Behind the First Gay Country Album — An Amazing Dad
Almost every gay person you ever meet will have a painful story of coming out to their parents, especially if they’re older than, say, 20. But imagine growing up gay in a tiny logging community in the northeast corner of Washington state in the 1950s, where your father is a strong, silent type who does little but run the family dairy farm and provide for his 10 children.
That’s the back story to the first gay country album: the self-titled debut of Patrick Haggerty’s band Lavender Country, released independently in 1973 and just reissued to deserved acclaim by North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors. The album’s stunning liner notes are as moving and powerful as the music itself—because at the core of Haggerty’s personal story is the advice his father gave him before the future gay activist was even aware of his sexual orientation.
Haggerty describes the surrounding community as racist and redneck, and not likely to take kindly to a young boy who entered cooking contests, loved dressing in drag, and who ran for head cheerleader at his high school wearing lipstick and glitter. He grew up to be loud and proud and a pioneer for queer rights. His story should inspire parents of every persuasion.
In his own words:
My father saved me. He had my back. He wouldn’t allow my older brothers to persecute me, and he didn’t talk to me in a disparaging fashion. He did all manner of things that I didn’t understand as a child that prepared me for where I was headed. He was really just a remarkable man in that respect. But the way that he backed me up, it all had to be non-verbal; he couldn’t talk about it. He couldn’t say, you know, ‘I’m really proud of my gay son,’ because you couldn’t say that in 1957. That’s out of the question. So he had to figure out a way to show me that—and he did, in a lot of ways.”
When Haggerty ran for head cheerleader at his high school, his older brother called home to tell his dad that young Patrick was likely to get his ass kicked that day and should be rescued:
So my dad gets in the car, and he comes to the high school. It doesn’t even occur to me that my dad would be embarrassed of me if he saw me that way—it doesn’t even occur to me—’cause he’s seen me that way before. He’s so cool, I don’t even know what I’m doing to this man—I have no comprehension of it. I do know that he shows up at the high school with his farmer brown pants on with cow crap all over his jeans, his snaggle tooth, his four-day beard and his beat-up old fedora hat, and I know I’m running for head cheerleader, and I don’t want this doofus following me around. That’s where I’m coming from, right? So I hide! I pretend like I don’t see him. So then I go in to do the skit, and my dad sees me in the glitter and the lipstick. He’s sittin’ in the back watching all this come down. I’m trying to stay as far away from him as I can, because he’s a country bumpkin and a hayseed, and I’m trying to be popular. You get this picture? Okay, so we’re riding home from the thing, ’cause I had to go to work in the hayfield.
He said, “You know, I thought I saw a kid looked just like you duck around the corner and act like he was runnin’ away from me, but I know you’d never run away from your father, so it couldn’t have been you.” I said, “Oooh.” He said, “I’m sure glad it wasn’t you that ran away from your own father.” I said, “Dad, did you have to wear those cow-pie pants? Couldn’t you have changed your clothes?”
He said, “Listen to me. I don’t have time to change my clothes just to run up to the high school to go and pick you up. I’m a dairy farmer—these are the clothes that I wear. I’m proud of what I do. I don’t have to change my clothes; I don’t have a reason to change my clothes. Now, were you proud of yourself up on that stage with all that glitter and lipstick?”
I said, “Well, I think I’m gonna win.” He said, “Yeah, I think you’re gonna win too, but that’s not what I asked you. I asked you if you were proud of yourself.” I said, “Uh … er … well … um.” He said, “Listen. When you leave this valley and go to the University of Washington Drama School, like you say you’re gonna do, who are you gonna run around with at night?” And I said,“ I don’t know.” He said, “I think you do know. And it’s not gonna be that McLaughlin girl I’ve been trying to get you to date.”
At this point I am slinking to the bottom of my seat. I know full well exactly what he’s talking about—pretending like I don’t. My father says to me—my father is ill; he’s a year and a half away from his grave and he knows it, and so do I—and he says, “You know, I’m not gonna be here when you’re a full grown man.” I said, “Yeah, Dad, I know that.” He said, “Well, I’m gonna tell you something right now, and I want you to remember it.” I said, “Okay, Dad, what?”
And he said, “Whoever you run around with at the University of Washington Drama School when I’m gone, don’t sneak. Because if you spend your life sneaking, it means you think you’re doing the wrong thing. And if you think you’re doing the wrong thing, you’ll ruin your immortal soul. So whoever you run around with, don’t sneak, and be proud of it. Do you hear me?” And I said, “… Yes, Dad.”
There were no other gay folks in my family at the time—none, zero, zip. I had like 150 first cousins and brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts, and I had 500 relatives that I could name, and I was the only one that I knew of back then. I mean, where did he get that? How did he tell me not to sneak? How did he know, out of all the things that he could have told me in that situation, what my dad told me was, “Hey, don’t sneak.” If you’re gonna be who you are, be who you are! Don’t sneak; if you sneak, shame on you, because it means you think you’re doing the wrong thing. Well, whoa, was that good advice for coming out or what?
To tell you the truth, the bottom line is that my father was a fuckin’ saint, man, and I never would’ve made it without him. Really, really awesome dad. So many gay men have such deep, deep conflicts with their fathers. It’s such a big issue for most of them. The horror stories are stupendous. I mean, throwing you out in a snow bank in North Dakota when you’re sixteen in January, and beatings, and thrown out of the house, and you haven’t heard from your dad in 25 years. Hideous stories about gay men and their dads go on and on and on and on and on, they really do. I was blessed, man; I was just so blessed.
— From the liner notes of the 1973 self-titled Lavender Country, reissued by Paradise of Bachelors.
The story of how the album got made is itself deeply fascinating; check out Pitchfork’s in-depth interview here, and a feature about pioneering gay country artists, including Haggerty, in the Guardian here.