What Country Star Is Going Through Sexual Reassignment – People keep asking TJ Osborne how he’s feeling, and that makes sense given what he’s about to do, but he hates hearing the well-intentioned question over and over again from so many people — his friends, family, team and even me. the days leading up to it. Now, during a masked photo shoot in East Nashville, he insists he feels fine wearing the jacket. “I’m ready to put this behind me,” he says.
T.J. tall and friendly, with a ringing, sonorous voice that often breaks into a deep, warm laugh. He is the lead singer of Brothers Osborne, a duo he formed with his brother John, a guitarist, in 2012; together they create soulful country rock that sounds just as good on the radio as it does in the arena. Since signing to EMI Records Nashville, they have released seven Top 40 country singles and three studio albums, including their smash platinum hit “Stay a Little Longer,” which crossed over to mainstream radio. (Have you ever fallen in love at the end of summer while watching an orange-and-purple sunset from the back of a pickup truck? Well, me too, but this song will make you feel that way!) The duo has won four CMA Awards, been nominated for seven Grammys, and collaborated with the likes of by popular country contemporaries like Dierks Bentley and Maren Morris. There is nothing surprising in the popularity of the duo: both T.J. and John brings in artists with a flair for hymns.
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What may come as a surprise to fans of the band is the news that TJ, 36, is gay. This is not a recent discovery for him; he has known each other since childhood and has been surrounded by family and friends for years in his tight-knit Nashville community. In some ways, he says, going public is no big deal. “I’m very comfortable being gay,” he says later in a quiet room at his management company’s office. “I think they protect me, that I don’t want to talk about things that don’t bother me personally. I feel so weird.”
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But his reservations are understandable given that country music remains a bastion of mainstream conservatism in American art and culture. If liberal Hollywood is known for pushing a progressive agenda, country music has historically been its counterpoint—a safe haven for traditional “family values.” It doesn’t matter that many country artists, like Nashville as a city, are weak: they know that their core market, like the state of Tennessee itself, is skewed. The country music business is lucrative, generating $5.5 billion for the Nashville economy alone, according to the RIAA; if artists speak out, they run the risk of alienating listeners, especially in an age where even helpless statements in support of a cause can be misinterpreted. The story of the Chicks, the former Dixie Chicks who were kicked out after criticizing the Iraq war, looms large over country music. Taylor Swift even credited the band’s ouster as the reason she remained publicly apolitical for so long: “You’re always one comment away from being done,” she told Variety in 2020.
With this news, T.J. became the only openly gay man to be signed to a major country music label, a historic moment for the genre. Of course, he had predecessors: other openly queer artists, from Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Brandi Carlyle to masked cowboy Orville Pack and viral hitmaker Lil Nas X, have found success integrating country influences into their genre-defying music, and country artists, including Chelli Wright and Billy Gilman, have passionate fans. But T.J. may be the first to step so firmly into the sound and machine of mainstream country, in the prime of his career.
He worries that coming out will seem random or attention-grabbing. “People will ask, ‘Why do we even need to talk about this?’, and I personally agree with that,” he says. “But for me to show up at an awards ceremony with my husband would be a shock to people. It won’t be like, “Oh, great!”
What will happen next remains to be seen. “I don’t think I’ll be kicked off the stage in Chicago,” he says. “But in a rural town they play the county fair? I’m interested in how it will happen.” The professional risks he takes seem to be worth it, both for his own happiness and because it… Country music is about telling stories, and that means TJ is inseparable from his music. Maybe T.J. says that country is not the most popular genre among gays. “But is it just because they never got a chance to contact him?”
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T.J. short for Thomas John, the opposite of his older brother and bandmate named John Thomas, named after their father, who is also named John Thomas, although people refer to him as “Big John”. Raised in Deal, Maryland, a blue-collar town on the Chesapeake Bay, TJ. and his siblings, including sister Natalie, who now works in publishing in Nashville, have always been musical, playing with Big John’s blues band at local shows. But being locked up was painful. “It was so lonely and isolated,” TJ says. “It made me angry at people.” The first heartbreak when he was in his twenties broke him even more because he felt like he couldn’t tell anyone. “I was angry that no one knew why I was hurting,” he says. He channeled that grief into his music. One song he wrote for that relationship, called “21 Summer,” has become a fan favorite, and you can see why: it’s a big, nostalgic singalong with lyrics about cutoff jeans and hair blowing in the wind. It’s still tender to him—not just the heartbreak, but how alone he was going through it. “There are so many songs that I sang that made me want to cry,” he says. “People love this song, but the emotion behind it is deeper than they even realize.”
After moving to Nashville, TJ and John signed a publishing deal and eventually a recording contract. Around this time, when he was in his early twenties, TJ first told his brother that he was gay. “He was very open and honest about it, and I was emotionally moved because my brother was finally able to be completely honest with me about who he was,” John recalls. “How often in life do we hold back a part of ourselves and wish we didn’t?” His reaction when TJ eventually decided to go public was similar. “If I had to destroy all my money and success so that my brother could really succeed in life,” John says firmly, “I wouldn’t even think about it.” Not for a second.
As the Osbournes’ careers progressed, they made strides toward inclusivity, starting with the video for their single “Stay a Little Longer,” which featured gay and interracial couples. For the most part, the response was overwhelmingly positive. “And then,” TJ says, “there were people who said, ‘Fake lovers!’ This reaction was particularly disconcerting for TJ, even with the validation he received from family and friends. But staying publicly closeted was also suffocating—not just for him, but for the guys he dated. “To say, ‘Hey, don’t hold my hand.’ Someone I know is here, so can you wait in the car?” he says. “They will rightly feel unwelcome to me.”
Months spent in isolation due to the pandemic forced him to do some digging, and he realized that the perfect moment to come out would never come; he had to create it for himself. “I want to reach the pinnacle of my career, being completely who I am,” he says, then pauses. “I mean, I am who I am, but I kept a part of me quiet and it’s suffocating me.”
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He hopes it will open up a new world of creative possibilities. It helps that the group has already eschewed some of the gender tropes that can come up in country songwriting. “If all our songs were about ‘get in my truck, girl,’ that might confuse some people,” John laughs.
T.J. agrees, “Not that I want to write a song that starts…” He begins to sing and is momentarily shocked by how rich and powerful his baritone is. “Hey kid…” He flinches. “That I just did it sounded horrible, didn’t it?” (Reader, no!) He continues, “But the worst thing about creativity is having limits.”
That doesn’t mean their next album will be a disco record; The Osbourne brothers plan to continue making the same music they’ve always made. (When I tell them that male-voiced country rock strikes me as the last bastion of heteroculture, they both laugh. “Maybe that’s my fault,” quips John.) But there’s also a chance that T.J. Openness will widen the field for new fans to feel welcome. “Now others will feel invited to a country music party for the first time,” says T.J
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