Prizm News / April 1, 2019 / By David-Elijah Nahmod

“Now that there is more visibility, people are hearing our stories in new ways,” says singer/songwriter Eli Conley, who will perform Wednesday in Oberlin, where he graduated from college in 2008. (Photo by Brooke Porter)

A Tuesday workshop and Wednesday show will bring Eli Conley back to Northeast Ohio, where he studied more than a decade ago.

By David-Elijah Nahmod 

On Wednesday, country singer/songwriter Eli Conley will perform in concert at The Cat in the Cream Coffeehouse in Oberlin. The show is a homecoming for Conley, who graduated from Oberlin College in 2008.

Conley has been attracting a good deal of attention in recent years, not only for his gentle sound and thought-provoking lyrics, but because he is one of the few openly gay performers in country music. Conley, 33, is also transgender, and gender identity is one of the topics he writes about.  

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“As a matter of fact, I’m a happy man,” he sings in his song “What I’m Worth.” “Don’t think you’ve met another man like me, maybe you’ve seen a couple on TV.” 

“It’s not my story,” he says of “What I’m Worth.” “It’s the story of a friend. I’m lucky to have a supportive family. Now that there is more visibility, people are hearing our stories in new ways.” 

Conley hails from Virginia and has been drawn to music his whole life. His dad owned a huge music collection, and there was always music playing in the house. His father is from Appalachia and introduced him to country music at a young age; Conley remembers dressing up as country legend Patsy Cline for his fourth-grade school play.  

“One thing I love about country music is the stories,” he says. “It’s a genre that celebrates the stories of working-class people and doesn’t neglect the struggles people face in life. So much of country music is actually sad songs.” 

Eli Conley sings “Strong & Tender.”

Being gay and trans has definitely influenced Conley’s music. He saw friends kicked out of their homes for being gay and others who hid their identities out of fear of what might happen if they were outed.  

Those stories make their way into his songs. His own parents took things in stride when he first came out as bisexual, but when he came out as genderqueer and asked to be called by a different name and pronouns, they didn’t quite get it. Slowly, Conley says, he came to identify as a man; he says that was easier for his parents to accept because he came to fit into one of the two traditionally accepted genders. 

“This was before any transition-related care was covered by insurance,” he says. “I come from a wealthy family, so my parents paid for my top surgery out of pocket, which is a huge privilege. Gender never felt like a switch flipping for me, just a gradual migration from being a girl who didn’t pay attention to gender roles, to an androgynous genderqueer teen, to an adult man.” 

Conley adds that, as a gay and trans man, he knows what it’s like to live in a society that tells him his deepest truth is wrong. He knows what it’s like for people to hate him just because of who he is. He was raised to think that the system is basically just and that racism and sexism were the fault of individual bigots, not of systemic forces at work in American society since its founding. 

“I began to see how our world is set up to privilege straight, white men at the expense of everyone else,” he says. “I saw how my struggle was connected to the struggles of people of color, of working class and poor people, of disabled people, of women and femmes. How that influences my music is I try to write songs that give people the courage to stand together across difference and fight for a world that serves the needs of the many, not just the privileged few. I think that each and every one of us is needed in that fight.” 

It’s important to Conley to be visibly gay and trans in the current political climate, he says. Vice President Mike Pence has supported the dangerous and discredited practice of “conversion therapy,” which among LGBTQ people most often ensnares those who are transgender. He also points to Republicans in power who align themselves with President Donald Trump’s racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

“So many communities are under attack, and it can by tempting to bury our heads in the sand rather than face the truth, that fascism and authoritarianism have taken hold in the highest seats of power,” he says. “But I think this a moment when we need each and every one of us standing together in alliance for peace, justice and liberation. We will not back down.”  

Conley promises there will be Queer themes when he performs his show at Oberlin College. He says The Cat in the Cream is a cozy coffee house that features a lot of acoustic music. There will be songs about facing the fact that everyone will die someday, songs about procrastination, and songs about family. 

On Tuesday, Conley will offer a workshop at The Cat in the Cream titled “Songs of Social Justice.” It will feature Conley leading participants in songs from the labor movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the United Farmworkers and South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. He’ll share stories about when the songs were written and the movements that popularized them.  

He mentions the song, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” which began as a Protestant hymn in the 1800s. It was rewritten in 1931 as a protest song by the West Virginia Miners Union and became a staple on union picket lines. During the 1950s, the song was picked up by student sit-in leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.  

The workshop is from 12:20 p.m.-1:15 p.m. and is open to the public. 

“If my being out and visible inspires just one person to feel that there is space for them to stand up to injustice in this world, I would be happy,” Conley says.