Trey Pearson was once a rising star in the Christian music industry, with his band, Everyday Sunday, selling hundreds of thousands of records and scoring multiple top-ten hits. In 2016, Trey set off a firestorm in evangelical subculture and sparked national discussion by coming out as gay. Since then, Trey has set out to define himself as both a solo artist and an advocate not only for legal LGBTQ equality, but also for LGBTQ acceptance and affirmation among Christians.
His solo work regularly addresses these themes, and Trey’s 2017 solo album, Love is Love, was featured in Billboard Magazine and contains the powerful track “Hey Jesus,” a new music video for which was released today. [Scroll down to watch.] I thought I would take this occasion to ask Trey about his past in contemporary Christian music, what he’s focusing on now, and whether he’s optimistic about the future of LGBTQ inclusion.
Thanks for doing this interview, Trey. For those who are first discovering your work, could you tell us a little bit about your background and history? How did you get started in the contemporary Christian music industry [CCM]? And what has your relationship to the CCM and your band, Everyday Sunday, been since you came out as gay in 2016?
Yeah, I grew up in a conservative Christian home as a kid. A Calvinist, non-denominational church. I did a lot of semi-professional theater in downtown Columbus as a kid, and got into commercials and modeling. As a teenager, I got super involved in a Wesleyan mega-church and their youth group. It was there that I found out about the Christian rock scene that was growing with bands from DC Talk and Newsboys to MxPx, Switchfoot, and Five Iron Frenzy.
I got super inspired as a teen to start my own band. I went off to Indiana Wesleyan University for a year, and then after my freshman year of college decided to pursue a record deal. I had heard about Lenny Kravitz playing his music in the lobby of a record label until someone would listen to him, and I think I just felt in me that I would do whatever it took to get a record label to listen to me. I made an independent album and started knocking on the doors of a bunch of the huge Christian record labels in Nashville.
Within a few months, when I was twenty-one, I signed a deal with Flicker Records [EMI, now part of Capitol]. I had some good radio success, toured with major Christian music artists like TobyMac, Mercy Me, and Jeremy Camp, and did a lot of major youth events around the country, including Acquire The Fire and various Christian music festivals every year. I had a decent amount of success in that world, and it was my career from twenty one until I came out at thirty five. At that time, I hung up my old Christian band, decided to move on from the CCM world, and released my first record as a solo artist, Love is Love.
What were things like for you in the time leading up to your coming out? Also, you came out in 2016, a pivotal year for American society and politics. Did the election year have anything to do with the timing of your decision to come out?
I had come out to myself and my family in 2015, the fall before I came out publicly. It was an extremely painful and liberating season. I bawled my eyes out almost every day for a few months straight. Tears of grief and tears of joy. I realized my life would never look the same on the other side, but I had never before believed that I would be able to experience the freedom that I had finally found.
The election did not have anything to do with coming out to myself, but I was inspired by the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of gay marriage the summer before I came out. I don’t know that that played into me accepting myself, but once I did, I knew that I wanted to fight to keep people in government who would fight for LGBTQ persons. CNN interviewed me when my coming out story was released, and I did end up campaigning around the country for Hillary Clinton for the last few months leading up to the election.
Are you still a Christian now, and if so, how has your faith changed since you decided to come out?
I do still identify as a Christian, but I have progressed so much from how I used to believe and from the evangelical, fundamentalist world I grew up in. We’re on a ball spinning in space, and I like having hope that there’s something more. I’ve loved Jesus, and the stories of Jesus, so much since I was a child. I am a fan of the main message of Jesus, which is to love God and to love my neighbor. I believe the only way to know what God is is to love your neighbor.
In so many ways, this feels like a different religion than the Christianity people like our Vice President or Franklin Graham claim. I don’t know that my faith has changed a whole lot since I came out, but it had been changing and progressing for many years prior to me coming out, and I believe that process gave me the strength to accept myself, love myself and not be ashamed of who I am. The Calvinist and the more evangelical Wesleyan church I grew up in were both fundamentalist in their own way.
I’ve had to wrestle with the baggage of that fundamentalism. Touring around the world exposed me to so many different kinds of beliefs, and I have always wanted to understand the differences between different denominations and also different religions, probably at first mostly because I wanted to make sure I was “right” and able to defend my beliefs. Through that experience of seeing the world and continuing to ask questions as I tried to understand my faith, I have learned that it’s okay not to have all the answers, and not to expect anyone else to.
This brings us around to your new music video, “Hey Jesus.” The song opens with the lyrics, “Hey Jesus, can you hear me now? It’s been a while since I came out; I was wonderin’—do you love me the same?” Part of what makes the song so powerful, I think, is that you pose that question without ever answering it, which is of course such a no-no for CCM, where everything has to be neat and tidy by the end of a song, because, let’s be honest, evangelicals cannot handle deep self-reflection and ambiguity. But I wanted to ask, do you, on a personal level, feel like you have an answer to that question?
Yes, I do feel loved exactly as I am. I feel that I am worthy of love, and that I am worthy to experience all levels of intimacy in love as I desire, just as I believe all humans are. Posing the question to Jesus in the song kind of represents all of the feelings I’ve had since I was a child, and how that culminated in my coming out experience. I didn’t feel like it needed an answer, because I just wanted the song to capture that emotion that so many of us have felt growing up queer in this faith tradition, being brainwashed to believe something was wrong with us.
Everything about the video for “Hey Jesus” is so beautifully and powerfully done. I’ve watched it several times now, and I still can’t help crying pretty much from beginning to end. Can you tell us a little about the thinking and the process that went into it? Who directed it, how did you choose the cast, and so forth? What audience, or audiences, do you hope to reach with this? And what message do you want them to take away?
Thank you so much. Doing the music video for this song has been a huge passion project for myself. I came up with the idea, I chose the cast, came up with ideas for the scenes, and co-directed it with my best friend, Megan Leigh Barnard, who also was the cinematographer for the video. Megan is also queer. She and her girlfriend were in my last music video, “Love is Love,” with me.
This was the first music video she’s done behind the camera, and she is one of the most sought after photographers in Columbus. I think she did a stunningly gorgeous job. I chose the cast with a desire to show people at different life stages and in a variety of circumstances. I wanted to show the humanity of LGBTQ people who are told we are not worthy of experiencing love the same way that straight people do. This is one of those songs that I wrote rather quickly in my living room and then spent hours bawling on the floor because of how much emotion it stirred up in me. I wanted the video to be powerful and challenging in its own right, and hopefully to be something that translated the heart of the song as well.
While it does represent a variety of experiences, the video for “Hey Jesus” only features men. Was it a deliberate choice not to represent lesbian relationships or a broader swath of the LGBTQ community?
I knew that I would not be able to capture every different LGBTQ experience, but our goal was to come up with a few powerful scenarios at different stages in people’s lives, showing them all asking the same question, and to try to portray that convincingly in a three-and-a-half-minute song.
To get back to the bigger picture, it’s an open secret to industry insiders that there are quite a few LGBTQ folks in Christian music and among worship leaders and music pastors. How did you relate to that at the height of Everyday Sunday’s success, and where do you see things going now that you and a number of other trailblazers, like Vicky Beeching and Jennifer Knapp (and, although he spent a very long time out of the public eye, Ray Boltz) have begun speaking what was previously unspoken?
When I first started to realize that there were closeted CCM artists during my career, and also closeted worship leaders, youth pastors, and people I met in all areas of the evangelical church, it scared me as a result of my own internalized homophobia. As I was progressing in my faith, even before I could accept myself, I started to care more about the difficult circumstances they faced, having to choose between their careers and being themselves. I was very inspired by Jennifer Knapp sharing her truth several years before I did, and that was the time that I was beginning to see my own faith differently. So I think all of these people who find the courage to share their truth make a huge impact, and if everyone in CCM and the church was honest about their own truth, their own questions, and their own beliefs, I think we would progress a lot quicker.
Last year you very publicly called out certain celebrities—prominently Justin Bieber—on their affiliation with Hillsong Church, which, as is typical of evangelical megachurches, is not LGBTQ-affirming, although they try to avoid talking about that and to hide it beneath rhetoric of “loving and welcoming everyone.” Why was it so important to you to shine a light on Hillsong?
It was important for me that people would not be able to get away with believing that Justin Bieber’s church is an accepting, affirming church when in fact it does harm to LGBTQ lives. Hillsong has damaged many people, including friends of mine, and it was easy for people to write puff pieces about Justin as he was trying to figure out how to respond to a queer fan of his.
When all of that went down, I thought to myself that I had seen this movie before, way too many times with people who aren’t famous but handle it the exact same way. It needs to be called out because what these churches really believe is marginalizing. These churches silence LGBTQ voices, and I will do everything I can to expose the toxicity of those beliefs and to work for them to change.
What are you working on now, and what are the causes and goals you find it most important to support and pursue these days? When you look ahead to the future, are you optimistic or pessimistic? Why?
I am in the studio working on a few new songs right now, and I’ll be releasing a single with two new songs this fall. I am also working on a memoir, which will be my first book, and a couple of other projects.
I continually try to advocate for LGBTQ people in religion and politics. I am optimistic, and I do believe the world is evolving faster than ever on LGBTQ acceptance and equality. Of course there are still people hard at work in religion and our government who hate this, and they are trying to force us back as we continue to take steps forward. I believe representation matters. I think telling our stories matters. I was able to eventually find freedom because other people fought for representation and shared their stories publicly, and I hope that I can continue to be a part of what helps others find their freedom as well.
Thanks again for taking the time to do this interview, Trey. You’re an inspiration to me, and I’m sure to countless others. I hope that when you get right-wing Christians attacking you on social media, or you deal with non-affirming family, that you remember how much you mean to many of us. Is there anything else you’d like to say before we sign off?
I think that covers it. Thank you, Chrissy.