Christian Singer Resumes Career, Relieved of a Secret

The New York Times/May 14, 2010

Fort Lauderdale, Florida - On the cusp of summer in 2004, more than a year into his latest tour as a Christian pop star, Ray Boltz took a break for what was supposed to be a family vacation. All through the previous months, plying the country with two semi-trailers and a dozen musicians and crew members, playing hits like "Thank You" and "The Anchor Holds," Mr. Boltz had felt something unbearable, something paralyzing.

Carol Boltz, his wife of 30 years and his best friend, sensed the isolation and yet could not reckon its cause. The life Ray was leading, after all, was the life they had set out on together way back when he was a teenager with a guitar at a Christian coffeehouse near their Indiana hometown. That life had brought awards, gold records, a comfortable home for their four children.

So she gathered herself and asked him what was wrong. "If I tell you about certain things I'm going through," he told her, as she recalled in a recent interview, "you won't love me anymore."

She told him nothing could change her love. But then she asked something else. Was Ray thinking of hurting himself? Yes, he answered, he thought about it every day.

More depressed than ever, Mr. Boltz returned to the road for the final months of his tour. He was promoting an album called "Songs From the Potter's Field," and many of them described the sensation of being broken. That was a standard enough theme in Christian music, because it implied that even the shattered could be made whole by Jesus.

Only Mr. Boltz knew the specific kind of damage he meant. He was gay, and he had been trying not to be gay since his teens, and he had inhabited and indeed thrived in a fundamentalist Christian culture that instructed him he could pray to be delivered from his affliction, his sin. By now, in his early 50s, he had stopped believing that godly intervention could change who and what he was.

Around Christmas 2004, in the midst of a family dinner, Mr. Boltz's son Phil asked, "Daddy, what's wrong with you?" This time, Mr. Boltz told the truth: "I'm gay." His wife and his children, startled though they were by the revelation, told him they still loved and supported him. Such emotions were not exactly echoed by his fans, especially after Mr. Boltz publicly disclosed his homosexuality in a 2008 article in The Washington Blade, a gay newspaper.

Now, after more than five years of self-imposed absence from stage and CD, Mr. Boltz has reached a musical and religious destination. As an openly gay man, living in a gay-friendly part of South Florida with his partner, Franco Sperduti, he has released his first album since coming out.

It is called "True," and its songs talk about same-sex marriage ("Don't Tell Me Who to Love"), bias crimes ("Swimming Hole"), and conservative claims that there is a political "agenda" for gay men and lesbians ("Following Her Dreams").

Most indelibly, several of the songs aim to reconcile the gay identity Mr. Boltz has acknowledged with the Christian faith he refuses to disavow. In "Who Would Jesus Love," the lyrics ask,

Would He only love the ones

Who looked the same as me

Would He only offer hope

When He saw similarity

Would He leave the others waiting

Like a stranger at the gate

Would He discriminate.

These days, Mr. Boltz performs just with his guitar, while Mr. Sperduti serves as booking agent. His recent gigs have included a gay pride celebration in Long Beach, Calif., and liberal Christian churches from Anchorage to Austin. Both his producer, Joe Hogue, and his opening act, Azariah Southworth, are Christians who have come out.

"When you start to live an authentic life," Mr. Boltz said in a recent interview at home in Fort Lauderdale, "you stop pretending. When I started writing these songs, I didn't know if it'd be for a record. I didn't know if anyone would even hear these songs. But I realized I could write whatever I want, and that opened up the floodgates."

One of the earliest listeners was Carol Boltz, who continues to operate Mr. Boltz's Web site. He sent her each demo, just guitar or piano and voice, as an e-mail file. "When I hear these songs," she put it, "I hear Ray's heart."

Mrs. Boltz also realizes better than anyone how many former fans vehemently object. She fields the e-mail messages that pour into the Web site, the ones that say, "We will be destroying all your cds cassettes etc immediately" and "Instead of converting to man-love, why not goat love?"

Such wrath, much of it couched in fundamentalist theology, helps explain why so few Christian musicians have dared to come out. That decision threatens, virtually promises, to estrange them from both the religious culture that nurtured their art and the loyal audience that provided their income.

Jennifer Knapp, a Christian singer-songwriter, did announce on "Larry King Live" last month that she is a lesbian. And the young gospel star Tonex described his process of coming out in a February profile in The New Yorker. Still, the Christian-music closet remains a crowded place, the cost of emerging from it so punitive.

Mr. Boltz, though, can attest to what is gained. Amid all the hateful e-mail messages that he receives, there also come ones calling him a "role model of honesty" and thanking him for being "instrumental in me finding the Lord." One correspondent, who described himself as a conservative Christian age 52, recounted nearly committing suicide before coming out.

"I don't believe God hates me anymore," Mr. Boltz said during the interview. "I always thought if people knew the true me, they'd be disgusted, and that included God. But for all the doubts, there's this new belief that God accepts me and created me, and there's peace."

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