by Lauren Means | Photos courtesy of Sherri Gray
If you look around Nashville Pride Festival or anywhere the Music City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence might be, you’ll see Sherri Gray and all her rainbows. Her journey to allyship has been marked by career changes, world travel, viral songs, and making many friends along the way. This self-described, free-spirited hippie knew if she trusted the universe she’d find her way.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Sherri had an often lonely, traumatic, and abusive childhood but she loved learning and school was a welcome escape from the alcoholic home in which she grew up. School is also where she became involved in creative arts. “Creative arts — painting, music, theater, and writing — truly won my heart and soul,” she said.
Her love for learning led to her studying education at Ohio State University where she met her now ex-husband Bob with whom she had two children, Julie and Daniel. Her secondary education took a back seat when she and her brother-in-law, Jon, began singing in clubs around Columbus. Sherri also started singing regularly on local country station WMNI’s Country Cavalcade. The Country Cavalcade was Columbus’ version of the Grand Ole Opry. During this time she was also pursuing a songwriting career. “I was writing songs, recording them on an old Wollensak recorder, and submitting the reel-to-reel tapes to Nashville publishers. When Curly Putman, owner of Green Grass Music asked me to be one of his staff writers, the kids and I moved to Nashville,” she recalled.
A change of scenery
While her marriage didn’t survive the move, her career took off. She wrote several songs and some even made it to the number one spot on local radio stations. She toured and had gigs all over the country. She traveled with various well established Grand Ole Opry legends including Hank Williams’ original Drifting Cowboys, Little Jimmy Dickens, Charlie Louvin, Jean Shepard, Kenny Price, and Stonewall Jackson. Ernest Tubb even invited her to ride to Missouri with him and his band on his bus. “I later learned that I was only the second female to whom [Ernest] had ever made that offer — the other being Loretta Lynn,” remarked Sherri.
Some years later she decided to return to college where she completed her bachelor’s and master’s in counseling psychology. This led to a career as a therapist. As she had begun her personal 12-step journey around that time, she desired to work with addicts and alcoholics. After completing two years of recovery, she started work with The Alcohol and Drug Council in Nashville. She remained there for almost two decades. “I loved everything about that job… except the paperwork — I wonder how many therapists can say they enjoy that!” she exclaimed.
Sherri has always been an ally to the LGBT+ community but she said, “When I applied for professional licensure status, it was made quite clear that we, as mental health therapists, could not refuse treatment to anyone because of race, nationality, spiritual beliefs, gender identity/expression/orientation — for ANY reason.”
And she stuck by that oath. “More and more LGBTQ clients began to come in – they’d trust me, and they’d refer other community folks,” she said. Cognitively, she knew on some level, most of her clients had often hidden their identity and orientation for decades.
“I always felt compassion and empathy for the abuse they’d endured. But, week after week, as each story unfolded, I witnessed in these dear clients unbelievable courage… determination… a resilience [that] took my very breath away,” explained Sherri.
She said it was humbling to walk with each client as they opened their soul and poured out what they’d kept hidden inside for so long and the pain they’d endured. “Shaming, teasing, bullying, physical and sexual abuse, being ‘prayed over’ week after week in an effort to change them into something other than what they were created to be, being sent to reparative therapy, going through shock treatments… the list is horrific and endless,” Sherri said.
It was these conversations that gave Sherri the social activism spark. After retiring from her career in counseling, she said the “itch” to write songs started, and it wasn’t just any old songs she was looking to pen. She wanted to discuss equality and inclusion. Seven years ago she received the nudge she needed to write when her niece announced she was getting married to “the lady she loved.”
Sherri wrote a marriage equality song titled “What If We Are Just Like You?” and posted it to Youtube. A reporter picked up the story and from there it went viral. “I was invited to sing the song in Australia, at the opening of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras the following year,” said Sherri. She also sang her song “Let Us Help You Pray Your ‘Straight’ Away” at this event.
After this, her allyship turned into activism. She started volunteering with Nashville Pride each year, attending PFLAG and Tennessee Vals events, and said she fell in love with the Music City Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
In 2018, the Music City Sisters named her Singing St. Sherri. “I was totally surprised,” she said. “It was a hot, humid day at Nashville Pride, and I was dripping sweat, crying ugly tears… but I swear, it was one of the happiest days of my life! I went to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’s 40th Conclave in San Francisco last year, met even more Sisters from all over the world, and was in awe of the historical monuments and memories there –– Pink Triangle Park in the Castro, the AIDS memorial in Golden Gate Park, Harvey Milk Center, and
Easter in Mission Dolores Park,” Sherri recalled.
Keeping it in perspective
As a counselor, Sherri knows self-care is paramount when working as an activist. “The work can be daunting, so don’t get compassion fatigue. Take comedy show breaks, see good movies, go out to dinner, dance, get out in nature, laugh with friends,” said Sherri. She’s also developed a perspective of advocating for rather than against and she doesn’t engage in nonproductive banter when people make hateful comments on her Youtube channel.
Sherri loves her LGBTQ community, the friends she’s made worldwide and she’s committed to being an ally until her dying day. “Every day, we put on our boots and trudge into those filthy trenches of bigotry and hatred because, as that saying goes, that which does not kill us, only makes us stronger,” she said.
“Besides, we know that after the storms, and the sludge, and the toil, and the troubles… there WILL be glitter…and glam…and music…and dancing… and Rainbows — lots and lots of Rainbows!!!”
You can find Singing Grandma Sherri on youtube at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxKaHMhIAD4D_FFFuDhvs0g