In 1953, when Patrick Haggerty was 13, a little girl showed up to his summer camp in a ballerina outfit. It was a rural camp in eastern Washington run by the agricultural organization 4-H, and while Patrick was a farm boy accustomed to manual labor and callused hands, he found himself hypnotized by the girl's dainty tutu and leotard.
"I knew it would fit me," he told VICE. "And that I was going to get into it."
And so he hatched up a plan, talking his friends and counselors into a skit where they would "dress up silly."
"We do our little skit," he said, "and the day after, even though I was 13 and it was 1958 and at a 4-H camp, I wore the ballerina outfit all day. Dancing up and down and putting on shows and acting like Tinkerbell." He was a hit.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Patrick grew up to be a gay man, and spent the next 60 years toeing the line between the country roots to which he remained unfailingly loyal and the gay community for which he tirelessly fought. But blending the two wasn't always as easy as it had been at camp.
As a teen, he taught himself to sing and play serviceable guitar chords, and as a young man formed a band with friends called Lavender Country. They recorded one self-titled album in 1973, filled with queer numbers like "Come out Singin'," "Back in the Closet Again," and the song that would decades later launch him to fame: "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears." It was the first country album known to be released by a gay man. Lyrics included: "It seems you've forgotten/your daydreams are rotten/your ways are alarmingly clear/them victories aren't wanted/as long as I'm haunted/crying these cocksucking tears."
Patrick had no formal musical training before Lavender Country. "I sort of picked it up on my own," he said, absorbing country songs throughout his childhood and learning a few chords from a straight boy who used to let him ride around on the back of his motorcycle.
"I did OK with straight men in my childhood," Patrick said. "I was a sensitive little soul and I could see where my friends were missing gaps emotionally and what they needed, maybe what they weren't getting at home. There were a lot of emotional gaps in rural Washington in 1955, especially for little boys."
Patrick's father, a dairy farmer, was remarkably supportive of everything Patrick did. "Don't sneak," he told his son on one occasion, as Patrick recounted in an episode of NPR's Storycorps. "If you sneak, it means you think you're doing the wrong thing. And if you run around spending your whole life thinking that you're doing the wrong thing, then you'll ruin your immortal soul."
Patrick took that lesson to heart. "If I'm going to be homosexual, I'm sure as fuck not going to sneak about it," he said. "Fuck that."
When asked if he ever experienced a heartbreak that worked its way into his music, Patrick responded, "yeahhhh, honey. They found out I was gay in the Peace Corps in 1966. I was 21 and I was in India. I loved India. A lot. One thing led to another, they found out I've sucked some dick, and boom—I was out of the country in 24 hours." His housemate, with whom he had fallen in love, was left behind.
He came out of the closet in full after the Stonewall riots in 1968, but paid a price for his refusal to sneak. Once, he and some gay friends got into a fight when they tried to join a peace rally. "I think our sign said something like 'faggots for Ho Chi Minh,'" he said. "They tried to take our banner away from us, and assumed that because we were faggots were going to lose the fight. But they were wrong. We kicked ass."
A few years later, he recorded Lavender Country. "We performed up and down the coast, Portland, San Francisco," he said. But "there was no call for gay country. It was, like, ridiculous [back then]. So I went into all the other things I did in my life—ran for office, activist work. Got married, had two children." (His wife pre-dated his coming out; the kids were co-parented with friends.)
The album earned meager attention from a few gay venues, the band performed at two gay pride festivals, and a lesbian DJ was fired for playing it in 1974. After that, Lavender Country faded into the memories of its few fans, and his performances have been mostly limited to old folks' homes since. "I was making some extra money singing old songs to old people and having a nice life," he said. "Hadn't even played Lavender Country to anybody in years."
But then "Cocksucking Tears" was posted to YouTube. A music critic stumbled across it, located a vinyl copy on eBay, and passed it along to friends. And in 2014, a North Carolina label called Paradise of Bachelors called to offer a record contract.
"I almost hung up," said Patrick. "I thought it was a gimmick. But it was two straight men out of North Carolina offering me a 50/50 contract. It's completely transformed my life. I turned into a notable in about 2.5 seconds."
He's been covered in Pitchfork, just returned from a midwest tour, and collaborated with recognized country artists like Jack Grelle. Meanwhile, a new documentary about Patrick's career called These C*cksucking Tears is currently rounding the film festival circuit, and has earned jury awards from SXSW and Outfest.
"I grew up in New York, born and raised, so I have no business listening to country music," said Dan Taberski, the film's director told VICE. Dan reached out to Patrick to make a documentary because "he didn't write a gay disco song or a gay poem. He wasn't meeting gay people where they traditionally met in the creative world. He co-opted what is, traditionally, a super straight art form."
And Patrick, in turn, is using that art form to stand up for gay rights in a way he couldn't have imagined in the 1970s, by bringing together an audience of music fans both straight and gay who are prepared to fight for equality. His shows today draw crowds larger than he's ever seen—over three hundred people packed the patio of Austin's Barracuda for a SXSW showcase—and Patrick swells with pride when describing his fans.
"There's the kids, the anarchical punk fuck-you throw-the-guitar-down eat-shit-and-die crowd. They love Lavender Country and I love them," Patrick said. But an older crowd turns up, too, some of whom remember the climate in which the songs were originally written. "Whoever wants to come to a Lavender Country show, to stand up and be counted, they have an activist heart or they wouldn't be there. They want to move, politically. And that's a fabulous audience."
Even if some of his fans aren't gay, he said, "they're all militantly gay-rights, they all want to fight. They see it as a vehicle and a banner for them to pick up. 'Count me in, I'm on your side.' Straight white men have a lot of power, and they saw Lavender Country and said 'we know what to do with this' and kicked it up into the motherfucking stratosphere."
He paused. "It's like waking up in a new world from 1970, from how they treated us then."