Garrison Starr Opens Up About 'Heartbreak' of Growing Up Gay in Evangelical Church

The openly gay musician reveals the pain of her adolescence on new single "The Devil in Me": "I'd started doing some real grieving over my upbringing, and the disappointment that I feel"

Garrison Starr is making peace with the traumas of her past.

The singer-songwriter, who is openly gay, gets candid about growing up in an evangelical church on her new single, "The Devil in Me."

The heartfelt track documents Starr being kicked out of the church for being gay and her coming to terms with the people in her youth who only saw her "sin."

"I reached a point in my life within the last five years where I'd started doing some real grieving over my upbringing, and the disappointment that I feel and the abandonment and heartbreak that I felt from growing up in evangelical Christianity," she tells PEOPLE as she premieres the emotional music video for the song. "Being told, 'Oh, you're loved. You're our favorite person. We support you.' And then once people found out that I was gay, it was like, 'Oh, I'm shunned. Well, we can't speak to her until she repents her sins.'"

"It's like, wow, I gave 20-plus years of my life to something that doesn't give a s— about me," Starr adds. "I was spending all this energy trying to build bridges, trying to do the right thing, trying to live up to something. And the fact is it doesn't matter, because what I'm trying to live up to, I don't even want."

Garrison Starr
Garrison Starr. Heather Holty-Newton

Born and raised in conservative Mississippi, the musician "felt ashamed" and struggled to find confidence without a supportive community. "There was always this part of me that was like, 'What if they're right?,'" she confesses. "But being able to say I lost my youth hiding this part of me that I never had to hide. I was free the whole time, but I just didn't know it."

Starr was frustrated with everyone in her life defining her by her sexuality, explaining, "My sexuality has never been my identity, you know, I never understood why I couldn't just be Garrison. I am 100% okay with myself in my own shoes, so why should it matter?"

The Grammy-nominated artist eventually allowed herself "to start receiving love from people" instead of "going back to the empty well, whether it be my family or whoever else in my life isn't supportive."

"The toxicity of that dynamic is you're always beating yourself up for something you did wrong, but you've got to keep going back to it," Starr adds. "It's like, why are you wasting your energy trying to get acceptance from someone you don't even want to be accepted? It's like a bad loop."

She began writing songs as a child to speak her truth when she "had nobody else to talk to" about what she was going through as a young gay woman. "It was just me, so that outlet was there so I could say things I really needed to because it wasn't safe to say any of that around people."

Despite it all, Starr still loves her parents and knows her parents love her in return. "If I called them in the middle of the night and I needed something, they would get in the car and drive here," says the only child about their "work in progress" relationship. "They're challenging at times, but they would get on skis, they would do anything... they are sweet people and will always be there for me."

"I try to have compassion with my family because they believe so differently than I do. It's tricky because the love is always there — that's not an issue. I know I can be with them and they're so happy to be with me, but it's the politics and the religion stuff," she adds. "I still see them — we haven't seen each other since COVID, obviously, but before that, I make regular trips to visit them and keep the door open, keep the conversation going."

Meeting her wife Rene was one of the things that changed Starr's life, and helped her come to terms with her own past. The couple live in Los Angeles with their dogs Gracie and Oreo, and the artist says her wife is the first person to make her feel that "unconditional love" is possible.

"She didn't grow up religious at all, so she doesn't even get it. But she is so accepting and wonderful — and her family didn't even blink, which was really amazing," Starr raves. "She is one of the most beautiful human beings I've ever met, very strong and supportive and that has changed my life."

Now Starr is gearing up for the release of her latest album, Girl I Used to Be, available March 5. She initially recorded the nine songs uncertain if she wanted to make another collection of her own, figuring she'd submit them for other artists. "'The Devil in Me' was really the first song that I'd written in a long time where I was like, 'Okay, this feels like me,'" she admits. "And then when I started looking back at some of the other songs we had, I knew I still had something to say."

"The way people have connected with those lyrics really blows my mind. It has been so validating and, quite frankly, just encouraging. I feel overwhelmed," she exclaims.

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Her advice for young gay people growing up in similar circumstances as her own? "Look for the allies, look for your angels, go where the love is and trust your gut," she says. "I thought something was wrong with me because somebody else said that it was, and it wasn't until I left myself open to other possibilities that I started to become happier. They're out there and you've just got to find them."

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