My People

Written by: Justin Hiltner

A year ago now, when I first wrote for the Forward Roll, I spoke about the power Bluegrass Pride and the California Bluegrass Association had to bring people together, to give LGBTQ+ folks space where they can just be. I marveled at watching folks of all backgrounds and identities and ages come together at CBA’s Father’s Day Festival to celebrate each other and the music together — something that I hadn’t witnessed ever before at a bluegrass festival. I hadn’t realized that I had missed out on this throughout my youth and young adulthood when I was coming up in these bluegrass spaces.

I watched, feeling incredibly ecstatic for the next generation, for the up-and-coming pickers, presenters, professionals, and fans that would grow up within our sphere of the music world never doubting that they belonged in these communities. Never doubting that these people were their people.

It dawned on me, then, as I prepared for this year’s Father’s Day Festival and Bluegrass Pride extravaganzas, that I had unintentionally glossed over an even more marvelous, powerful fact hidden within the experiences I had written about last year. I, too, had found my people.

It’s true that over the course of my career in the music industry I have frequently brushed up against, or shared moments with, or built connections with, or commiserated with many amazing, inspirational queer and marginalized folks. I’ve been fortunate to find a vibrant cavalcade of people coalescing around me -- around us -- championing goals of inclusion and diversity in our genre. Yet, being on the front lines of these issues, these dialogues, and being so visible can feel isolating. It can reduce entire identities to just their “otherness,” which is a precarious, slippery slope toward feeling further set apart. True human connection, the empathy, and relatability that binds all of us together and makes life absolutely meaningful can fall away.

The power and strength of an ironclad support system for LGBTQ+ identified people cannot be overstated. It’s something that I’ve struggled with since coming out. We queers who happen to adore vernacular musics and their offshoot genres find ourselves on the margins of more than one community. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we’re viewed as interlopers or imposters by roots music at large; most other LGBTQ+ folk can’t relate to or understand our love for “hillbilly music” or “redneck music,” especially given the broadly applied negative stereotypes that are projected upon rural communities, Appalachia, the south, and the culture and traditions of the above. It’s often a very lonely, infinitesimal Venn diagram overlap.

Personally, I feel as though I live on the margins of even more communities, having grown up homeschooled, conservative, and evangelical and now living in the Bible Belt and operating in the roots music machine in Nashville and across the country. It’s hard enough to wake up every single day and face a globe, a society, that will never truly reflect my perspective. My queerness. My otherhood. My unabridged identity. Myself. Not having any of the communities I claim reflect myself wholly is exasperating and exhausting on top of that.

Over the years, I’ve gained so much wisdom, insight, empathy, and above all else, perseverant energy from my queer folk family out there, while also feeling a deep craving for that energy to come from my closest friend groups as well.

Now, as I approach the beginning of my twenty-sixth year on earth; as I type these thoughts that have been stewing and roiling in my mind since my earliest teen years, when I began to realize that I was “different;” as I fly west for my second Father’s Day Festival and Bluegrass Pride, I’m able to fully appreciate that my people aren’t just out there somewhere, waiting for whichever someday will be their debut. I’ve already found them. They’ve found me. And there have been innumerable points in my life (some long-forgotten, others recent, biting, visceral memories) when I knew for certain that I would never find my people because they didn’t exist.

If you’re out there hoping that your people will find you someday, or vice versa, I have good news for you. You’ve found your people, too. I’m your people.

Happy (Bluegrass) Pride.

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