How Dolly Fuses God, Family, and Music in Rock-ribbed Allyship
By James Barker
If we want to build an inclusive world that springs naturally from the highest values of traditional America, Dolly Parton can show us what that looks like.
LGBTQ acceptance and a Christian born in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee are two things that don’t seem to belong together. Yet Dolly has been a vocal ally of the queer/trans community at least since 1991.
Even with artists like Kacey Musgraves, Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert and Reba McEntire having explicitly supported the community, and the growing visibility of LGBTQ country artists like Orville Peck, Brandy Clark, Lil Nas X and Brandi Carlile, the prevailing narrative in our culture is that country music is homophobic. (Nadine Hubbs’ book Rednecks, Queers and Country Music counters a number of the stereotypes and misrepresentations of country music, especially its homophobia, a lot of which is based on middle-class assumptions that only see queer/trans acceptance and queer/trans people through that middle-class lens.) Dolly Parton proves time and time again that LGBTQ support can come from its seemingly unlikeliest place.
Dolly has the archetypal country music autobiography. She was the first person in her family to finish school, growing up in rural poverty in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, one of 12 children in a one-room cabin (they moved to a place with two rooms when she was 5).
Although she disagreed with some of the Christian practices of her upbringing, finding them overly based on rules, restrictions and judgment, Dolly has been unequivocal about her faith. In fact, her issue with those practices is less about being more moderate as a Christian, and more about her belief in what it takes to be Christian: compassion, kindness and hope. Dolly also explicitly references her faith and the Bible in her songs, and even released a devotional album back in 1971.
Dolly’s life and faith make her everything you would expect from a country singer; and almost everything you would not expect from an LGBTQ ally. Yet when it comes to Dolly, all these things come together seamlessly. Listen again to “Coat of Many Colors” and you’ll find explicit reference to the Bible, Dolly’s poor upbringing, and a strong message of acceptance intertwined throughout the song.
And when Dolly is expressing her support for queer people, she is no less country or Christian. One of the earliest explicit acts of Dolly’s allyship was from 1991 in her song “Family” off the album Eagle When She Flies:
“Some are preachers, some are gay
Some are addicts, drunks and strays
But not a one is turned away, when it’s family.”
In “Family,” being gay is seen as equally acceptable as being a preacher. Family, one of the most recognizable and stereotypical themes of country music, is represented as a place of belonging and compassion. For Dolly, the family is not about conformity, in fact the role of the family is to provide a radical space for inclusion. To add to its country credentials, as if “family” was not country enough, the family is a place of inclusion for “addicts, drunks and strays,” three staples of country music from its very beginning.
In this early example of Dolly’s allyship, both country music tradition and Christianity are not barriers to overcome for LGBTQ rights, but in fact become the very tools through which to articulate queer/trans acceptance.
In 2009, Dolly spoke out in a CNN interview in support of marriage equality: “Sure, why can’t they get married? They should suffer like the rest of us do.” The way Dolly answered with her everyday wit and humor makes support for marriage equality sound like common sense, as if there should be no debate about it.
For someone who has often avoided explicit political statements, when it comes to LGBTQ rights Dolly has been unambiguous in her support. Dolly is not only positive and affirmative about accepting LGBTQ people, but she presents it as perfectly in keeping with the rest of her worldview, most notably her Christian faith, saying, “God made us who we are and how we are.” Dolly has criticized those who have used the Christian faith to justify homophobic positions, even going as far to say to Jad Abumrad and Shima Oliaee on their fantastic Dolly Parton’s America podcast: “I hate those Christians that are so judgmental.” The episode “Two Doors Down” of her 2019 Netflix series Heartstrings connects the specific discussion around marriage equality to a wider affirmation of queer/trans people.
Dolly’s support for LGBTQ has also explicitly included trans people, which she made clear as early as 1994 in the Q&A section of her autobiography.In 2016 in response to transgender toilet bans, Dolly was equally unequivocal about her support for trans people as she was about marriage equality, telling CNN: “I hope that everybody gets a chance to be who and what they are.”
Dolly then adds a funny quip similar to the way in which she expressed her support for marriage equality: “I just know, if I have to pee, I’m gon’ pee, wherever it’s got to be.” Yet again, the way this argument is made makes this view the common sense position. Dignity and respect for people’s common humanity is placed at the center, moving transphobic arguments to the margins that do not deserve the attention they too often receive.
2016 was not the first time that Dolly stood up for trans people. In 2005, Dolly recorded “Travelin’ Thru” for the film Transamerica, a road trip film about a trans woman’s experience with a soundtrack heavily featuring genres from the American South: bluegrass, country and americana. “Travelin’ Thru” is arguably the strongest example of Dolly using country music traditions and her Christian faith to express LGBTQ acceptance. The title of the song itself features in folk songs “Wayfaring Stranger” and “I’m a Pilgrim,” part of the folk tradition that formed the foundations of all country music,. To make these references even more explicit, the song repeats these lines a number of times:
“Like a poor wayfaring stranger that they speak about in song
I’m just a weary pilgrim trying to find what feels like home.”
In a song that was written expressly for a film about trans people, Dolly puts those experiences at the very roots of country music. In the second verse Dolly goes even further and places them at the heart of Christian theology:
“We’ve all been crucified and they nailed Jesus to the tree
And when I’m born again, you’re gonna see a change in me
God made me for a reason and nothing is in vain
Redemption comes in many shapes with many kinds of pain”
The comparison of trans people’s experiences and journeys to the resurrection, the link between which is viscerally established through the image of crucifixion, establishes a divine mandate for trans people to be who they are and for everyone to accept them completely: “God made me for a reason.” The universalizing language of “we’ve all been crucified” functions not to say that we are all the same (a couple of lines later Dolly describes experiences as coming “in many shapes”) but that in all of our differences and diversity we all deserve and should expect to be treated with respect for our common humanity.
This is not to say that Dolly Parton is perfect, or even the perfect LGBTQ ally: indeed, she has also made comments that have been disappointing. But as we know, country music – and the country music industry – needs to do a much better job of treating queer/trans people as full equals.
Dolly, who has garnered a massive audience, deep respect and, indeed, a reputation as a country music legend, surely has a role to play in this. Homophobes and transphobes may try to use Christianity and “family values” to justify discrimination against LGBTQ people; progressives and liberals may be willing to let bigots define and deploy these terms. But Dolly’s emphatic demonstrations that faith, family, country music and queer/trans acceptance can and should co-exist are vital to the conversation.
In short, Dolly Parton gives us a starting point to radically rethink what family, church and country music could mean as part of a queer world-building project.