September 16, 2008 • from the WASHINGTON BLADE by Joey DiGuglielmo
Ray Boltz wanted to do something nice.
He’d visited the mostly gay Jesus Metropolitan Community Church in Indianapolis and liked Rev. Jeff Miner, so he decided to give him a copy of his 1997 holiday recording, “A Christmas Album.”
It was one of 16 albums Boltz, 55, recorded during a nearly 20-year recording career that saw the Muncie, Ind., native become one of the better-known singer/songwriters in Contemporary Christian Music, a genre born out of the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s that made singers like Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, Michael W. Smith and Steven Curtis Chapman superstars in religious music with occasional excursions into mainstream pop culture.
Boltz, with about 4.5 million LPs, cassettes and CDs sold, never made a splash outside of Christian circles but he never really tried. With a handful of RIAA Gold-certified albums, three Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association (GMA) and a string of 12 No. 1 hits on Christian radio, Boltz is a household name in evangelical circles. “Thank You,” a sentimental song about a dream in which a Christian thanks the Sunday school teacher who led him to embrace Christ, is his signature song. It was the GMA song of the year in 1990 and has become a staple of Christian funerals. Other Boltz trademarks are “Watch the Lamb,” “The Anchor Holds” and “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb.”
Boltz brought the Christmas CD with him to MCC-Indianapolis on that cold, sunny December 2007 day and slipped it to Miner on his way out with a note taped to it on which he’d jotted his e-mail address.
Ostensibly it was an innocuous thing to do, but for Boltz it was a big step. It eventually led to him opening up to Miner, one of the first times anybody outside Boltz’s circle of family and friends knew his long-kept secret: Ray Boltz is gay.
“I didn’t make a big deal of it,” Boltz says during a 90-minute phone interview from his home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “But I was trembling. I’d kind of had two identities since I moved to Florida where I kind of had this other life and I’d never merged the two lives. This was the first time I was taking my old life as Ray Boltz, the gospel singer, and merging it with my new life. Emotionally it was kind of a big deal to think about that.”
Ray Boltz was tired of living a lie. He’d gotten to a point nearly three years before where he couldn’t continue down the road his life had gone.
His 33-year marriage to ex-wife Carol was, he says, largely a happy one. It produced four children — three daughters and a son who are now between 22 and 32 — but family life and going through the motions of being straight had grown so wearying to Boltz, he was in a serious depression, had been in therapy for years, was on Prozac and other anti-depressants and had been, for a time, suicidal.
“I thought I hid it really well,” he says. “I didn’t know people could see what I was going through, the darkness and the struggle. After I came out to my family, one of my daughters said she was afraid to walk in my bedroom because she was afraid she’d find me — that I’d done something to myself. And I didn’t even know they’d picked it up.”
The Boltz family remembers Dec. 26, 2004 for two reasons: the tsunami in the Indian Ocean but also the tsunami that their husband and father unleashed when he told them what had been bothering him for so many years.
He hadn’t planned a major announcement — but sitting around the kitchen table at his daughter’s house, Boltz’s son, Philip, asked him what was wrong.
“I thought, ‘Well, I can just do what I always do and hide the truth or I can take a risk and be honest,’” Boltz says. “That day, with the tsunami, has become very symbolic in our family.”
Nobody was sure, at the time, what the ramifications of the revelation would be, least of all Ray.
“It’s hard to say I came out because I didn’t have all the answers. I just admitted what I was struggling with and what I was feeling. It’s hard to go, ‘This is the point where I accepted my sexuality and who I was,’ but I came out to them and shared with them what I’d been going through.”
Continuing to pretend, Boltz says, was no longer an option.
“I’d denied it ever since I was a kid. I became a Christian, I thought that was the way to deal with this and I prayed hard and tried for 30-some years and then at the end, I was just going, ‘I’m still gay. I know I am.’ And I just got to the place where I couldn’t take it anymore … when I was going through all this darkness, I thought, ‘Just end this.’”
His family’s reaction took time. “I don’t want to downplay it like it was just, ‘Oh, well that’s OK.’ It was a very tough time for them too, but the bottom line was they loved me and they still love me … it’s been an amazing journey of acceptance on their part … I was offered support and love from each member of my family, including my wife.”
Ray Boltz was born in June 1953, the middle of three children (a fourth died shortly after birth) to William and Ruth Boltz. Ray’s early religious experience centered around a small country Methodist church.
He discovered rock music in high school. Lying on his bed at age 17 hearing the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” awoke him to the possibilities of music. There was a smidge of budding radical in him — he participated in an anti-war rally; high school friends had gone to Woodstock, though he didn’t. A hippie spin-off of sorts, the Jesus Movement was gradually making its way across the country from California.
Boltz injured his back in 1972 and was in the hospital when a visiting minister invited him to Jacob’s Well, a Christian coffeehouse in nearby Harper City, Ind. When Boltz recovered, he checked it out, saw gospel group the Fisherman perform and had a life-altering experience.
“That evening had a profound impact on my life,” he says. “I realized that this was the truth and that Jesus was alive … that’s really where I made a commitment to Christ. I decided I could be born again and all of the things I was feeling in the past would fall away and I would have this new life.”
He became a regular at Jacob’s and met Carol Brammer at its upstairs Christian bookstore later that year. They attended Bible studies together and eventually wed in 1975.
Indiana — for some reason that’s never been fully explored — had become a hotbed of Christian music. The Jesus Movement had a surge of early ’70s activity in Boltz’s part of the state and gospel music legends like Bill and Gloria Gaither, Sandi Patty, members of Petra and late gospel singer Rich Mullins all hailed from the Hoosier state.
His early years of family life were good ones and Boltz recalls them fondly. He worked for the state highway department and drove a snowplow truck while putting himself through college. He’d write songs and sing on weekends. After college he worked five years at a manufacturing plant.
A series of self-made indie cassettes of his songs, which he sold at concerts, made him realize the importance of having a producer/arranger and by the mid-1980s, he plunked “everything we had” into recording an album at Bill Gaither’s Indiana studio.
Boltz financed “Watch the Lamb” for $11,000. It was picked up by Heartland Records in Orlando, Fla., and distributed by the CCM label Benson.
He quit his job in 1986 and went into music full time. Boltz’s career soared with the release of his second album, “Thank You” (1988).
He spent most weekends on the road and maintained a steady output of recording. Despite Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) having its unofficial headquarters on Nashville’s Music Row, by the time Boltz became well known, his children were in school in Indiana and, like the Gaithers and Sandi Patty, he remained based there. He became well regarded for an unusual level of giving back, eventually donating some concert proceeds for orphanages in Calcutta, Sri Lanka and a home for abandoned AIDS babies in Kenya.
Touring eventually involved a band, two buses and a semi-trailer truck and a crew of about 15 people with Ray headlining venues that sat between 5,000 and 7,500 people.
“Those were definitely wonderful, wonderful years,” Boltz says. “There’s absolutely no question about it … I believed what I sang but in the back of my mind, I always felt I could never quite measure up. So yes, they were good years, but there was also a lot of pain.”
It got to the point by the early-to-mid ’00s that keeping his homosexuality hidden had become an increasingly wearying notion. “You get to be 50-some years old and you go, ‘This isn’t changing.’ I still feel the same way. I am the same way. I just can’t do it anymore.’”
There was some exploration of “ex-gay” therapy though Boltz never attended an “ex-gay” camp or formal seminar. “I basically lived an ‘ex-gay’ life — I read every book, I read all the scriptures they use, I did everything to try and change.”
Indirectly, this spilled out into his songwriting. Boltz says even though he never told his fans the specifics of his struggle, it added a dimension to his lyrics that resonated.
“It’s there on every single record,” he says. “That struggle of accepting myself and my feelings. There’s a lot of pain there and it connected with a lot of people. They weren’t struggling with the same thing necessarily but we all suffer with our humanity.”
There were other signs that his music was connecting. He was shocked to see two kids from a Calcutta mission singing “Thank You” during ABC’s coverage of Mother Teresa’s funeral in 1997.
He’d met Bill McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers, a controversial religious group that advocates men being the head of Christian households, at a meeting and ended up singing in front of 1.3 million Christian men at a Promise Keepers rally (“Stand in the Gap”) at the Mall in Washington in October, 1997. And one of the Christian teens killed in the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado in 1999 had been a Boltz fan and had performed choreography to his music.
But on the personal side, the pain of the closet kept a tight grip. His physical relationship with his wife hadn’t been torturous. He says it helped that he felt genuine affection for her, if not sexual desire.
“Sex was based on the fact that we loved each other and I wanted to make her happy,” he says. “I had sexual drives as well. You know, it’s like I never had to talk myself into having a relationship with her or that I was going, ‘Oh God, here we’re going to bed again’ — it wasn’t that. I loved her and we had a very full life; it’s just that inside, deep inside, it really wasn’t who I was.”
Aside from sex, Boltz says this eventually took a toll on the couple’s intimacy.
“It wasn’t something that manifested itself in that we never had sex … but how can you truly be intimate with someone when you don’t know who they are, when they won’t reveal themselves to you … I thought if I can’t say this to the people I love, then what kind of life is this?”
Retiring from singing
Boltz began slowing down in the summer of 2004. He quietly retired from singing, recording and touring. He and Carol separated in the summer of 2005 and he moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He only casually knew a few people there but thought it would be a good place to start a new, low-key life and get to know himself.
He and Carol Boltz remain close (their divorce was finalized early this year). She’s become involved with the gay advocacy group Soulforce but declined, through Boltz, to be interviewed for this story.
Not many in CCM seemed to think anything was awry. Boltz says people just assumed he was ready for a break after so many years on the road. Touring and wise investing had put Boltz in a comfortable place financially; it was important to him to make sure Carol had money, too, before moving.
The early months in Florida felt strange and different, but also liberating.
His faith was in transition — tenants he’d adhered to all his life suddenly were up for reconsideration, but there was a peace he hadn’t felt before.
“I had a lot of questions [about faith], but at the bottom of everything was a feeling that I didn’t hate myself anymore, so in that sense I felt closer to God.”
Boltz declines to go into specifics about the first time he was with a man, but says he has been dating and lives “a normal gay life” now.
“If you were to hold up the rule book and go, ‘Here are all the rules Christians must live by,’ did I follow every one of those rules all that time? Not at all, you know, because I kind of rejected a lot of things, but I’ve grown some even since then. I guess I felt that the church, that they had it wrong about how I felt with being gay all these years, so maybe they had it wrong about a lot of other things.”
As he sorted out his faith, Boltz began building a new life for himself. He took some graphic design courses. He found he could be almost completely anonymous in Ft. Lauderdale. The mullet he’d sported in the ’80s was long gone and CCM had always been a somewhat insular community.
Boltz says the anonymity was a blessing. “I didn’t have to be who I was in the past. I didn’t have to fit somebody else’s viewpoint of what they thought I was. I could just be myself and I met a lot of wonderful people.”
The name on the CD didn’t register with MCC’s Rev. Jeff Miner at first. And that was just fine with Ray Boltz. Miner liked the Christmas CD and was so impressed he e-mailed Boltz and asked him if he’d ever thought about doing music full time.
Boltz laughed as he read the note. “He obviously had no idea who I was and I just loved that,” Boltz says. “I just said, ‘Uh, yeah, I used to.’”
Miner showed the CD to the music leaders at MCC Indianapolis who, recognizing Boltz’s name, were dumbfounded that he’d been to their church. When they mentioned some of Boltz’s hits to him, Miner made the connection.
Miner told Boltz if he was ever in the area again — Boltz makes regular trips back to the Midwest to visit family — that he was welcome to sing. “I was scared to death when he said it,” Boltz says. “But I finally got the courage and said, ‘Yeah.’”
Boltz had no interest in rejuvenating his career but the same musical passion that had driven him since he was a teen, inspired him to use songwriting cathartically. The songs “I Will Choose to Love” and “God Knows I Tried,” two of the most recent he’s written, capture where he is now.
“I was so good at pretending/like an actor on a stage/but in the end nobody knew me/only the roles that I portrayed/and I would rather have you hate me/knowing who I really am/than to try and make you love me/being something that I can’t” (from “God Knows I Tried”).
This started a chain reaction of events that led to this story. Boltz performed at Miner’s church to an enthusiastic reception. Miner then introduced him to Rev. Cindi Love, executive director of the Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, who’d just released a book called “Would Jesus Discriminate,” a discussion of Christianity and homosexuality.
Love speaks highly of Boltz, whom she met in May. “After I got to know him, I thought, ‘This is one of the most sincere guys I’ve met in a long time,’” she says. “It’s an especially rare thing to see for someone who’s been in the music industry. He’s just clearer. He’s not jumbled up in ego.”
Love invited Boltz to join her at MCC Washington where he sang on May 25 and, even though it was not stated that Boltz is gay, the congregation connected with the songs. “I didn’t tell them I was gay but I still felt like I was being authentic, that I could be who I was,” Boltz says. “They all jumped up at the end of the song, clapping and all gave me hugs. It was pretty amazing.” (Boltz will return to MCC Washington for a free concert at 3 p.m. on Sept. 21.)
Boltz is clear, though, about his reasons for coming out publicly. “I really had no master plan here,” he says. “I’ve just been trying to go with the idea that you can either live your life out of love or out of fear. I could just stay here in Florida and be pretty anonymous. I could go work at Wal-Mart or something where nobody knows who I am, but to me, that’s kind of living in fear.”
Though he’s open to performing, Boltz says he doesn’t plan to let this issue take over his life. “I don’t want to be a spokesperson, I don’t want to be a poster boy for gay Christians, I don’t want to be in a little box on TV with three other people in little boxes screaming about what the Bible says, I don’t want to be some kind of teacher or theologian — I’m just an artist and I’m just going to sing about what I feel and write about what I feel and see where it goes.”
Even though Boltz plans no triumphant homecoming to Christian music, there may be rough days ahead. The Contemporary Christian Music scene has traditionally held its artists to much higher standards than their pop counterparts and it’s only been those who’ve shown repentance for their perceived sins, who have been able to rebuild their careers.
Joe Hogue worked for years as a CCM producer in Nashville with acts like Carman, DC Talk, BeBe and CeCe Winans and others, and found the calls for work completely dried up when he divorced his wife and came out.
“There are a lot of closeted people in Christian music,” says Hogue, who now lives in California and works with gay singers like Nemesis and Jason & DeMarco. “And, you know, it’s not even really the artists that care about it so much, they just know their audience will.”
No artist of Boltz’s prominence has come out. A few minor CCM players have, but their decisions were hardly celebrated.
Marsha Stevens, a Jesus Movement songwriter famous for the Christian folk song, “For Those Tears I Died,” a favorite in youth camps and churches for decades, came out in 1980. She was famously renounced by Bill Gaither, whom she’d been photographed with at one of his “Homecoming” concerts, in 2006.
Kirk Talley, a Southern Gospel singer (a slightly different genre than CCM, though there’s some overlap of the players), confessed to struggling with homosexuality and came out in GQ in 2005. He’s continued singing in churches but only because he’s categorized his sexual orientation as a burden to be carried.
Talley initially declined to be interviewed for this story saying he’d “been through enough hell,” but did consent to one comment: “I will definitely be in prayer for Ray,” he said in an e-mail. “He has no idea the crap he will have to endure.”
Others appear to avoid the topic altogether. Though it’s not fair, of course, to assume a Christian singer who never married is gay, speculation has existed in fan circles for years that single CCM artists like Mark Lowry and Margaret Becker might be gay (Lowry has denied that he’s gay; neither Lowry nor Becker responded to interview requests for this story).
Word records, which used to distribute Boltz’s music, didn’t respond to a request seeking comment. The Gospel Music Association, the organization that gives out Dove Awards, said via e-mail that “GMA is a trade organization that works for our members to promote gospel/Christian music, not a religious or political group. As such, we do not comment on the lifestyle choices of people in our community.”
Gay Christian artists like Jason & DeMarco have never been embraced by the CCM community, but have found a degree of compensation for it in the gay community.
And things may be easing — when Christian DJ Azariah Southworth and Tony Sweet, a runner up on a gospel-music reality show, came out, reaction was muted. But neither have the prominence of a major CCM act.
Even MCC’s Cindi Love anticipates tough times ahead for Boltz. “He needs to get through this initial coming-out process and just see how that feels,” she says. “A lot of people will probably throw a bunch of stuff at his family. I pray they don’t, but I bet they will.”
Hogue, who worked with Boltz on his 1991 album “Another Child to Hold” and has helped him record a few new songs for a still-evolving possible new project, says he hopes for a day when Christians will see homosexuality as no more a perceived sin than it used to be for women to be ministers or for divorced Christians to hold leadership positions in churches.
“I like to hope for the best, but it will be slow moving,” Hogue says.
Boltz admits to some nervousness, but says ultimately, he isn’t worried.
He doesn’t want to get into debates about scripture and has no plans to “go into First Baptist or an Assembly of God church and run in there and say, ‘I’m gay and you need to love me anyway.’”
For him, the decision to come out is much more personal.
“This is what it really comes down to,” he says. “If this is the way God made me, then this is the way I’m going to live. It’s not like God made me this way and he’ll send me to hell if I am who he created me to be … I really feel closer to God because I no longer hate myself.”
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