Justin Ryan hopes to spread the message “it does get better” with music and faith
“I know it gets better,” says Justin Ryan. “I’ve been there.” And when Ryan tells you “I’ve been there,” believe it.
Thrown out at 17 when his father learned he was gay, Ryan dropped his last name, “Vaughn,” so as not to “bring shame” on the family when he started singing in a local MCC church in his home town, Paducah, Kentucky.
In October Ryan brought his “I’ve been there” concert tour to MCC of the Palm Beaches.
The tour launched in 2011 and offers a special program to honor and remember all the youth who took their lives last year after being bullied for their actual or perceived sexuality.
“It’s to let kids know that we’ve been there too and they need to hang on,” Ryan said. “For every six people who say bad things about us there are ten who want to help us. We have to get that message out there.”
And Ryan should know. On the street at 17, he managed to survive and finish high school by living with friends and generous families in the area.
He fell into a relationship with an older man and lived with him for about 3 years until he cheated. That was the last straw for Ryan who had been physically, mentally and emotionally abused by his partner.
“I attempted suicide,” he said, matter of factly. “He came home and found me. It’s been a real journey. But I didn’t know any better,” he continued. “He was the only openly gay person I knew and I had no role models. Paducah isn’t exactly a gay Mecca.”
Nor might one expect it to be. Located on the Ohio River in the far western end of the state, Paducah has a population of about 25,000. The city’s website brags “31.1 percent of the population 25 years of age and older in Paducah have obtained their high school degreee [sic].”
About the time his abusive relationship was ending, a co-worker in a local retail store suggested that Ryan attend the MCC church in Paducah. After horrible rejection by his childhood faith community, Ryan wasn’t sure about another church until his friend told him it was gay. “And even then….,” he said his voice trailing away.
“What a moving experience I had,” he said. “After people in my world telling me God hated me I realized this was not the case. Church and society may reinforce bad feelings but it doesn’t have to be that way and it’s not God’s way.”
Through the church Ryan met Marsha Stevens, a long time member of the gay Christian music movement who invited him to Nashville to work on an album with her. He subsequently moved to Sarasota to continue to work with her.
He’s done a lot of recording with a wide range of performers both secular and religious. He’s worked with Porter Wagner, host of the Grand Ole Opry and the man who discovered Dolly Parton. He even has featured songs on an Opry Christmas album.
He spent a year on the road touring the continental United States, Mexico and Canada. Now he lives in Nashville with Cody, his partner of two years.
“Justin’s ‘I’ve been there’ concert works perfectly with our new “Generation i” campaign to reach out to LGBT people ages 18 to 35,” said Jeremiah Cummings, Music Minister at MCC of the Palm Beaches. In addition to his concert he’s playing for Sunday service, which is featuring a guest speaker from Sunshine Cathedral, Rev. Brian Hutchison.
The concert and service are free and open to the public. There’s a post service pool party on Sunday for anyone under 35. For information call 561-775-5900 or visit MCCpb.org or visit JustinRyanOnline.com for more on Justin Ryan.