Justin Hiltner: A Bright Road Ahead

Written by: Justin Hiltner

I attended my first dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass festival in 2009 in central Ohio. I camped with a friend in a pop-up camper in 90+ temps for a week. It was the first time I heard Junior Sisk, Sierra Hull, IIIrd Tyme Out, and so many others. I was sixteen years old and I was a total closet case -- out to no one and in complete denial. As the years passed, I came out to myself, to my family, and to everyone, but bluegrass festivals became more and more scary. I didn’t quite feel like I belonged, I felt like I couldn’t or wasn’t allowed to relate to anyone else, and I worried about being looked down upon or ridiculed. I remember one specific instance walking into a festival in rural Mississippi to play a show and I stopped to cover the equality sticker on my banjo case with masking tape - just to be safe.

During this year's Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley, there was a Bluegrass Pride table set up, piled high with tulle, sequins, and rainbows where prospective parade marchers could build their own glittery, colorful accessories for the march. As I painstakingly glued miniature Pride flag toothpicks to my tulle-and-lei-flower arm band, I noticed that all of a sudden the average age of crafters at the table had dropped significantly. A small group of teenagers were chattering excitedly about pride, about the crafts, about meeting each other, and about being GAY! There were bi, trans, and gay teenagers gathered around hot glue and craft supplies at a bluegrass festival. In an instant, they all tore off collectively -- as all bluegrass festival teenagers do -- to wreak beautiful teenage terror on the festival grounds.

I had to stop and intentionally take stock of what had been accomplished -- by all of the LGBTQ+ activists in bluegrass and roots music over the decades, but also specifically by the passionate, dedicated CBA members behind Bluegrass Pride. If sixteen year-old Justin had stumbled upon a rainbow crafts table at that very first bluegrass festival he attended in central Ohio, his life would have been forever changed. His identity validated, not only as an orientation but within the bluegrass community as well, he would have confidently walked into each successive bluegrass festival proud of who he was without needing to doubt whether or not he truly belonged there.

This is what Bluegrass Pride and the CBA can give to people. The next generation will grow up with feet planted firmly in this music that we all love, because someone took the time to tell them they do belong, no matter who they are, who they love, or the color of their skin. The road to this point may not have been picturesque and rainbow-y the whole way, but the road ahead is undeniably bright.

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