Pride Month 2020: Rob Halford's coming out was a defining moment in LGBTQIA++ culture, here's why
The trailblazing Judas Priest frontman was widely revered and reviled by the notoriously homophobic metal community after he came out in a 1998 MTV interview
With June being celebrated as Pride Month 2020, this is the perfect time to look back at some of the watershed milestones that helped shape the LGBTQIA++ community in music. One of the most iconic moments that sent reverberations through the music industry was the revelation that Rob Halford, the celebrated frontman of the influential heavy metal band Judas Priest, had officially come out as gay in a 1998 interview with MTV. It was a bold and defiant move at the time, effectively putting an end to years of whispered speculation and swirling rumors that had surrounded the singer and the machismo-laden Judas Priest. The game-changing news had a ripple effect through the notoriously homophobic metal community soon afterward and Halford was both reviled and revered for years after the news became public knowledge.
The self-styled Metal God (he has trademarked the phrase) is still a phenomenal singer at the age of 68, blessed with an immense voice that allows him to shriek and growl like a deranged banshee, thrilling millions around the world with his powerful and passionate singing. Besides his incredible vocal pyrotechnics, Halford's heavily studded leather-and-chains biker outfits also helped define the sartorial choices of countless metalheads worldwide. His iconic, trailblazing look soon became synonymous with the hard-driving, pulverizing heavy metal music scene over the years. However, Halford later revealed that his fashion choices had been inspired by the flamboyant gay bar scene and some fans digested this news about as well as a British steel razor blade.
When he first came out in an MTV interview in 1998, Halford revealed, "I think that most people know that I've been a gay man all of my life, and that it's only been in recent times that it's an issue that I feel comfortable to address, and an issue that has been with me ever since recognizing my own sexuality." He continued, "A lot of homophobia still exists in the music world, in all kinds of music," and added, "That's just something that I think we all have to address in our own lives. If we have a problem with it, I think we should seek help and find out why we do have a problem with it."
He concluded with a message of hope and inspiration, saying "I think it's difficult for everybody to come forward and be who you are, based on peer pressure, especially if you're a teenager. That's where a lot of the anxiety begins, and so maybe [if] people like myself and others do step in front of a camera and let the world know, maybe it's of some help."
He later revealed his coming out confession was more of a spur-of-the-moment thing, admitting: "I just say what's rattling out of my brain, you know, and I just happened to go, 'Well, speaking as a gay man...' and then I heard this noise, and it turned out the producer had literally dropped his clipboard when I said it."
Reflecting back on the moment, he said, "I think I just built in this delusional fear that I was going to destroy myself, no one was going to look at me anymore as a metal singer, I'm going to destroy Priest because of my attachment with them. It was all self-imposed paranoia. It didn't affect Priest one iota: the record sales didn't plunge, the show attendance didn't plunge. Unconditional love will accept you for who you are, and I think that was the blessing I had from the fans."
He elaborated on this in a radio interview, saying, “I'd never seen such an outpouring of love from people in all my life — the letters, the faxes, the phone calls from everybody in the metal community: 'Rob, we just don't care. We want you to be who you are. We want you to sing those songs. We wanna come see you.' And that was a tremendously uplifting moment for me. And it was also a tremendously uplifting moment for metal."
That's not to say he wasn't ridiculed and persecuted for years following the incident. He later admitted to NME that he dealt with a lot of hatred and ignorance, saying “Yeah, absolutely, I was surrounded by homophobia, which still exists today. There are places I can’t go back to because I’ll be stoned to death. As far as that whole business, I discovered when I did come out that I was in this trap gay people find themselves living in... that you’re living your life for everyone else, but not yourself. During the ’70s and ’80s it was incredibly difficult.”
But as he also knew he had made the right decision. "I learned that you’ve got to let yourself out of the cage and you can’t live your life for other people," he explained to Rolling Stone in a recent interview. He also admitted, "To come out into what was at the time, and still is to a certain extent, a very alpha-male–dominated experience — and that’s no disrespect to the great female metalheads — it brought me a lot of peace and helped me in my work more than anything else."
He encouraged fellow members of the LGBTQIA++ community, saying "If you’re still in the closet, you can’t really focus on life and what you’re here to do in life when you’ve got that shadow hanging over your head. Black it out, smash it down, burn it, tear it apart. You’re entitled to live your life as a human on this planet on your own terms."
Thanks to Halford's bravery, millions of music fans finally felt free and fearless enough to be their own true selves. Halford himself declared - "Gay metalheads, man, just come and join us and just get out and just have a blast," he stated. "It’s just fear more than anything else: fear of rejection, fear of being kicked out of the house by your family. But please don’t let that stop you. It’s your life. Claim it. It belongs to you."