Back in the nineties, I was the Alternative Music editor for Radio & Records, an industry publication that was inluential with radio music directors and program directors. These were the people who could make or break careers and decided which songs would be hits. My office was in Century City in Los Angeles, a half block from the building made famous in Die Hard as Nakatomi Tower. One of my favorite fellow editors, however, lived in Nashville—Country Radio Hall of Fame member Lon Helton.
I talked with a lot of radio consultants, and one that often was mentioned for her influence and insight was Country radio consultant Jaye Albright. I didn’t know Jaye, and, indeed, I’ve never talked to her. However, I had been close enough to the industry to know that just a few years before I joined Radio & Records Jaye Albright wasn’t a consultant. She wasn’t even a she. She was influential country radio program director Jay Albright, who was at the time presenting as a man.
One day I saw her name in a column, and being curious I called Lon Helton to get her story. He was nice enough about it. Just basically said that Jaye wasn’t really ever a man. She was just physically that way, and it was a tragedy and that it had to have been tough for her. I believe at one point he said something like, “Can you imagine how difficult that must be?” I kind of just shrugged and thought that it must have been really difficult for Jaye to be trans in such a conservative format and community as country music.
As time went by, I would be reminded of Jaye every so often, and it struck me that every time I heard of her it was due to some incredibly intelligent or insightful thing she was writing about or some accolade she was receiving or some young music director that she had helped. In short, she wasn’t a stranger at all in country music. She was one of the family, and not just one of the family—a matriarch. She eventually ran country music stations for a large broadcast company and was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame.
That was over 25 years ago, and today I often think of Jaye and how different things were back then. Being publicly trans was practically unheard of in the nineties. So the enormous courage of Jaye staggers me. With basically no public support or common cultural context, she made the decision to be the person she was always meant to be, and as you can see in a front page column in Radio & Records (written by Lon) about her final transition surgery, she was kind and generous in explaining why what she was doing was important to her as a person.
I am sure that Jaye’s battles then were different than the battles we see today, but they had to be just as difficult. I mean, just imagine going to a country concert as a guest in the deep South as a trans woman in 1997. The looks you receive. The whispers. The comments from strangers. I’m sure it’s not that much different today unfortunately, but back then, she was alone.
But she wasn’t really alone.
I think back to Lon’s comment about Jaye—”Can you imagine how difficult that must be?” Lon wasn’t talking about being trans in the country radio community. It didn’t even cross his mind. He was talking about a friend being a woman trapped in a man’s body.
Twenty-five years ago being trans wasn’t considered dangerous, even in the deep south or the conservative country radio community. It was just someone being different. And while that has its own challenges and own dangerous biases and many other hurtful aspects, what it doesn’t have is a lack of sympathy or understanding that, at the end of the day, the pain is one of a person just wanting to be who they truly are.
If country radio back in the days of Garth Brooks and Kix & Dunn can see the person behind the label and the pain they are facing, what the fuck is happening today?