Orville Peck, groundbreaking LGBTQ+ country artist, is the newest in a long line of celebrities to be labeled “private” or “enigmatic,” and the first some time to truly embody the term. Pop culture in many ways seems to have lost their grasp on the definition of the word “enigmatic” in the last two decades. Banksy and Pussy Riot are enigmatic; the mere fact that both entities make conscious efforts to hide their identities for the sake of art or safety, respectively, has ironically become part of their public personas. They are identified by being unidentifiable. That is true enigma.
The zeitgeist however has declared that any artist not shouting their personal life from the rooftops of TMZ must be branded with the term. Marilyn Monroe, the Olson twins, Daft Punk and Beyoncé are just a few of the names that often get the label simply for their aversion to public statements and interviews. These figures who tend to separate work and personal life by masking (sometimes literally) any part of their lives are often giving the catch all term of “enigmatic.” This especially applies to queerness.
We are obsessed with defining sexuality, even in a climate making slow but sure strides towards a society where labels do not matter unless we want them to. We love to speculate about people’s sexual orientation. Ellen Degeneres made waves when rumors circulated that she was planning to come out on her eponymous sitcom, Lance Bass’ coming out story had so much public buildup that he bumped Johnny Depp off the cover of People Magazine, and more recently, Frank Ocean’s coming out story marked a paradigm shift in hip-hop while Tyler, The Creator’s ambiguous sexuality continuous to spark conjecture.
But the realm of country music has always felt different. In many ways, most of which mired in stereotype, it is in its own world. For many not familiar with the genre past the radio hits and typecast imagery (think pickup trucks, cowboy hats, and drinking beer on a pontoon), it is very easy to subconsciously link the country music lifestyle with red-state “traditional values” and non-inclusivity. The fact that several performers associated with the genre, like Kid Rock and John Rich, have taken active anti-LGBTQ+ and/or (but mostly and) pro-Trump stances does nothing to help country’s image. But in the last two years, two new poster children of LGBTQ+ representation have emerged within country music from two vastly different directions: Lil Nas X and the aforementioned Orville Peck.
We all know Lil Nas X. While he was not out of the closet at the time of release, his “Old Town Road” remix with country star Billy Ray Cyrus broke the record for longest-running no.1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, but more importantly started a dialogue about the definition of country music. When Billboard refused the song placement on the country charts because it lacked the characteristics of typical country music, it gained heavy traction and became the genre-defying mainstay we now know. Ironically, the very publication that denied it at the door now includes it on their list of songs that best defined the decade. So when Lil Nas X came out as gay in June of 2019, the turning tides of country music intensified, and the rapper/singer utilized his sexuality as a defining element of his career.
Orville Peck dominates the completely other end of the spectrum. Much of the singer’s identity is a mystery, even his face. Known for donning a “Lone Ranger” style mask, Peck has kept the majority of his life under wraps, choosing only to reveal small aspects, including his proud status as a gay man. While Peck is far more reserved, he is no less of an activist than Lil Nas X; Peck has established himself as just as much a trend-setting and conversation-starting artist. This is notwithstanding the fact that his musical stylings are, upon a cursory listen, very much in line with traditional country music. His Roy Orbison-esque croon and lonely guitar on tracks like “Dead of Night” and “Hope to Die” (off debut Pony) will feel familiar to fans of the likes of Johnny Cash.
In a way, Orville Peck has achieved the impossible by not allowing himself to be defined solely by his sexuality despite it being one of the few personal details we know about him. Peck’s tightly maintained privacy has made his queerness shine all the brighter, and has given him just as much queer status as Lil Nas X, whether intentionally or not. It is the fans who — to an extent — have made him the LBGTQ+ icon he is, and not necessarily himself, and it is that personal silence that speaks all that much louder when confronting the conservative image of old school country.
Lil Nas X became an icon of the LGBTQ+ community and in many ways started the discussion surrounding the genre’s historic lack of inclusivity and conformation to a very specific style of songwriting. Meanwhile, Orville Peck has been a more understated ambassador, acting as an activist for the community by simply not making a publicity mountain of the homoeroticism in his music videos or the male objects of affection within his lyrics. Yet somehow, both performers are equally important spokespeople with equally valid and heard voices, despite their platforms’ differing sizes.
This speaks to the importance of not only queer representation within country music, but to a far deeper challenge queer artists of any medium face: defining their own queerness within the context of their career. It should be up to the artist, and solely the artist, to decide how much of their own sexuality they want to merge with their public persona, and what that means for their image and popularity. In an ideal world, this should not be a calculated choice based on projected public opinion, but one based on introspective identity that is allowed to be in a constant state of flux and flow without fear of commercial repercussions. But the world is not ideal, and in reality, the magnitude with which an artist’s sexuality defines their commercial success is often somewhat declared by the public, for better or for worse.
Orville Peck and Lil Nas X were certainly not the first LGBTQ+ country artists. Artists like k.d. lang and Brandie Carlile broke many original boundaries of the genre during a time of heightened fear for gay artists to speak up. Without them, perhaps Peck and Lil Nas X would not be in the same position to tell the stories they have to tell, and for them we must be indebted and grateful. But let their stories go to show that your queerness is defined by you alone, and no matter now open or closed you might be about it as a public figure, your voice will always matter, so use it to pave the way further for the future gay cowboys, cowgirls, and everyone in between.