NBC's hit show "The Voice" is giving a voice to gay singers.
The singing competition wraps its first season this week with four contestants battling for the championship. Two of those finalists are gay.
Other TV talent shows such as "American Idol" and "America's Got Talent" have featured gay performers but not in an open way. For example, Adam Lambert, who won second place on "American Idol" in 2009, didn't address his sexuality until after the competition ended. He's had success as an openly gay performer, earning a Grammy nomination, a gold-selling CD and a pair of Top 40 hits.
But the presence of gay singers on "The Voice" is fresh for prime-time TV, and the singers are making a splash at a time when New York State has legalized gay marriage.
"It couldn't have come at a better time, could it?" said Beverly McClellan, a 41-year-old gravelly voiced singer from Virginia and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., whose partner has appeared backstage on the show with her.
McClellan is working with Christina Aguilera on "The Voice." Vicci Martinez, a 26-year-old energetic singer from Tacoma, Wash., is also gay and has Cee Lo Green as her mentor.
"Everybody is just evaluated based on their talent and their voice, and that has no boundaries and no boxes to put anybody in," said Audrey Morrissey, one of the show's executive producers.
Aguilera, Green, Blake Shelton and Adam Levine serve as coaches on the show. The four chose teams of eight after an audition process that allowed them only to hear the singer's voice but not to see them. Teams were whittled down to one contestant for each coach in the finals.
The winning singer gets a record contract with Universal Republic Records and a $100,000 prize.
McClellan and Martinez have battled multiple rounds to land in the Top 4. They both received top votes in their teams when each group was reduced from four to two contestants.
McClellan, who rocks a shaven head and multiple tattoos, won over Aguilera and Levine with her rendition of the soul song "Piece of My Heart" during the auditions round.
"I just think that it's amazing that America voted for me to stay, living as a 41-year-old lesbian with a unique look," she said. "America has come a long way."
Martinez agrees, saying that she feels like "there's a shift right now in the universe."
"People are waking up and people are being honest with themselves," she said.
Martinez, whose staggering covers of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" and Florence + the Machine's "Dog Days Are Over" helped make her one of the competition's front-runners, believes the show's success is shifting the state of the record business.
"The music industry is changing and 'The Voice' is going to be a big reason for that," she said.
Morrissey, whose producing credits include MTV's "Unplugged" and the Video Music Awards, doesn't think the singers' sexuality will hinder their singing careers.
"Clearly America loves them — they voted for them. I don't think they're going to have a problem at all," she said.
The other two finalists on "The Voice" are Dia Frampton, the bubbly and smooth singer working with Shelton, and Javier Colon, a powerful crooner with Levine of Maroon 5.
The winner will be crowned Wednesday (NBC, 8 p.m. EDT). The finalists will perform original tunes for the first time Tuesday night (9 p.m. EDT). The singers are getting a big boost thanks to the show's ratings — a 13.2 million viewership average, according to Nielsen Co.
Besides Martinez and McClellan, another gay singer on the show was Nakia, a bluesy performer who appeared at the auditions with his boyfriend. He was Green's second finalist, behind Martinez. And there was also Tyler Robinson, voted off early from Shelton's team.
The singers said they didn't think twice about hiding their sexualities when appearing on national television.
"I've been told from people that I should sometimes, just make people keep guessing," Martinez said. "I'm out here trying to speak truth and tell people to live their truth, and that's just ridiculous."
McClellan has released five albums independently. She got word about "The Voice" auditions from the studio where she records music. She said she had no interest in becoming a commercial singer because of industry stereotypes and standards.
"(I) never wanted (a recording contract) because I didn't want to be told what to do. But I figured at 41 I'm already set in my ways, I don't think anybody can really change me," she said.
She also said she and mentor Aguilera didn't talk about her sexuality.
"I've tried to stay out of that box 'cause I don't think my singing has anything to do with being gay," she said.
Green got backlash last week after tweeting a music critic who gave an underwhelming review of his live show. "People enjoyed last night! I'm guessing you're gay? And my masculinity offended you?" he tweeted. Some people accused the singer of being homophobic, but Martinez said that's not the case.
"He apologized like so many times," she said. "He called me, texted me, tweeted me. Even a week later he's like, 'I really want you to know I'm so sorry. That was so stupid of me. It was taken totally out of context. You know that I love you.'
"I didn't take any offensive to it," Martinez said.
NBC is controlled by Comcast Corp.; MTV is owned by Viacom Inc.
Mesfin Fekadu covers entertainment for the Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/musicmesfin