Christian bands like the Newsboys, DC Talk and Hawk Nelson formed the soundtrack to Grace Semler Baldridge’s life as a teenager. The musician, known professionally as Semler, remembers holing up in her bedroom as a child, writing songs in her head and imagining what it would be like to be onstage with Reliant K.
But just as surely as she loved Christian music, there was another thing Semler thought she knew with absolute certainty: There was no place for a queer teen like her on those stages.
So when the 30-year-old Los Angeles resident woke up on Tuesday and spotted her songs topping Apple Music’s Christian album charts ― outranking industry titans like Lauren Daigle and Chris Tomlin ― she said it felt “surreal.”
“It’s just been so encouraging and heartening,” she told HuffPost. “I keep thinking about how this would have meant so much to me when I was 13 or 14 years old, to see an openly queer artist talk about being queer and struggling with faith and being hopeful with God and being mad with God sometimes.”
“I’m so grateful to be part of what I think is a movement towards inclusion within a faith community that has been largely exclusionary,” she said.
Semler released her album “Preacher’s Kid” on Feb. 5. She recorded it with equipment she had at home and has promoted it by herself on TikTok. She uploaded it to an independent digital music distribution service and, with encouragement from her wife, purposefully categorized it as Christian music.
“Preacher’s Kid” is a Christian album, she insisted, because she is a Christian, and many of the songs she wrote for it deal with her faith.
Semler said she hopes the album’s early popularity will challenge the contemporary Christian music industry and its executives to acknowledge that queer Christians exist, are worthy of dignity and respect, and have stories that deserve to be honored.
The industry tends to marginalize people who fall outside the bounds of “this very rigid, puritanical, white western Christian doctrine,” she said.
“There are so many people that fall into that category. We’re talking about purity culture, we’re talking about white supremacy and racism, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment,” she said. “There’s so much that we need to unpack that the church with a capital C is perpetuating right now. We can’t pretend that doesn’t happen.”
The daughter of an Episcopal priest, Semler said she grew up going to church multiple times a week. The Christian community she was raised in was generally welcoming to LGBTQ Christians, allowing queer parishioners to serve in leadership roles. But even with such a progressive religious upbringing and parents who wholeheartedly embrace her, Semler said she wasn’t shielded from toxic Christian theology. She was still exposed to it when she went on mission trips or attended church camps, she said.
Over the past few years, Semler has revisited some of those old wounds, going through a period where she deconstructed and started rebuilding her faith.
“In living as myself, dressing to my gender expression, being open with my sexuality; I was able to access scripture and theology in a way that was never available to me before when I was closeted and so scared of what the world thought of me,” she said. “Once I accepted who God created me to be, everything just opened up and I can be honest, I can be angry at God, I can acknowledge harm and have this complex relationship with the divine.”
“When we don’t allow that, we’re actually creating a really small God,” she added. “I believe in an all-powerful and divine creator that can take all of our expressions and all of our confusions and all of our doubt.”
While queer musicians have made recent significant strides in the secular music industry, the contemporary Christian music world — where “Christian” is often a byword for white, evangelical and distinctly conservative viewpoints — has not yet opened up for them. Most of the biggest stars in the industry were either openly supportive of President Donald Trump or notably silent. The Christian musicians who have been brave enough to publicly contradict the norms of white evangelical American culture face heated backlash. And the industry has not treated queer musicians well. The Grammy-nominated singer Jennifer Knapp, for example, was never fully accepted back into the fold after she came out as lesbian in 2010.
Semler said she’s encountered some of these attitudes while filming a documentary about Christian music last year. When she asked a Christian music executive if there is space for queer Christians in the industry, the executive told her that the topic simply doesn’t come up, she said.
“I thought that was heartbreaking. And I also think the idea that they don’t talk about it is a lie,” she said. “Now I think we’re going to put that to the test because I wonder how long they can ignore me.”
In one of the songs on her album, “Jesus From Texas,” Semler writes about how one of her closest friendships came to an end because her friend disapproved of her. She writes about pledging not to give up on that friend.
My best friend found God so we lost touch
I bet a savior beats a friend who thinks you are good enough
I hope she finds love and peace
And if her kid comes out I hope that she calls me.
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
Semler told HuffPost that she wasn’t just pledging not to give up on her friend. In a larger sense, she said she’s hopeful that projects like “Preacher’s Kid” can be an invitation for Christians who shun LGBTQ believers “to talk with us and to acknowledge our humanity and our existence.”
“We are the unholy divine, we’re the ones you cast out,” she said. “But we’re here, and I won’t give up on you.”
“I’m not speaking for everybody; I don’t think that everybody needs to hold that sort of space,” she added. “But from a personal perspective, I am hopeful that we can reach a point of inclusion.”