Etheridge keeps putting a face on LGBT struggles

Few musical artists can claim to have enjoyed a career like Melissa Etheridge, particularly as out and proud lesbians. Etheridge came out publicly while her career was on the upswing in 1993 and has continued to enjoy commercial success, while maintaining a following of devoted fans.

Etheridge performed at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium earlier this month, where she regaled audiences with her classic hits, songs from her recent This Is M.E., and introduced some music from her forthcoming Memphis Rock & Soul. We spoke with her ahead of the performance, where she promised, “We're just going to have a good old Melissa Etheridge night at the Ryman.”

About Memphis Rock and Soul, Etheridge said, “I went to Memphis—as far as I'm concerned Memphis is the birthplace of rock and roll—and recorded and reimagined some Stax songs with so many of these musicians that are still around and have been playing this music in Memphis. I rewrote and rearranged the songs with utmost respect to the original versions and … I think the fans are just going to love it. If you love me singing about a broken heart, you know, ‘I've Been Loving You Too Long,’ then you're going to love this album. It's a great time!”

I caught up with Etheridge shortly before Orlando changed the tone of a month dedicated to celebrating the LGBT community. Just a few days later, she announced she was releasing a song, “Pulse,” benefiting the victims of the shooting.

“I'm just doing what musicians have always done," Etheridge told Billboard. "We've always been the ones that bring the news to the town and we're the mirrors of society. We give that song we can all sing when we all get together. That's my job.” And it’s a job Etheridge has been doing superbly for many years.

“My first Pride experience was in 1984,” Etheridge recalled when we spoke. “I was living in Long Beach, and we went up to the Los Angeles Pride Festival—Christopher Street West, it was called at the time—and oh that was quite a moving experience!”

Though she didn’t come out in a very public statement until 1993, Etheridge was no stranger to the LGBT scene. Still, the experience was transformative. “It’s one thing,” she explained, “to be in a club, a gay bar, with forty or fifty people maybe that were gay… But to be with thousands of people on Santa Monica Boulevard celebrating Pride, that was, that really stuck with me, and it really showed me how important it is to come out and be out in numbers and support. It was just wonderful!”

Etheridge finds it strange that her identity as a lesbian remained so below-the-radar for so long because of how “out” she had been. “Oh, yeah, it was really funny,” she said, “because I was discovered in a lesbian bar. That's where I played, and I was huge in that scene, and I'd been playing women's music festivals. I had a huge lesbian following. Right before my first album, I'd done a little tour I'd put together myself: it's what "You Can Sleep While I Drive" is written about. I went to all these little cities and played in lesbian bars and coffee houses and things.”

When she got signed, she wondered how the label would deal with her sexuality. “When my first record came out,” she said, “I remember asking my record company, ‘Well, what do we do about the gay thing?’ And they were like, ‘Well, we don't know! We don’t want you to pretend to be anything you aren’t, but we don't know.’ They just didn't know, so it was kind of this ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ thing. I kept hoping someone would ask me so I could go, ‘Yeah.’ But nobody asked, so it wasn't until I kinda said, ‘Hey, I'm gay,’ that it gave every permission to ask.”

Ultimately, it was Etheridge’s desire to be in solidarity with, and to support, those fighting for LGBT rights that drove Etheridge to come out. “I had been active and had many friends in the gay community as I kept putting albums out and started to get my own little notoriety and success. I was doing work with these people. This was the AIDS crisis, this was the height of our organizing, and it was one of the first times that gay and lesbian organizations helped elect a president. I was very involved in the Clinton-Gore campaign, and I met these amazing people from all the beautiful organizations we had at the time, and I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, I need to come out!’ You know, I needed to make a statement?”

So Etheridge made a plan to come out, but in the end a special moment sparked a spontaneous declaration. “I had a new album coming out at the end of 1993,” she explained. “My plan was to go on Arsenio Hall and come out, but I was invited to come to the Triangle Ball at the Clinton-Gore inauguration, and it just was a

beautiful time, celebrating with our brothers and sisters. And so I sort of said, there, ‘Yeah, I'm gay,’ ... and there it was!”

That same year, Etheridge made headlines by boycotting Colorado over Amendment 2, which the *New York Times* described as voiding “existing civil rights protections in jobs and housing for gay men and lesbians in Denver, Aspen and Boulder and will bar other localities from passing such ordinances.”

I asked Etheridge about her view on boycotts now, in light of the current boycotts by artists of states which have passed anti-LGBT legislation. “Oh, I think it's effective when businesses do, definitely,” she explained. “When a business says, ‘I’m not going to do business with this state because of its laws,’ that’s super effective. When a high profile celebrity or something does it, it can be good because it brings attention.”

However, her own experience with boycotts and activism have led her to a different conclusion. “As I look back over the thirty-some odd years I've been doing this now,” she said, “my best activism has come from just being willing to be out and speaking and being that person who will answer that question. My best activism is accomplished by being there and being the person they can say, ‘Well, she's gay, and she's not so bad.’ The last boycott I did was Colorado—that was it—the rest of them I like to show up. I don't want to leave my brothers and sisters alone in North Carolina...”

“I made a choice,” she explained, “that the people who are coming to my show … are my brothers and sisters that are there in that state, doing the work. I'm going to go in there, I'm going to donate money to the equal rights organizations there—to NCEquality—and I'm going to support and give a voice to what’s going on, to show people what they can do.”

Etheridge acknowledges that not everyone will understand, or welcome, her decision. “I get it, it totally get it,” she said, “but I thought about it, I put a lot of thought into it, and I really want to come and support and be part of it. I want to talk to their news stations. Let's support those that are doing such good work in Tennessee and North Carolina and really change this!”

As to the backlash the LGBT community has seen over the previous year, Etheridge takes a largely optimistic view. “It's the last wailing, dying call of an old hate, of an old fear, that's really trying to get legitimacy again but can’t in this day and age. You just can't!”

“Our own fear of our own sexuality,” she said, “is just kind of embarrassing, I think, an American Puritan thing. Find me something that says that our Creator, who created us all, in some way hates something they created? It makes no sense! I think, as history has shown us, in moving forward of our humanity and embracing diversity, these sort of obstacles will come up. We will overcome them, and you'll ask me in ten years, ‘Oh, remember when that was a big deal?’”





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