few years, she says Preacher's Kid is the first Christian album she has heard that expresses anger and frustration in a relatable way. She says the song "Bethlehem," about the exhaustion of reaching for God, helps her express her faith.
"That's the only song on there where I think I've worshiped, where I've sat there and thought [that] if I could have just like an inch of that peace that Jesus is supposed to bring me -- what would I get for that? So much," Gabriella says.
The trauma associated with Christian music runs deep for Gabriella, although she attends a church with her fiancé.
"I haven't voluntarily listened to Christian music in a very long time. [It brings] up the kind of neglect and the anxiety I was dealing with when I was a teenager," Gabriella says.
Once COVID-19 winds down, Baldridge plans to tour, release more music and continue "raising holy hell" in the industry. They say the outpouring of support for their EP is bittersweet.
"[It's] kind of heartbreaking because some of the things that I have experienced and gone through were not great," Baldridge says. "Other people can relate to it. I think speaks to a larger hurt that has gone on unaddressed by the church. It's encouraging that we've all found each other."
Preacher's Kid can be streamed on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music.
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