The parade is lined up along Buttles Avenue, just northwest of downtown Columbus, Ohio. Trucks idle with trailers and floats in tow, awaiting the 11 a.m. go-ahead, while riders and walkers crowd together in the fast-vanishing tree shade of the adjacent park. Ministers, wearing clerical collars, and their congregants, wearing purple shirts, mingle with men sweating in leather bondage gear, muzzles, and, in some cases, skirts and six-inch heels. Children holding rainbow flags and wearing rainbow leis sip from juice boxes while their mothers spray them down with sunscreen. It's already 85 degrees.
Trey Pearson, 38, reaches to borrow sunblock from the backpack of a stranger whose purple shirt advertises St. John's United Church of Christ. The stranger knows who he is: The cover of Pearson's latest album, proclaiming his name above his face, is plastered larger than life on the banner hanging from each side of the church's rented yellow flatbed. Pearson doesn't regularly attend St. John's, but he'll be performing on the congregation's behalf during the 37th Stonewall Columbus Pride Parade, one of the country's largest, attracting more than 500,000 people each June. Pearson agrees with the church's support of LGBTQ rights—the backs of the congregants' purple shirts bear the LGBTQ-friendly slogan, "It's all good." These Christians, in turn, are inspired by Pearson's personal story, which he would share the following weekend, in their downtown sanctuary. Pearson is a star in the world of Christian rock. He is also openly gay.
Pearson grew up outside Columbus, the son of devout Christian parents. At the evangelical church he began attending as a teenager, he was taught to believe that secular music—to say nothing of homosexuality—was an affront to God. He remembers tossing CDs onto bonfires at the suburban church. "They would convince these kids that they had to burn their secular music to be close to God," he says.
Instead of mainstream pop, then, Pearson gravitated toward the alternative rock of 1990s Christian acts like Seven Day Jesus and Jars of Clay—the music that reminded him of the artists he loved before joining the evangelical church, like Green Day and Third Eye Blind. In 1997, at 16 years old, Pearson started a band, Everyday Sunday, with other boys in his youth group. Pearson was the group's lead singer, songwriter, and promoter, eventually ditching college after freshman year to knock on the doors of producers in Nashville in hopes of a record contract. An independently released hit song attracted Flicker Records, which signed the band in 2002. Everyday Sunday went through a host of band members—"My ambitions were always higher," Pearson says —but, under his leadership, the band consistently charted on the Christian rock rankings, and once broke into the Billboard Top 200. Still, as he toured through 50 states and 20 countries, Pearson almost exclusively played churches and religious festivals.
In 2008, he married a woman who, as a teenager, had attended the same youth group, effectively closing the last door on the secular world—or so he thought. Pearson says he had long "romanticized" love with a woman but had never even made out with a girl before he married. While he prayed and play-acted, he never felt that sexual connection, that spark, with her. They had two kids. He suppressed his attraction toward men, tried to placate his needs with intimate male friendships while remaining faithful to his family. He told himself he could choose to be straight.
In 2015, after 20 years of living life as a straight person, Pearson came out to his wife. The two started the process of getting divorced not long after, but, with her support, he wrote a letter to fans that ran on Religion News Service in the first half of 2016. "I have come to be able to admit to myself, and to my family, that I am gay," he wrote. After a heartfelt summary of his journey to this point, Pearson closed with a plea for understanding: "I hope people will hear my heart, and that I will still be loved.... I trust God to help love do the rest."
Pearson was praying as much for his professional as for his personal life. He drew caution from the tales of singers like Ray Boltz, Jennifer Knapp, and Anthony Williams, who had come out and were subsequently shunned on Christian radio. Jars of Clay had been lambasted for even voicing support for LGBT rights. Pearson reached out to DJs and fellow musicians to smooth the publication of the letter ahead of his forthcoming solo album.
But his prayers went unanswered. Pearson was slated to perform at a festival later in 2016, but the production crew threatened to walk off the job if he sang, so organizers scratched him from the line-up. In fact, since he came out, Christian radio won't touch his new songs, or any of his old music for that matter. The churches and festivals he once played will no longer book him. The unkindest rejection has come from his colleagues—producers, managers, and fellow musicians who had all privately offered their support. "Even in this affirming landscape, [other Christian-rock musicians] are not going to show that to their fans," he says. "They're scared of losing their careers. If all the people who texted me would've shown that support publicly, it would've forced the whole industry to change."
Pearson is hopeful that the industry is capable of such a change. In the meantime, he has found a new audience and a new venue for his music: bars, house shows, and LGBTQ-friendly churches.
The truck's diesel engine rattles to life as the parade lurches forward. Pearson steadies himself on the back, plugging his phone into a generator-run PA system. He selects one of his latest singles, "Love Is Love," and puts it on repeat. As the truck turns onto High Street, the main parade route, a synth-dance rhythm blares from the speakers.
"Happy Pride, Columbus!" he yells through a microphone. "Does anybody here believe that love is love?"
The song plays nine times on the 1.2-mile route, each time touching new ears along the way. The lyrics are some of his most secular—"I don't really want to wake up / This feels exactly how you dreamt it up / I know that love is love." But Pearson's faith is still an important piece of his art, as made plain by "Hey Jesus," another cut from the new album that he had considered performing today. Its refrain is a direct plea to Christ: "I just want to be loved for who I am." (Pearson ended up going with "Love Is Love" because he thought it a safer play with a largely secular crowd.)
There was a time in the festival's history, during the early 2000s, when crashers would literally throw Bibles at passing floats, including St. John's. Today, the only projectiles are strands of beads raining down from high-rise balconies. Pearson dodges these as he dances in his tank top, holding a rainbow parasol in one hand and the microphone in the other. He is met with smiles and waves and more than a few people dancing and singing along. But in the background, he can see the sullen faces of a handful of protesters holding signs like "LGBTQ MOCKS GOD" and "LOVE WARNS! DANGER JUDGMENT IS COMING! SEEK JESUS NOW!"
It's a war over the perceived nature of God's will that Pearson now fights every moment of his life. Tonight, he will don a suit and attend his niece's wedding, a religious ceremony at which many participants, some of them family, will oppose his presence. But he's going because he loves his niece and he loves God.
Once the wedding is over, Pearson can come back to downtown Columbus. The city has always been home, but in the two years since his coming out, it's become a refuge, a place where Pearson can drop his guard, let others be and just be himself. He has found a church where he goes to worship freely every Sunday. And there are dozens of gay-friendly businesses downtown, especially along High Street, like Union Cafe, the restaurant and bar where they know Pearson's food and drink order by heart. He'll head there tonight, Saturday night of Pride, where his old friends and fans and about 500,000 new friends await.
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