In an interview with Time magazine, T.J. Osborne, half of the duo Brothers Osborne, has publicly revealed for the first time that he is gay. If that may seem unremarkable in some ways amid the larger culture, it is unquestionably a landmark in country music, as Osborne becomes the first man to come out in the genre while signed to a major Nashville label and still racking up hits in the format.
“People will ask, ‘Why does this even need to be talked about?’ and personally, I agree with that,” Osborne told the magazine. “But for me to show up at an awards show with a man would be jaw-dropping to people. It wouldn’t be like, ‘Oh, cool!’”
That Osborne is gay has not been a tightly held secret in Nashville, least of all to the singer’s friends and family, but it will still come as a surprise to most fans. Although much of the country fan base is notoriously culturally conservative, it may stand to reason that the majority of any “fans” Brothers Osborne might stand to lose over going public with his sexual orientation have already been lost by now, as T.J. and his brother John have been openly liberal on a number of issues, like gun laws — and already portrayed a gay couple in their “Stay a Little Longer” video, which caused a mild stir
Still, he knows there could be some backlash in certain markets or segments of the country. “I don’t think I’m going to get run off the stage in Chicago,” he says in the interview. “But in a rural town playing a county fair? I’m curious how this will go.” He’s not entirely sure — after expressing some doubts about whether his coming out will be universally embraced, he says, “Maybe I’m not giving my fans enough credit. Maybe I’m not giving the genre enough credit.”
A good number of country hitmakers have come out after they’ve left the realm of major Nashville labels, including Chely Wright and Ty Herndon, both of whom broke ground when they decided to tell their full stories. The mainstream country music industry is filled with out gay men and women, of course — just not current major stars still working the Music Row/country radio system. Lil Nas X, who has a pop deal and has never been wholly embraced by country radio, made some headlines for being the first out gay person to win a CMA Award — false headlines with a very short historical knowledge of country, since Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally had long since racked up CMAs. Still, there’s a boldness to someone in Osborne’s prominent position speaking up.
“You have just changed and saved a whole lot of lives,” Wright tweeted to Osborne, “chief among them, your own.”
It may be that fans think differently now about his song “21 Summer” now that they realize he wrote it about a gay relationship. “There are so many times I’ve sung that song and wanted to cry,” Osborne says. “People love that song, but the emotion of it is deeper than they even realize.” The magazine writes that the song was about his first heartbreak, when he was still in his early twenties and keeping any romances a secret. “I was mad that no one knew why I was hurting,” he admits.
His longer-haired, guitar-hero brother John was supportive when T.J. revealed to him he was gay in his mid-twenties, around the time they signed their deal with UMG Nashville. “He was very open and candid about it, and I was emotional, because my brother was finally able to be completely honest with me about who he was,” John says. “How often, in life, do we hold back parts of ourselves and wish that we didn’t?” And he was down with T.J. coming out now: “If I had to have all my money and success erased for my brother to be truly fulfilled in life, I wouldn’t even think about it. Not for a second.”
Osborne admits that being publicly closeted has been tough on relationships, given the number of functions a Nashville star is expected to attend, or even qualms about going out for the evening. “Saying, ‘Hey, don’t hold my hand. Someone I know is in here, so can you wait in the car?’ Rightfully, they would feel unwanted by me.”
“I want to get to the height of my career being completely who I am… I mean, I am who I am, but I’ve kept a part of me muted,” he admits, “and it’s been stifling.”
Fortunately, there was no masking going on in the songwriting, so no drastic changes are in store for the brothers’ songwriting. He tells the magazine with a laugh, “If our songs were all about, ‘Climb on up in my truck, girl,’ that might really confuse some people.”
Osborne says he has wavered over whether his sexuality is a big deal or not. “When I say I want to put it behind me, I want to put the coming out behind me. Because ultimately it’s a very small detail about me.” But, he adds, “There are times when I think I’ve marginalized this part of me so that I feel better about it… and I realize that it is a big part of who I am: The way I think, the way I act, the way I perform. God, think of all the times that we talk about love, and write about love. It’s the biggest thing we ever get to feel. And I’ve kept the veil on. You know that thing—stand for something or you’ll fall for anything? That sounds like something someone in country music would say. But if you stand for something and it’s not what they stand for, then they hate it.”
GLAAD was, as might be expected, happy about Osborne stepping up. “T.J. Osborne’s decision to publicly come out and share his story is a major step forward to increase LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion in the country music world,” said the org’s head of talent, Anthony Ramos. “He is now the only openly gay artist signed to a major country music label, and I hope that the business continues to realize that there is a space for LGBTQ artists, and that they can be commercially successful. Brothers Osborne are one of today’s most successful country music acts and T.J.’s decision to share his true and authentic self with their many fans has the power to change hearts and minds when it comes to acceptance for the LGBTQ community.”
Many of Osborne’s fellow stars have been supportive — and, not surprisingly, it’s been country’s women who have been most eager to speak up so far.
“Others will now feel invited to the country music party for the first time,” says Kacey Musgraves, who has not been shy about welcoming the LGBTQ+ community from her debut album forward. “Country music deserves a future even more honest than its past.”
Well done, T.J. Osborne.
You’re nobody’s whisper anymore.
— Chely Wright (@chelywright) February 3, 2021
We love you so much, Teej. 🙌🏼✨ https://t.co/e1snWo0Wjn
— MAREN MORRIS (@MarenMorris) February 3, 2021
Hell yes TJ https://t.co/ppTbiCmcFS
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) February 3, 2021