Branden James on family, HIV, and reality TV

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Branden James and James Clark sitting on steps
Branden James and James Clark

America’s Got Talent caught me in the light of being a “gone-viral” performer

Branden James sitting on bench with a cello
Branden James

America first met Branden James in 2013 when he went viral after a stunning performance of “Nessun Dorma” on America’s Got Talent. With the overwhelming support of judges, he charmed us with charisma and a beautiful spirit. Howie Mandel sang his praises to Branden’s cheering mom in the balcony, celebrating her son’s giftedness. You could sense their love shared as Branden looked tearfully towards his mother.

A powerful part of his pre-audition interview was his candidness around division within his family upon coming out as openly gay. With a traditional, conservative background, Branden’s family struggled with his sexuality, a trying time in his journey towards living into the fullness of who he was.

Now, with a spirit of authenticity and vulnerability within, he shares his story about growth, not only as an openly gay man, but also as a son, a man with HIV, and a man caught in the light of being a “gone-viral” sensation.

Here we talk about his new book, Lyrics of My Life: My Journey with Family, HIV, and Reality TV, released on September 8, 2020. It’s a beacon of light amid a year that’s been dim.

It’s been a few years since America’s Got Talent. How did life change for you coming out of that experience?

Branden James: In so many ways. You know, I turned the chapter on classical music. I got a taste of commercial music and being myself on stage as opposed to playing characters like I’ve done for almost 15 years before that. I really enjoyed it much more, just being myself and singing pop music in a classical style.

The way that people perceived me changed a lot. My name suddenly had gravitas and cache, which was a strange feeling. I think the other thing that I really changed from was just being open and honest about my story and being transparent about my struggles. Seeing how people reacted to that really changed me as a person. It made me want to share more and really devote part of myself to helping people, helping people understand more about HIV, homosexuality, and what it all means. It’s become a passion of mine.

Where did you study?

BJ: At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and then I moved to New York in 2001 to study on scholarship with a private teacher and a coach.

So now you have Lyrics of my Life being released, what brought you here?

BJ: I never had any dreams or aspirations of being a writer. I claimed that I learned how to write from my eighth-grade teacher. She was this woman named Mrs. Screeds in Southern California and was kind of like Judge Judy. She’s very strict and straight forward and would call people out for mistakes, make them read things out loud. There was no bending the rules. I guess I kind of really appreciated the art form of writing at that time, but I never once thought I would write a book or write anything. I started writing blogs on our website because my social media manager at the time said that it improves your search engine optimization. I thought, okay, I’ll write every couple of weeks.

Then a couple of literary agents approached me and said, “These stories are good. You should turn it into a book.” So I thought when opportunities arise, and I consider myself a spiritual person, like if God or the Universe is guiding you some way, then you should go with it. So I wrote a book.

You mention having come from a conservative background. Has your family’s acceptance of your lifestyle evolved over the years?

Branden James and James Clark wearing white tux
Branden James and James Clark

BJ: It has. It took a long time. I was diagnosed with HIV in 2005, and my parents essentially outed me. I never came out to them. I got this long handwritten letter from my mom when I was 21; it was left for me on my television. She’d come to visit me in Switzerland. She was very quiet for about 10 days. We weren’t connecting, and I just thought, “well, I’m 21, she’s older, and maybe we’re just not connecting anymore.” It turns out that she was writing this letter. She was in her journal a lot and kind of reading her Bible. Then she left this letter that said, “We know you’re gay. Our family cannot accept it. You have to fix it before you come home.”

Needless to say, I was devastated and felt totally betrayed. Coming out is such a personal thing, and it just felt like a bit of a betrayal of who I was. I just wasn’t expecting it to happen that way. I was getting ready to come out to them, but they pulled the trigger. I was very angry with them and probably not very nice because I was 21, a hot-headed kid. At some point along the way, I was kind of a serial monogamous before I got married. I was in one long term relationship to another, and I would always bring my boyfriends home. Eventually, my parents got much more comfortable with the idea. Now, they embrace James, my husband. They give him Christmas presents, and they love him. They ask about him more than they ask about me; actually, he’s their new favorite son!

I’m pretty happy with who I am now at the end of the day. That’s really all that matters is that we make ourselves happy and bring joy to other people in the process.

The stigma around HIV is ever positively changing. We are of a generation where HIV was judged inside and outside of our LGBTQ community, almost like being a minority of your own minority. It’s gone from being a type of Scarlet letter to becoming more widely embraced and understood. How has HIV strengthened you?

Branden James and James Clark walking on the beach
Branden James and James Clark

BJ: Dealing with HIV helped me understand that I’m stronger than I thought I was, emotionally and physically. In 2005 I knew I probably wasn’t going to die from it, but I didn’t know if I would have facial wasting and body dysmorphia and all the things that you saw in the 90s from survivors. But I have peace about it. I don’t think about it anymore. And a lot of it has to do with my own healing.

As you said with the stigma that’s rapidly vanishing, I write about it in my book. I talked about when I was diagnosed; I felt like I went back into the closet because I had another shameful secret that I couldn’t tell anyone. I’d be judged. I’d been on plenty of dates. I was living in LA at the time where I didn’t tell them until the third date. I tried to figure this person out, who they were. Are they going to be cool with this? Should I wait a couple of days? Should I just tell them upfront? And I got a mixed bag of reactions from people. Some people embraced it and said, “That’s fine. I know I need to be careful, but it doesn’t make me afraid of you.” Even my husband said had we met a couple of years earlier, he’d have run the other direction but was since educated and knew what was going on.

Life has just gotten easier. I just feel for people in countries where homosexuality is illegal or where HIV still carries such a huge stigma.

Regarding your religious background, how has your faith grown through your coming out experience?

Branden James and James Clark

BJ: It didn’t really grow so much until I started writing about it. I was very much closed off to religion and even spirituality for many, many years. I was angry and bitter about the Church. In some ways, right now, during an election cycle, it’s hard not to feel the same way because my morale and character is on the complete polar opposite to what evangelical Christianity says, “I’m the party of Trump” and all that stuff. I realized when I wrote the book and took time to relive all of those painful stories and memories that God was the only person or entity that never left me, the only person that was always there for me. I realized that it means something.

I explored my spirituality a little bit more and decided that I was okay with even calling myself a Christian because I think that God should be for everybody and not just for one political party or skin tone. I’m going to keep preaching that message, no pun intended. I think it’s important that we all treat each other with kindness, and fairness, and respect, and understand that God belongs to all of us, there’s no discrimination allowed.

For those of us with “post-traumatic Christian disorder,” what is one thing you wish people understood about Christianity and homosexuality?

Branden James and James Clark embracing each other
Branden James and James Clark

BJ: If you read verses in the Bible that are in context, where there’s no discrimination of homosexuals. If you take things out of context, they could be interpreted that way, but Jesus bathes with the sick and he fed the poor. And he was friendly to all the outcasts that included homosexuals and people who stole and did things that were bad. I think the message of Jesus Christ is pure, and humanity took it and destroyed it. I don’t think God would have had any problems with homosexuals.

In today’s political climate, being a minority within your color, your sexuality, your identity is dangerous. You’ve had the courage in your book to draw attention to intimate parts of you that could highlight what others might see as your “otherness.” What can we learn from vulnerability and authenticity?

Branden James holding cello on his left shoulder
Branden James

BJ: They go hand in hand. I think that if you are authentic, then you are vulnerable, and if you’re vulnerable, then you’re being authentic. I think that’s really the only way to live, to be true to yourself and to other people is to be transparent about who you are. I think if we all spent more time doing that, we would have less division, and we’d understand where each other are coming from and realize how much alike we are than we give ourselves credit for.

How can our readers keep in touch?

BJ: Follow my husband and me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Spotify @brandonjmusic, or @brandonandjames.

You can follow Branden James and his husband, cellist James Clark, in their musical duo, known as simply Branden and James.