In a recent interview with the San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford spoke frankly about his experience of coming out as gay in 1998. He believes he helped destroy the myth that metal fans and bands could not accept homosexuality. “I think I made some people confront issues they were not ready to deal with,” said the singer.
Priest had their first album out in 1974 and it took Halford 24 years to pluck up the courage to come out. Even then, he’d left Judas Priest and it would be five more years before he returned. He was rightly praised for his bravery at the time, and endured few problems since he began fronting the band again in 2003.
Others haven’t been quite so lucky. When Gorgoroth frontman Gaahl revealed in 2003 he was in a relationship with a man, he and his partner received a siege of death threats. So did Otep’s Otep Shamaya when she told the media she was gay in 2005.
As a genre, metal has a pretty chequered history when it comes to tolerance. There’s no doubting things have moved on since the late 80s when you had Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “AIDS Kills Fags Dead” and Axl Rose admitting he liked to drive through Los Angeles shouting abuse at gay men, but homophobia is still pretty ingrained within the genre.
It also had, at its more extreme edges, an unpleasant crossover with some neo-fascist groups, with a lot of early black metal bands singing the hymns of white power. That’s pretty much gone now, but there’s still an ugly homophobic hangover.
It’s a strange paradox that the music that is allegedly worshipped by the misunderstood, the beaten and the downtrodden would have a blindspot when it comes to accepting homosexuality, but you only have to look at the language metal bands use in their lyrics and in their interviews.
Zakk Wylde routinely label bands he doesn’t like as “gay”, Slayer’s Kerry King opted to criticise Machine Head’s new direction by describing singer Rob Flynn “as singing like a fag”. Type any metal story into Google and go to the comments section and things get even worse.
The excuse they’ll give is that it doesn’t mean anything and it’s not meant in a derogatory way, but why use it at all? There are a ton of words without any such connotation they could opt for. Maybe it’s learned behaviour, or maybe it’s just a nasty habit, but it’s something the genre should grow out of.
As Halford said, things are improving. Members of Anthrax, Kiss and Guns N’Roses have all been photographed for the No H8 campaign and there’s hope that attitudes are changing. But for now, metal’s tolerance level is a long way behind where it should be.