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Op-ed: Growing Up Gay in the South Doesn't Have to Be Horrible

Op-ed: Growing Up Gay in the South Doesn't Have to Be Horrible

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Hailing from South Carolina, GLAAD executive Zeke Stokes couldn't reconcile his childhood dreams of country music stardom with the fact that he was gay.

Somewhere in South Carolina, tucked away in an old shoebox, I'm sure my Mom still has the photo of me with my very first cassette tape. I remember it well. It was the Dolly Parton album Heartbreaker, and as I recall, in the photo of me grinning ear to ear and hugging it tightly, I am two years old.

Early on, I loved music and more specifically, country music. Whenever the radio was on, there was Merle Haggard, Tanya Tucker, Willie Nelson, or one of the other greats playing in our house. And in my own room, I developed a vast collection of country albums that I played around the clock.

All the while, I dreamed of growing up and becoming a country music singer. I would stage shows in my room and invite my grandmothers and my parents to watch. And of course, they praised my talent -- whatever there was of it -- and encouraged me to keep singing.

Slowly, but most surely however, things began to change. I was obsessed with the world of entertainment, devouring every celebrity Q&A in the weekly Parade magazine, and skimming the latest edition of People in the grocery store line while my Mom was at the checkout. So I knew the scrutiny I would face should I ever really become a singer. And I had a big secret no one could ever know. I am gay.

So, I abandoned my dream of country music stardom -- and a number of other dreams, in fact -- along my journey to self-discovery. And while I wouldn't change any of it now, the fact is that no young person should ever have to put their dreams aside simply because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

That's why Nashville matters.

Last fall, country artist Ty Herndon made history by coming out as gay in the pages of People, the most well known male country star to do so. Immediately, he inspired another Nashville star -- Billy Gilman -- to do the same. Unfortunately, I never had anyone like Ty or Billy to look up to when I was dreaming of making music. But now, millions of kids do.

On Friday, June 12 in Nashville, Ty and Billy will be among a number of artists joining GLAAD to celebrate inclusion in Nashville with an historic, first-of-its-kind concert during the legendary CMA Fest. The Concert for Love and Acceptance is an opportunity for the country music industry and many others to stand up and remind us that no matter who we are or who we love, we are all God's children.

It's important to me personally, because I believe it signifies a deep change from my own childhood, when I watched the stars of Nashville from afar and dreamed of living among them one day. But more importantly, it sends a message to kids growing up today in the South -- or anywhere in the world for that matter -- that being different is okay and you don't have to give up your dreams in order to do what you love.

This year, I put all my childhood fears aside and took the stage for the first time since high school to perform in a small theater in New York City. That felt like such a full-circle moment. I have no doubt that I will get that feeling again in Nashville on Friday. I won't be on stage as I had once dreamed. But I will definitely be able to say, I made it to Nashville.

Zeke_stokesx100_0The Concert for Love & Acceptance kicks off GLAAD's Southern Stories Summer Tour, which includes faith-based programming and events that highlight and promote LGBT acceptance in the South and in the church. For a full schedule of events as the tour travels across seven states in six days, click here.

Stokes is Vice President of Programs at GLAAD.

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