He became metal's first openly gay megastar in 1998. Why is he still the only one?

Bryan Reesman
·6 mins read

Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford has always lived a loud and proud heavy metal life, but only in 1998 during an MTV interview did he become the first metal icon to announce he is gay. Since then he has been out and proud, but there is far more to the story than that moment, as the singer reveals in his new autobiography “Confess.”

“I think that every gay person has a bigger story to tell than just, 'Hello, I'm out, it's me,'” Halford, who turned 69 last month, told me in a phone interview ahead of the book’s publication on Tuesday. “Many, many issues and many self-searching, tormenting thought processes go through your brain. It's a tough thing to do even in today's world. You'd think it would be easy, but it's not for some people. I've tried to really emphasize the difficulty that I went through in being able to come to that point at the MTV studios and just come out in person in a very dramatic way.”

Halford has always had a larger-than-life persona on stage, on album and in press appearances. His singing and screaming, the band’s leather-and-studs look and elaborate sets, their increasing song tempos all exerted a massive influence on the metal genre and helped birth the frenetic thrash metal movement — which often explored themes of injustice, political corruption and even apocalyptic sentiments near the end of the Cold War. The band formed half a century ago in Birmingham, England, and “Confess” charts the hard work Judas Priest put in to ascend from local favorites to international icons.

“Confess” also captures a fair share of Halford’s personal antics: He once spontaneously handcuffed a shy Andy Warhol at a party and shuttled him in a cab to the disco club Studio 54, turning the tables on Warhol who had been photographing him. He was asked by the queen of England why heavy metal was so loud. He chastised Marie Osmond when they both played Britain's famed “Top of the Pops” show and she didn’t want him going on with his bullwhip. He wanted to seduce Iron Maiden singer Paul Di’Anno, and he sported bandanas onstage that were a color-coded invite to gay fans.

But amid these colorful stories are darker moments, both in terms of industry dealings and especially in keeping himself closeted for so long. In his youth and even early Priest years, Halford was sexually preyed upon, including by a friend of his father who got him a theater job. He soldiered on, keeping his sexuality a secret to all but a select circle. He also had a George Michael moment when he was arrested for public indecency in a men’s bathroom. Many officers in that precinct were Priest fans and kept the situation out of the press.

The band and its management knew about his sexuality and were accepting, but he was advised to be discreet given the macho hetero nature of the metal world. He was often lonely. In his young adulthood, he struggled for years with drugs and addiction, though after a one-month stint of rehab in early 1986, he never drank or did drugs again.

Rock memoirs are littered with tales of life on the edge, of course. Halford is now pushing back against the way these life-or-death realities are often minimized or even dismissed.

“I've been thinking a lot about the rock 'n' roll stories,” Halford told me, describing their presentation as: “'I nearly OD-ed, ha ha ha.'” In actuality, he pointed out: “That's a huge f---ing thing, dude. It's not, let's have a laugh about the guy that nearly killed himself last night. It's deadly serious stuff.”

He continued, “For many years, we glossed over those parts of what goes on in our industry. In recent times, it's been very apparent the issues that we have to deal with in rock 'n' roll, whether it's booze or drugs or some kind of mental issue. We're losing beautiful people.”

As chronicled in his book, Halford himself attempted suicide with pills back in late 1985. He immediately regretted it, and a close friend got him to the hospital in time to get his stomach pumped. That led to rehab. Tragically, an ex-boyfriend struggling with depression and addiction shot himself in the head one night after Halford had quarreled with him over his drug use. Halford acknowledged in “Confess” that had he not gotten help himself, he likely would have attempted suicide again. And succeeded.

His struggles also yielded some positive things, however, and helped feed his music. That began early on with the smothering exhaust of the local ironworks Halford grew up near in Walsall, England, a region known as the Black Country.

It left a strong impression on the young singer, and it’s easy to see why the area and its constraining working-class environment produced heavy metal pioneers and progenitors like Priest, Black Sabbath and half of Led Zeppelin. The gloominess and noisiness of that world, along with the frustration of limited employment options, were the perfect ingredients for the intense, anti-authority anthems that the genre would create.

Halford’s sexuality is a part of that, too. Halford was born in 1951, and homosexuality was illegal in the U.K. until 1967. While a few mainstream metal frontwomen like Otep and Lzzy Hale have been open in recent years about being gay or bisexual, Halford remains the only major gay male metal icon.

Metal fans are often attracted to the aggressive and therapeutic nature of the genre — it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration and feel empowered — and many skew more to the right than some of their icons. Halford acknowledges that some fans might learn things from reading his book that they don’t like.

“There might be some things in this book that people read about and go: 'Oof, I'm totally turned off to Rob Halford. I don't like Rob Halford anymore,'” he noted.

But the other side of the coin is what matters more. “There will be other people that are elevated by it,” he said. “As far as where it might go or what it might do, that's in the luck of the dice.”

So he applies a lesson than he documents having discovered in his book to the aftermath of his latest personal revelations: “I've talked about sobriety and understanding and comprehending you have no control over life — where it might go and what it might do to you. You've got to let it go.”