A hot, cloudless sky rains down unfiltered sunshine on a small town in the Hill Country. The black asphalt of the quiet, backwoods streets bubbles into liquid tar. Birdsong, frogsong, and creeksong are all silent. Every living thing clings to the shadows of the oak trees. Water is a myth. The rusty thermometer nailed to the brickstone wall, with an even rustier nail, reads 106 Fahrenheit. Somewhere in a living room, the air-conditioned oasis, with the window blinds sealed shut and the ceiling fan on its highest speed, a young boy no more than five years old is asked whether he has a girlfriend yet. At five years of age, this demi-toddler doesn’t even know the concept of romance, attraction, or sex. Unfortunately, this is the all-too-common reality for most young Texan boys growing up in the deserts, valleys, and drought-brown hills of Southern Texas. Their grandparents, parents, church leaders, teachers, and mentors relentlessly hammer away on toxic heteromasculinity. The boy has just recently mastered single-digit numerals, yet is required to have a full-fledged romantic relationship with a female girl. Six years later, the boy would realize he was gay, but it was too late. The shame, religious persecution, and malicious social engineering from trusted family members has already taken its toll in the form of guilt-ridden anxiety, PTSD, religious-sourced phobias, a life-long battle with addictions of various sorts, and enough self-doubt and self-hate to power a coastal city.
The little boy was me, and I’m sure many other little gay boys, gay girls, and queer folx who grew up in Texas, or other conservative strongholds, have similar stories. The expectations of heteronormativity is abruptly placed on our shoulders at a stunningly young age. But this isn’t about toxic Texas masculinity; it’s about country music. Country music is the lifeblood of Texan culture. From Garth Brooks, to Tim McGraw, to George Strait, country music is the cultural glue that binds together people of all demographics in Texas — as long as you’re straight.
The cowboy hats, the big buckled belts, and the expensive leather boots are the trademark costume of a social club that rewards men with acceptance, clout, and uniformity within a highly condensed bubble of group-ordained mythology. As RuPaul says, “Everyone is born naked and the rest is drag.” The typical accouterments of country cowboy Western wear is the drag shtick of Budweiser-drinking, chest-pounding, male country music fans. Owning a truck is mandatory. Hunting, fishing, and BBQ are all mandatory. Heterosexuality is, indeed, extremely mandatory.
You can imagine, as a young gay boy in Texas, country music and all of its leather-bound, smoke-stained luxuries were unattainable to me. It was an exclusive club: membership was free, but invisible, collective contracts must be signed and followed. You must be this straight to ride this ride. What became engendered in my psyche was an obvious conclusion: I hated country. I hated everything it represented or supplied. The rewards were not mine, therefore it was not worth my time. That resentment festered into a hatred of Texas as a whole, hatred of family members and friends, and ultimately hatred of myself on a very subconscious level.
I was an outlaw.
Orville Peck is a rising rockstar in outlaw country, that offshoot genre of what mainstream country fans would tout as real country. Recently signed by Sub Pop, and currently touring to promote his new album Pony, Mr. Peck is new, fresh, and rising fast in the world of queer country. Trixie Mattel, world-famous skinny legend drag queen, and assuming many other queer icons, are also notably transfixed on Orville’s deliberate brand.
He’s belting out his homosexual truth, he’s looking hot while doing it, and he’s gay as hell.
Orville’s unique take on country, while it may not be completely unique, is just plain sexy. His signature look is a styled cowboy hat, usually red felt, with a complete leather mask adorned by leather fringe tails. Orville is selling something to Southern gay men: the seductive allure of full lips behind a translucent leather veil, the steely-blue eyes piercing behind the black, oily mask, and a velvety voice that melts even the most calloused heart. Beyond his image, his lyrics and songs represent something rare in country music. For one, the lyrics do not have to be decoded. They do not use neutral, or heterosexually-explicit, pronouns. He sings about men. He sings about love with those men. And, the best part, he sings about having sex with those men. He’s belting out his homosexual truth, he’s looking hot while doing it, and he’s gay as hell. Understand now why I have become a self-described PeckHead, the ubiquitous term that belongs to those Orville fans that have discovered a safe space within country music for those found gay and wanting.
Outlaw country is real country, and for many young outlaws it has become a haven of sorts. Orville is not a founder of this genre. Strong female legends such as Dolly Parton, Shania Twain, and Reba McEntire helped pave the way. Iconic pioneers such as Lavender Country, with their unabashed and very clearly queer messages, built the foundations on which all others would follow; and who Orville regularly admits as fond inspiration. Today, we have self-styled outlaws such as Kacey Musgraves, Lil Nas X (who recently came out), Willie Nelson, and many, many more.
If outlaw country is not new, and queer country is certainly not new, then something must separate Orville Peck from these outlaws, and even other visibly-queer country music stars. What is it?
The symbolism of Orville Peck’s mask is subconscious and highly empowering. The mask represents what all outlaws have lived, even what most gays have lived. It calls to mind feelings of closeted gay attraction, self-masking, code-switching personalities based on levels of trust, and hidden truths. That young gay boy in 1995 has worn the mask his entire life, so to see it on a country music star is one part absurd, equal parts ironic, and in totality a form of reclamation. One look at the mask and the entire story of exiled gays in conservative towns across America is revealed. I hesitate to use the word ‘bravery’, as Orville is a gay white man and hardly brave relative to other minorities, but it does draw out symbolically-valid ideals of reclaiming our oppression as a tool to empower oneself. See the mask, wear the mask, use the mask. It’s a mockery of our pain as closeted queer folx, as well as a stylish and sexy costume addition that evokes motifs of leather fetish and BDSM.
Queerness is an attribute that most other LGBTQ+ country music stars do not regularly wield. A mainstay of Orville’s brand, from his colloquial term cowfolx (versus cowboys/cowgirls) to his unabashed love of the art of drag, and genderbending photoshoots, regular outlaw country fans get a dose of something wholly different. Instead of idle straight-passing gimmicks, quiet coming out stories, and only vague references to queerdom as a whole, we get something raw, unfiltered, and intensely queer with Mr. Peck.
He’s unapologetically gay in his style, his lyrics, and even down to his music videos. In a recent release, the “Hope to Die” music video is clear about its queerishness with shots of Orville framed through the muscular legs of another man. It’s all refreshingly transparent. No beating around the bush, as is oft the case with other queer music stars. Openness and clarity, alongside a symbolic juxtaposition of a mysterious identity and mask, is what separates Orville from the other queer outlaws.
The grass is green, fresh from unseasonably ample rains. A cool wind passes through the lush foliage of the old oak tree. That little gay Texan boy has returned to the land of the Hill Country once again, but this time things feel different, and even look different nearly thirty years later.
He wears a cowboy hat, boots, and buckle picked up in Austin. An Orville Peck shirt dons his torso. A feeling of triumphant return makes every encounter with family, friends, and acquaintances glow a little brighter.
Normally, I would have felt trapped in my old home state, but after recently returning on a trip home I started to appreciate the minor details: from the beautiful landscape of the cedar forests, the bright blue skies, and the rustic decor of my family home. Something switched, and perhaps I have Orville to thank. His music gave me a free visitor pass to feel proud to be a Texan again. Instead of resenting a culture or group that I was not a card-carrying member, I learned to live the life of an outlaw. Reclaim the culture for yourself; take up space, and make it your own. This is why queer country is important to me. It gives me the power to be myself and have pride in my heritage and upbringing without all the unnecessary toxic baggage that made it impossible beforehand.
I hadn’t returned home in seven years. In fact, I promised my family that I may never return. One reason being that I hadn’t come out publicly until 2016, and before that, only come out privately with select family and friends. I had felt like I could never go back home, especially in the new political era where my physical safety could be at risk just for being gay and out.
But donning my new hat, and my new boots, I did the unthinkable and returned to a place that until now made me feel pain and anger. Healing is personal and trauma is personal, but sometimes you get a helping hand from places or people you never would have imagined. Orville Peck is not only helping the gays reclaim country, but is also helping many gays like myself, reclaim our past.