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By Megan Smith
Photo by Sally Vee Photography
Ghosts from our past always have a way of coming back to haunt us. But Stephanie Rice of Houston-based band Colonial Blue has cleansed herself of those bad spirits and opened the door to a bright future. The openly gay rocker and Texas native endured the worst after coming out to her small-town Baptist pastor father, but turned to music as a form of solace during her healing journey.
Along with drummer Corey Chierighino and guitarist Jonathan Ward, Rice has been sharing her personal story through Colonial Blue’s music for the past three years. The band’s debut album, Dear Misery, was released in mid-June of this year, and the trio has shared its unique mix of Southern rock, folk, punk, and soul with audiences across Houston at venues such as Pearl Bar, Karbach Brewery, the Nightingale Room, and more.
In early July, I had the pleasure of speaking with Rice about her coming-out experience, making the move to Houston, and her double life as both a rock star and a science fanatic. Her story can only be described as the definition of resilience.
Megan Smith: How was life growing up in the small town of Redwater, Texas? A different pace than city life, I presume.
Stephanie Rice: It couldn’t be any more different than life here. [Laughs] Redwater is in northeast Texas, close to Texarkana. At the time I was living there, it was about 800 people. The town itself is very secluded from the world, but my household was even more isolated because my dad was a Baptist pastor and we were very sheltered—nothing secular was allowed in the house. There was one school and one church, with a shared parking lot. People think [towns like that] only existed a hundred years ago, but really, they’re still there. Everyone knew everyone’s first, middle, and last name, and also the name of their dog. It was only a matter of time before my big secret came out.
Your life obviously took a big turn when you officially came out to your family, including to your father, at age 18. What was that experience like for you?
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified. Being so sheltered, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as “gay” or “lesbian.” I just knew I was attracted to girls and I knew I didn’t feel the way other girls felt for boys. When I finally found out what being gay was, I thought, “That’s me!” I was excited about it because I could finally put a word to what I was. However, that was immediately followed by fear. Because I grew up as such a spiritual person, my first instinct was, “What does God think about it?”
Ironically, around the time I found out what being gay was, my father started preaching against homosexuality from the pulpit very vigorously. I’m sitting there shaking in my boots because whatever my dad said at the time was what I assumed God said. I was terrified, but at the same time, I knew [my sexuality] was something real and true to me, so I started thinking outside of the box: What if the rest of the world doesn’t think the way my dad thinks?
I knew the consequences [of coming out]. I was 17 when I was first “caught.” I was dating this girl—the first girl I had ever come out to. One day we were at her house and her aunt came home early. Here I am, the preacher’s daughter, a straight-A student, I’m in the worship band, I teach Sunday school—I was golden. This was juicy gossip for a small town. So the girl’s aunt told my dad, and he came to my high school, pulled me out of class, and started questioning me. He grabbed me and said, “If I find out any of this is true, I’m going to throw you around like a ping-pong ball.” Luckily, my counselor overheard him and grabbed me and hid me in her office until he calmed down.
At the time, [all of this]—plus the idea of going to hell—caused me to run back into the closet at full speed. Not that I started dating guys—I just kept that part of my life as secretive as possible. My parents made me go to “straight” counseling, and I did all of that because I was scared. But I wasn’t really changing—the counseling wasn’t working.
I had a basketball scholarship and was the salutatorian of my high school, but after that whole scene played out, he told me I wasn’t “fit” to set an example for anyone, and I [wasn’t allowed] to give my speech or accept my awards at graduation. That was the hardest thing for me because I had worked so hard for all of my grades and my achievements. My dad didn’t let me go off to college for my basketball scholarship either, because “[only] lesbians play sports.”
So I started going to [my town’s] community college, and that’s where I met my first real girlfriend. One day, I came home after class because my dad said he wanted to talk. He basically said he had heard a rumor about me dating this girl, but he knew it wasn’t true. But I knew, at that moment, I could not live a lie any longer. I knew I was miserable living that lie and that I was happiest when I was being my true self. So I said that it was true. Silence just fell upon the living room. My dad then told me I had two options: I could start going to counseling again, or if I “choose” to be this way, that I was history to them. I simply said that I was not going through counseling again, and he told me to pack my bags. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my two little sisters who I had basically raised. They just drove me to the campus where I was attending school and they dropped me off in the parking lot. That scene is seared in my brain. I ran after them, but they didn’t stop.
One of the worst stories of my life, however, happened to be one of the best. The parking lot where they dropped me off happened to have surveillance cameras, and the campus police were watching all of this unfold. It was alarming enough that they showed up at the scene after my parents left and asked me what was going on. So I guess my first real “coming out” was to a police officer of a conservative town. I thought they were going to tell me it served me right, but instead they told me they would never allow my parents on campus again. They stuck to that. So from that point, I was able to use that footage, the testimonies of those police officers, and letters of recommendation from my professors at the community college to prove my financial independence [so I could get financial aid] at the University of Houston.
Until you’re 24—and I was only 19 or 20 at the time—the state doesn’t see you as an independent student, so therefore you have to use your parents’ financial information to receive financial aid. Well, my parents weren’t going to give me that information even if I tried. But I was able to get early independence and be granted the full, maximum amount of financial aid from the university, and that’s why I was able to move to Houston. That’s what changed my life in a positive way.
Once you moved to Houston, you started teaching yourself guitar. What originally drew you to music as an outlet for your emotions?
I’ve always been in love with music. Besides basketball, music was my everything. Before she passed away, my grandmother gave me a piano, and I taught myself how to play. My parents would have to force me to go to bed because I would be up playing the piano. I was writing my own songs as young as eight years old. So when all this happened and I was kicked out, I got a guitar and started teaching myself how to play, because music was immediately what I wanted to lean on. But I didn’t have a piano, so playing the guitar became what I like to call my “audio journal.”
Shortly after arriving here, you began attending open-mic nights all over Houston. What was it like getting up on stage to tell your truth through music for the first time?
After I moved to Houston, I started asking where the open mics were, and I was told Avant Garden. So I started there and then ended up playing at Fitzgerald’s, Té House of Tea, and anywhere else on the open-mic circuit. I would show up early just to get my name on the list. The biggest thing I can take away from that first performance was positive reinforcement. I didn’t have that before. I was now in this big city, all alone, and no one was telling me “good job” or reminding me that I could do it. At that time, my self-worth was at an all-time low. Though I was proud of myself for being true to myself, I didn’t have anyone there supporting me. Having people love my songs and love my voice, I feel like I gained back a little self-worth. Every time I performed, I felt a little better and I eventually gained my confidence back. Music really did mend all the broken pieces.
Since coming out, have you been able to reconcile the faith that you were raised in with your sexuality?
No, I have not and do not want to reconcile the faith that I was brought up in with my current beliefs. I don’t believe in that doctrine at all. But to say that I lost my spirituality or my belief in God would be completely false. For a while there, I just didn’t want to think about God, because I thought if there is a God, he doesn’t accept me, so I’d rather just not think about him. I just blocked the idea out of my head for a couple years. Then I faced it head-on. I began reading on all of the religions of the world and found that in all the major religions that still exist, the common thread is love. And that’s what I believe—that God is love. Ironically, where I grew up, we were taught to fear God. I remember reading the Bible again later on from my own perspective and wondering, “Wow, how did I miss the main message here?” The message of Jesus was very much about love and acceptance. I’ve met a lot of people who have fallen away from their faith, and I think it’s sad because there’s a really positive message out there that’s been drowned out by all these fundamentalists who are screaming hate.
What’s the meaning behind the band name Colonial Blue?
I graduated from UH with a biology degree. [During my time there] I was doing evolutionary biology research in a lab, and my focus was with ants. While studying these ants, what struck me the most was that they’re a social species just like humans—they live together and interact together [in their colonies]. They all have specialized tasks that are different from each other. When you isolate those tasks, they don’t seem to be for a purpose, but when you put them together, they are building something much larger than themselves. They are working together to make their own society a better place. I see music in that same way. If you’re just listening to a drum track, it might not make sense. If you’re just listening to a guitar track, it might not make sense. But put it all together, and you’ve created something much larger. So that’s where I got “colonial” from, with the root word being “colony.”
You’ve noted influences like Damien Rice and Eisley, but the rawness in songs like “My Treason” and “Home” remind me of a young Melissa Etheridge. Do you see parallels between you and the veteran rocker?
One thing about growing up being sheltered is that I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything that wasn’t Christian music. So a lot of the time, I’ll get comparisons that I’ve never heard before. I was compared to Melissa Etheridge pretty early on, so I looked her up and listened to a few of her songs. While I couldn’t tell you that much about her music, when I listen to her voice, I definitely connect to the rough angst she’s got going on.
Have you found solace in the LGBT community in Houston?
Julie Mabry at Pearl Bar has been so supportive of us. When they were having their opening, Julie asked us to do a show there. We were basically the openers for the openers. But we kept playing there and she was so supportive, loved our music, and loved everything we were doing. She’s remained in our circle of support, and every now and again, I’ll still get a text from her telling me she’s so proud of what we’re doing. Outside of that, I’m a pretty private person and my whole world is my fiancée. We have played a benefit for AIDS Foundation Houston, and that was really cool to be a part of. Learning about HIV and how HIV impacted my community led me to want to get involved in HIV research. My way of finding solace is giving back in any way that I can, so after I graduated, I began doing research with HIV at Baylor College of Medicine. I was there for three years before leaving to pursue music full-time. In 2015, I actually became a published author in the scientific journal of the International AIDS Society.
Do you have any advice for LGBT youth facing a similar coming-out struggle?
First and foremost is to be honest. Then, find people in your life who support you. If you don’t have [those people], you can go down a pretty dark path. My heart always goes out to those boys and girls who grew up religious and are battling with their spirituality and their sexuality. My biggest advice to them is that those two things are not separate from one another—they can go together and you can definitely find happiness in life with both your beliefs and your sexuality.
Where should we look to catch the band performing during August?
We’ll be playing a show at Satellite Bar on August 5. We’ll also be performing at Blue Line Bike Lab during White Linen Night in the Heights on August 6, as a benefit show for the Rescued Pets Movement. We’ll be opening for Nina Diaz at Raven Tower on August 7. Also, to coincide with the release of OutSmart’s music issue, we’ll be playing a show at Pearl Bar on August 11.
Check out Colonial Blue’s music, tour dates, and more at colonialblueband.com.