Semler sings out: openly queer Christian musician

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday September 20, 2022
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Semler (Instagram)
Semler (Instagram)

The Contemporary Christian Music phenomenon known simply as Semler has earned the distinction of hitting #1 on the Gospel charts twice in one year, pushing aside one of the most successful Christian artists ever, Lauren Daigle. First, Semler hit #1 with the EP "Preacher's Kid," and again a few months later she hit #1 the EP "Late Bloomer." It is a real achievement for any artist, but it's even more noteworthy that Semler is the first openly queer Christian music artist.

Grace "Semler" Baldridge, a real-life preacher's kid, is a very talented gender-neutral singer/songwriter/musician who embraces all pronouns. A truth-teller with Jackie Kennedy Onassis eyes, Semler's star was already rising before the pandemic when she began hosting the docuseries "State of Grace," which, like her music, seeks to bridge the Grand Canyon-sized gap between Christians and the LGBTQ community.

Despite the odds, Semler credits TikTok with allowing her to reach #1. From the very beginning, thousands of people were grateful to find her on TikTok, in contrast with the response of one Christian music executive who told her flat out that there was no space for queer storytelling in Christian music.

Semler (Instagram)  

Powerful music and lyrics
During the coronavirus quarantine, Semler finally allowed herself to be 100% vulnerable, 100% honest in her music. Significantly, Semler doesn't claim to have all the answers. And audiences appreciate the honesty. The bare, stripped-down mostly acoustic country/punk/folk music gives voice to the questions of a generation.

Unprecedented for Christian music, many songs including "Thank God for That" contain F-bombs punctuating the message: "I'm f**kin' gay and thank God for that (thank God for you). Christians cast me out but Jesus had my back."

To be sure, beautiful chord progressions and musical phrases that might be described as having roots in traditional church music perfectly frame memorable lyrics. The music is reminiscent of songs by Suzanne Vega, as with "Jesus from Texas," written on election night:

"Oh what a terrible honor it's been to learn that my blessings are things you call sins, I'll spend the rest of my life tearing down the Jesus from Texas you put in a crown, But I won't give up on you."

The song "A Good Man," is equally powerful. "I believe in forgiveness, but I don't think people can change. You tell me. You tell me. Oooh, what have you become? You were your mother's son."

The popular song "Bethlehem" expresses a lot of "church hurt" when it asks, "Is it prophecy or brainwashing? ...Oh, what I'd give for just an inch of your peace. Cause I've got bruises on my knees."

It's worthwhile viewing often tearful reactions to Semler's music online, such as Sam Kay's. She loves Semler for expressing exactly what many young people are feeling today. For Christians to not embrace diversity, she says, is "proof that Christians don't believe what they preach, that God doesn't make mistakes."

Filled with emotion, she continues, "At times [Semler's music] is a love letter and a reminder of solidarity to other LGBTQ members who have felt harmed and excluded by the church."

Sam Kay, an ex-Christian video blogger, is also grateful that Semler's music gives young people "the strength and power to be able to say 'that's not right.' And that's something I know kids in the church need to hear. Exclusion is always wrong." (See her reaction video on YouTube.)

Like many people, Sam Kay actually left her church when the preacher told the whole congregation to vote for anti-LGBTQ legislation, Amendment 1 in North Carolina (which passed, but was overturned).

Indeed, engaging in politics from the pulpit, although apparently common in certain parts of the country, is banned if a religious institution wants to keep its tax-exempt status with the IRS. Listening to Christian music is how growing numbers of Christians who are ex-church goers continue to worship.

Semler could not have had this level of success unless Christians were ready for it. In truth, LGBTQ acceptance is increasing across the board. A great number of Christians have gay family members and secretly hold more liberal viewpoints than the unrealistically conservative party line many churches preach.

Implicit in the music of Semler is the fact that Jesus' love is radical. There's nothing conservative about it. He preached to prostitutes and outcasts, and in doing so threatened the order of the day. Love is love, and we each instinctually know this.

Semler summed it up this way: "I think the notion of being kind to yourself and that you are worthy of love, care and tenderness that perhaps you didn't receive in your childhood is a more universal sentiment."

Simply put, the music is healing and transformative, the perfect music to listen to when you need a good cry.

Sidelined by an Industry
Despite incredible success, Semler's music is scarcely heard on Christian radio, nor has she yet been invited to the annual Christian music awards.

Not so long ago, the very same Contemporary Christian Music industry banished Amy Grant, their brightest star, for her divorce and all the outrage it stirred up at the time. In retrospect, the controversy looks almost pointless. But to this day, her numerous hit songs have vanished from Christian radio.

In imagining where things go from here with the Christian and LGBTQ communities, it is interesting to note that a recent study by UCLA's Williams Institute found that 40% of LGBTQ adults ages 18-34 consider themselves religious despite the fact that many young people have grown up without any religious affiliation. Many have had transformative personal spiritual experiences that inform their worldview. "Will we break bread or continue to throw stones?" Semler asks in "State of Grace." In time, the answer is inevitable.

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