By Chris Azzopardi
Photos: Haley Hill
In this year’s Republican war against drag, the plot twist no one saw coming was that Flamy Grant, a contemporary Christian artist and drag queen, would top the Christian music charts. Now, that’s a feat for anyone, not to mention the first time any queen has accomplished this, but it’s the story of how Flamy got there that feels like the ultimate clapback in response to the anti-queer religious right. I say that as someone who was made to feel worthless as a gay kid by the Catholic church just for being who I am, but still felt a life-saving connection during those years to God through the warm and welcoming spiritual music of Christian icon Amy Grant, the inspiration for Matthew Blake’s “Flamy” persona.
Flamy’s rise this summer began when Christian nationalist preacher and far-right Jesus rocker Sean Feucht, who fought against The Walt Disney Company for its support of LGBTQ+ legislation, taunted Flamy and her collaborator Derek Webb on Twitter. It was no surprise when Feucht, a Trump-supporting, anti-masking homophobe, took to social media to call out Flamy, remarking that her existence in Christian music was a sign of the “last days.”
Instead, it’s just the beginning of days for Flamy, as Feucht’s Twitter rant backfired when a heartening show of support for Flamy poured in — so much support that she topped the Christian charts on iTunes with both her No. 1 song “Good Day,” featuring Webb, and her No. 1 album “Bible Belt Baby,” her 2022 debut. Recently, the North Carolina native was featured in Rolling Stone, Billboard and Entertainment Weekly.
Flamy spoke to me recently about the pressure to suddenly step into the role of LGBTQ+ activist after her instant national exposure, healing her religious wounds with drag and how church looks very different for her these days.
After soaring to No. 1, you’ve been featured in national publications. How does this change course for what’s ahead for you career-wise?
When I have a second to breathe, which, honestly, I haven’t had a ton of moments where I could just fully decompress and think about everything, and when I have those moments, it’s overwhelming. Especially those first couple of interviews that hit. Rolling Stone was one of the first ones, and I just lost my mind to see my face online on their website with a Rolling Stone logo right there. That was mind-blowing to me. Even being in Paste Magazine was just massive. Hopefully I will still be in Paste Magazine one day for my music and not some controversy started by a conservative worship leader.
But these are big, big moments and the moment’s not lost on me. I’m very much aware of how big a deal it is, especially where we are in 2023 in America, where trans folks and drag queens are really the target of so much legislation, so much online hate, so much in-person hate with these protests that are breaking out outside of our clubs and our safe spaces. And so the moment’s not lost on me — having a drag queen represented in a space that we typically think of as being for those folks who are against us. I get it. It’s a moment for me too. And I hope I’m doing a good job of representing. I can ultimately only represent myself, but I try to make sure that queer folks are spoken for right now in every conversation that I have, because it’s important. It’s important right now. Our lives are at stake.
You have inadvertently and very quickly stepped into an activist role. What has that been like for you, and what kind of pressure are you feeling?
Yeah, there’s definitely a pressure. I mean, I’m a three-and-a-half-year-old queen. There are so many queens who would probably be so much more qualified than me to have these conversations, who’ve been doing it longer, who know the world better. But in those three-and-a-half years, I have fully immersed myself and I love drag so much. I love this art form. I hate that it took me 35 years of my life to finally get into it and try it and explore it. That was because I’m a late bloomer because of all that religious oppression. It took me so long to even just come out and then another decade to really unpack all of those inherited beliefs and find my freedom and find the love I have for myself today, that I definitely did not have in my 20s. So regardless of when and how it’s happening, I am glad that it’s happening at a time in my life when I feel more prepared to have these conversations and to speak from a place of love as opposed to a place of pain and hurt or aggression.
I understand the need to fight for our rights, and that is a longstanding tradition in the drag community and just in the queer community in general. We have had to fight hard battles. At the same time, I hope that I at least approach things with just a sense of love at the root and specifically, if nothing else, love for our community. My music, what I do in drag, first and foremost, it’s always for queer folks, and particularly it’s for queer folks who grew up in the church. That’s my primary audience. That’s who I’m thinking of when I write songs, and it’s a secondary thing to me to speak to the church, to allies, to people who aren’t allies, and get our message across in that way. But first and foremost, drag is just a love letter to the queer community that saved me when the version of Christianity I grew up in couldn’t.
How long did it take you to realize that drag was going to help you come to terms with your identity?
I didn’t come out, fully out and proud, until I was 28. My 30s were really about unpacking all of the trauma and the damage done by a religious system that trained me from the beginning, and trained so many of us from the beginning of our lives, to believe that we’re worthless. We aren’t loved by God, like God can’t actually love us because we’re so sinful and so bad and fallen and all this doctrine and dogma that is just heaped on us.
As kids, we’re told how bad we are, and that is not good footing to start out life on. It’s terrible footing to start out life on, and so it takes a minute, at least it did for me, to dig out from under all of that. Lots of therapy, lots of good community and queer community, and having to remind myself and learn how loved and worthy I am. And that happiness is a thing that we get to experience here in this life. It’s not a thing we have to put on hold and hope that there’s a better thing waiting for us in heaven. Happiness is a thing we create for ourselves now, so that’s a lot of what my message is. But yeah, it can take a minute to undo all of that damage sometimes.
I grew up Catholic. It was intense. You grew up evangelical. Like you, I also did a lot of unpacking, a lot of therapy, a lot of Amy Grant.
Those are the three levels: unpacking, therapy, Amy Grant. I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything growing up that wasn’t at our Christian bookstore. That was the music I was allowed to listen to. If I could buy it there, then I could listen, and Amy is the queen of Christian pop. I think that’s pretty undisputed. There’s not really been anybody else who’s had a career like hers, and especially at the time when I was growing up, “Heart in Motion” was just gangbusters, selling like crazy.
So much of her music just imprinted on me, and so even at the age of 37, when I was coming up with a drag name, that just made sense for me. I love the names that are wordplay on your favorite diva, like Tina Burner or Chaka Khanvict. Those kinds of things just tickle me. I love it. And so I wanted something in that realm. And when I said “Flamy Grant” out loud to my husband and he laughed — and my husband does not have all the religious trauma that I do — I was like, “Oh, if my husband can laugh at this, then I know there’s a whole generation of church youth group kids who are just going to be like, ‘Ah.’” And I wasn’t wrong.
A lot of gay Amy Grant fans have been following her for many years, and for a lot of us who felt a lot of fear and shame within the church, her music just always felt like a safe place. And through that music, so did she.
Absolutely. It’s kind of a universal experience that we have, especially as queer boys. We bond with a female icon. I think there was a subset of us who were growing up in the church and Amy was that person. She filled that role for us.
And I didn’t even know what queerness was until I was much older because I was so sheltered, but I knew I was different and I knew that there was, like you said, a safety in what Amy was doing, and I just loved her music so much. Memorized the albums front to back. She spoke to us in a way that it created safety and it created hope for what our future could look like.
If you ever do meet Amy and get a chance to perform with her on the same stage, what’s a song of hers that you clung to as a kid that you would want to perform with her?
Let’s pick a whole album. My favorite Amy album is “Behind the Eyes.” It spoke to me at a really specific time, because I was in high school when that one came out, and it was the first time I heard a recording by a Christian artist where it just let me sit in some of the sadness and some of the pain. The song was there to facilitate a space for pain because so much Christian music is like, “Well, we can acknowledge that life is hard in the first verse and in the second verse, but by the time that bridge rolls around, honey, you’d better wrap it up and point it back to Jesus and say, ‘Jesus healed me and saved everything, and it’s all good now.’” That is Christian music, and I had never really heard a song like “The Feeling I Had.” I love that song so much, and it was about a painful marital relationship. She was going through her divorce at the time, and that didn’t necessarily speak to me as a high schooler, but it made space for me. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can just process pain without having to smear on a plastic smile afterwards, and pretend like everything’s OK. We don’t always have to be OK.” That’s what that record did for me. Another song I would love to do with her is “You’re Not Alone” from “Heart In Motion.” That song to me, actually, is an anthem for the ex-evangelicals, the people who’ve left the deconstruction movement. It’s such a powerful lyric, actually, for me when I hear it in that context, or think about it in that context, that you’re not alone.
Are you still involved with the church?
Well, I’m not involved with a local church anymore. I don’t have a home church now. My church that I served at for the past eight-and-a-half years as one of the worship leaders was awesome. Very progressive, affirming, inclusive, all the things, but it closed down last year. It was kind of a casualty of the pandemic. So for me, it’s actually been a wonderful transition. It’s the first time in my life I have not had a church service to put on on Sunday mornings. I’ve always been involved in the making of church from high school… well, even younger, honestly. And I’m loving it. I love gay brunch on Sunday, and I am not ready to give that up anytime soon.
I mean, let’s be real. That is church for some.
It is church, absolutely. And I gave the first half of my life, literally 40 years, to the church and not just as an attender. I’ve been on church staffs at megachurches, I’ve been a church planter, and I’ve mostly just been a worship leader since high school, and that’s plenty. I’ve given plenty, and now it’s time for me to do something else, and it seems like the thing I’m going to be doing is singing songs in drag.
It seems like you’re in a place now where you’ve worked through it yourself and now you can help other people do the same.
I think that’s my hope. I hope that my music does that for some folks, and I hope that even the queer kids who are being sheltered the way I was and kind of isolated from the world, I still found ways to find things that my heart and my soul were hungry for. And so a drag queen’s not going to speak to every queer kid, but for some of the kids, she will, right? There are kids out there who are going to see what I’m doing and they’re going to be like, “Oh, that speaks to me. That gives me hope for a future that could be mine one day.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.