Dolly Parton scoots into a drab backstage garage on her own two legs like a unicorn dream: knee-length canary yellow dress, rhinestones, more rhinestones, and a glow that can apparently turn even an industrial underground into heaven on earth.
This woman – a country queen, a “backwoods Barbie,” the self-proclaimed fairy godmother – has united us all merely by existing. And if it wasn’t already evident, it certainly is in her midst: Dolly Parton is the only religion we may ever agree on.
Read on as Dolly, who released her 43rd studio album “Pure & Simple” last month, looks back on her introduction to the gay community and, like any paragon of virtue, helping her own family members come to terms with their sexuality.
Growing up in the Great Smoky Mountains, did you know any gay people?
If I did, I didn’t know they were at the time! (Laughs) We were just mountain people, and I did not know at that time – I sure did not.
What was your introduction to the gay community then?
As I started to be a teenager there were a couple of guys downtown that everybody was sayin’ were queer, ya know? I know they often said that about anybody who was odd or different – “they’re just queer, just strange and odd” – but the way they would talk about these two guys they would say, “Well, they’re sissies, they’re girls.” I was a teenager then. But in my early days we did not know (what gay was).
It didn’t take me long to know that people were different and that was always fine with me ’cause I was different too, and I embraced and accepted them and I knew them. I knew them well. But no, in my early days I did not know. But I know a lot of them now! I have a huge gay and lesbian following and I’m proud of ’em, I love ’em and I think everybody should be themselves and be allowed to be themselves whoever they are, whatever they are.
How big is your gay circle these days?
You know what, I have so many (gay) people in my companies. And later on, I did find out I have many gays and lesbians in my own family. We accept them, we embrace them. Oh, there are some in the mountains who still don’t know quite what to make of it or how they should feel about it, but they’re ours and they’re who they are and we know they’re wonderful and they’re like us. We love the fact that they are who they are and we nurture that. We don’t try to make them feel separate or different. We embrace it.
Because you’ve always been so LGBT-affirming, are you a safe place for them to open up about their sexuality?
Yes! Actually, I’ve had many people through the years who I have helped to feel good about themselves. I say, “You need to let people know who you are and you need to come on out. You don’t need to live your life in darkness – what’s the point in that? You’re never gonna be happy; you’re gonna be sick. You’re not gonna be healthy if you try to suppress your feelings and who you are.”
I have a couple of transgender people in my company who are on salary with me, so I am totally open for that. And a lot of people feel like they can come to me… and they do! Whether it’s about being gay or whatever, a lot of people do me like they used to do my mama and come to talk to me about things. Hopefully I’m able to help. I think I have.
When were you first aware of transgender people?
I remember watching the news when I was a girl and they (were talking about the) first operation that somebody had. That’s the first time I ever heard about that, and so that was many, many years ago. But yeah, I’ve known a lot since then, though.
Throughout your career, gay people have leaned on you for musical moral support while also absorbing your sage wisdom. But what have you learned from the gay people in your life?
I certainly know that the gay people I know are the most sensitive and most caring of all. I think they go through so much that they have to live with their feelings on their sleeve. They’ve had to go through so much that I think they’re very emotional and tenderhearted and more open to feelings, so I’ve just learned the same things I try to learn from everybody. I know they’re good people and I’ve tried to learn from that as well. They’re very creative, most of them. And I think that also comes from just embracing the fact that they’re different. Most of the gays I know just want to make the world a more beautiful place like I do.