Looking Back, Moving Forward

Melissa Etheridge shares insight from her decades as a musician, activist and lesbian icon

Songwriter, performer, activist, Oscar and Grammy winner, gay icon, mom—Melissa Etheridge wears more hats than most people. The Kansas native’s artistry, hard work and confessional style have earned her countless admirers, beginning with her debut self-titled album in 1988 and radical coming-out moment to her awareness campaign for breast cancer research to her latest record, 4th Street Feeling. A nostalgic look at her hometown and the path Etheridge has forged for herself, the album also answers some of the speculation over her nasty breakup and custody battle with her ex-wife, Tammy Lynn Michaels.

Yet Etheridge is optimistic about her current relationship with Linda Wallem and as fired up as ever about the causes important to her—the election, the environment, and equality. The singer spoke with GO about where we’ve been and where we’re going—and gave us a first-hand view of our struggles and triumphs.

GO: You’ve been a star for more than 20 years. We became aware of your importance to the LGBT community when you came out in 1993 at a Clinton inauguration ball. Can you recall your immediate feelings that night, and did you ever expect your decision to come out then to have such a big impact?

Melissa Etheridge: I had been thinking the whole year—as I was making my Yes I Am album—about coming out, because I had such strange a experience with people changing pronouns in my interviews. I was always very clear about not using pronouns—[saying] “my lover,” never using he or she—and someone just took it upon themselves to change everything to “my boyfriend.” I was like, what? It was only this one interview where it happened, but I was like, I gotta come out.

It was sort of known within in the underground of the community, because I started performing in bars; I had a legend of my own already [laughs]. And I had also met and been working with a lot of the leaders in our community on the political front. They were awesome activists—the heads of ACT UP, and Urvashi Vaid and Alan Hergott—these amazing people were my friends. I had done some work to help Clinton get elected, so I was invited to the Triangle Ball, which is a big gay ball. I didn’t think, “I’m gonna come out here.”

But everyone at the ball was starting to give speeches [on stage], kd lang was up there talking, and she had just come out a few weeks before. We were up on this balcony, and kd just gave me the microphone, and I said [joking] “I’m proud to have been a lesbian all my life!” Everybody cheered and hollered. I didn’t understand that we were at the National Press Corps building, there were a few press people there. The next day, in all the inauguration coverage, there’s a little blurb that said, “Melissa Etheridge came out publicly as a lesbian.” I thought, “well, nobody’s going to catch that.” But it caught everyone’s attention! I didn’t intend to do anything on a bigger level.

So you didn’t plan it all? Today, celebrities seem to have a well-orchestrated coming out campaign.

No, not at all. Not there. It’s funny—if you read People magazine’s who’s-who encyclopedia, if you look under my name, you see “Melissa Etheridge came out at William Jefferson Clinton’s inauguration.” I thought, oh my God, people are going to think I said, “Excuse me, excuse me! I’m gay, I’m gay!” It wasn’t like that at all.

It had a huge impact nonetheless. Even before then, though, you were an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. What do you think our biggest accomplishments of the last 10 to 20 years are?

I would say the biggest accomplishment that we have made is getting lesbians and gay men to agree on anything. We could not be more different, really. Other than the fact that we choose to partner with our own sex, we really don’t have much in common. We have different ways of looking at the world and issues that are important to us. I think the best thing we did, 25 or 30 years ago, when the AIDS crisis was upon us, was to get together and agree to forget all our differences and craziness. We said, “We’re going to get together and work because it’s life or death now.” And seeing everybody come together, in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and learn how to mobilize and become political and make changes and insist on our rights and get elected to public office and just move forward.
For us to have changed public opinion in my lifetime, in one generation, in 20 years, is pretty amazing. What gay was when I grew up, and what gay is now when my kids are growing up, is completely different.

Do you find that attitudes in your hometown have changed? You’re still really involved with the arts programs there.

Kansas is always that neutral state in the middle. Even in the Civil War, we were neutral—we’re not quite southern, we’re not quite northern, we’re just right there in the middle. That’s kind of what it was like there growing up gay. I didn’t find it totally oppressive, and it wasn’t out-of-control religious or anything. It was just “work hard and play nice” and that’s how we lived.

I remember thinking, when I came out, ‘oh well, my poor hometown, they’re going to be thinking [disapprovingly] ‘hm.’” But finally, in the late ‘90s, they completely embraced me. At each entrance into the town, they put a sign up saying “The Home of Melissa Etheridge.” They completely own me; they gave me an official Melissa Etheridge Day and everything. The high school now has a gay-straight alliance group. I’m very proud of the town.

What would you like to see happen next in the LGBT movement? You mentioned getting gay-friendly politicians elected as a goal.

The next step is for us as a community is to understand that we’re a part of humanity. We are as we were made—we are as we were meant to be. Believing that is what will change the world. Any thinking that it’s ‘them’ that need to change is not going to work. We need to be the people who are out in the neighborhoods, we need to be the couple down the street that’s nice to their neighbors and contribute to their communities. We need to be out at work. People need to know gay people—happy gay people. That’s what going to change the rest of the world.

You’ve been supportive of many different causes over the years, from AIDS research and breast cancer research to environment conservation. Which causes are most important to you today?

In my journeys as an activist, I realize the most active thing I do is to be truthful about myself. Just be upfront and carry myself that way. That is my most important cause now, and for each of us individually, it is about our health, it’s about understanding what health is. Health is the choices we make every day—it’s not about making sure I’m covered so that when I get sick the government will pay for me. It’s about taking our own responsibility for our health, for about who we are, for about what we’re doing in this life. I think democracy is at its best when each individual realizes her own responsibility.

Speaking of personal responsibility—it’s been a real buzzword lately in this election year. I know you’ve been active in getting Democratic presidents elected, so what are your plans for this year? Will you be out on the campaign trail?

I am not active this year, for a multitude of reasons. It’s not that I’ve become disillusioned with Obama or anything—Obama being elected president has done more for our country just in raising our hopes of change and overcoming old prejudices and old intolerances. It’s been great for us as a nation in the world. And he’s an incredible leader.

But I also am, as a grownup, very aware that there are forces that control the government, way beyond the Republican or Democratic party. There are multinational corporations that don’t care whether it’s a Republican or Democrat in charge; they’ve got the person in their pocket and their agenda is moving forward. It’s Big Pharma, it’s the food industry that’s killing us. I see things on a different level, and I see that the most important thing we can do now is to come together as a country and to stop quibbling. We’re being robbed of our lives on a much grander scale.

The way to change that, speaking of personal responsibility, is asking yourself, “what am I doing to vote everyday with what I buy?” Because those dollars are the only thing that anybody listens to anymore.  Are you going to buy from green companies? Are you going to support gay companies? Is organic food important to you? Because if it is, and you agree to spend more money for the organic foods, then the more people that do that, the price goes down. It’s the only way we’re going to get people to understand what’s most important to us.

It’s easy to wish for a simpler time—and that seems to be one of the themes of your new album, 4th Street Feeling. I love the seventies soft rock/soul groove of the title track. What about 4th Street in Leavenworth inspired you to write this song and title your album after it?

I’m 51 years old, I have four kids, and my life is about the bills, the mortgage, the education, my health. And every now and then it gets a little overwhelming! I was in the studio, and I was dealing with things at home while I was in the studio, feeling very torn, and I just wished I could go back to the time when everything I had I could just put into my car. That’s freedom! It just took me back, not only to the memory of it, but to the sound and the feel of that time. When I write lines like “just slip an 8-track in,” that’s right, it’s the late seventies, I’m driving down 4th Street in Leavenworth, it’s the main drag.

I remember my first car—it’s on the cover of the album. It’s not the exact car, but it’s one just like it. A ’64 Chevy Impala. I just drove around and it was just freedom and what I didn’t know then—it’s a memory, it’s a reminiscence.

While the album begins by looking back, you’re still addressing some personal issues that are more recent. In “Shout Now” and “A Disaster” and “Sympathy,” the lyrics are quite bitter. Did you have anyone in mind when you were writing them?

[Hesitating] As a songwriter, it’s what we do, to take our personal experiences and feelings and express them in many different ways, and that is our art. I definitely let loose some pent-up feelings, and that is exactly what “Shout Now” is all about. I can put [the emotions] in a song, I can sing it, it’s nice and safe, it’s not going to hurt anybody. I can make it entertaining and maybe other people will feel that way sometimes, and we move on.

Are they breakup songs?

[Laughs] I wouldn’t call those breakup songs, I’d call them get-yourself-together songs. Like, get-over-it songs, I’m-movin’-on songs. It’s very cathartic.

But by the end of the record, especially the last track, “Rock and Roll Me”—your attitude has changed to sexy and hopeful. Could this be about the someone in your life right now?

Oh yes! I’m just transparent, aren’t I? [laughs] “I Can Wait” and “Rock and Roll Me”—those were definitely me, late at night, in my boxers and t-shirt writing songs.

I can’t wait to do those live. I wrote these songs while I was on the road, and from beginning to end I thought about playing them live. I think if you’ve seen me in concert, you know what’s going to be fun from the album. I’m playing more guitar now, I’m just having a blast. I’m super excited.

In November you’re being honored at the National Museum of Women in the Arts—tell us about that.

The museum asked for something they could put in their collection, like an outfit—I forget what outfit I gave them—and then asked if they could give the award, and of course I was honored. It’s about 25 years of hard work. It does feel good. Being in a museum is a little, ‘whoa, how old am I?’ But after 25 years, I can stop worrying about my day job.

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