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PRIDE 2022: THE MELISSA ETHERIDGE INTERVIEW

Since her arrival in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Melissa Etheridge has been a leading voice at the intersection of LGBTQ+ rights, music and mainstream acceptance. Most recently, her foray into livestreaming also saw her leading the way and setting the benchmark for alternative ways of creating new revenue streams for artists, while increasing fan engagement. Melissa says now that, after a lifetime in the music industry she is “still learning, still loving it, still delighted and still crazy after all these years.”

You arrived in Los Angeles in the very early ’80s. At the time, what was the climate like for artists in the LGBTQ+ community?
It was a really unique time—in part, I think, because AIDS hadn’t quite hit everywhere. It was spoken about, but we really didn’t understand it. There was a real sense of freedom. I ended up down in Long Beach, which had a very strong women’s community. I got into the lesbian feminist scene really heavy from ’82 to ’86. It was a great time to be young and gay in Southern California.

When you first came out, was this something that occurred all at once in both your personal and professional lives? Or was there a span of time between coming out to the people closest to you and informing your fans and the public at large?
I basically came out when I was about 19 or 20, right around there. My mother wouldn’t talk to me again until I was about 25, but my father said, “Oh, well, we knew that,” and it really wasn’t a big deal. All my friends knew, and then, when I moved to L.A., I was always out. Even when I was signed, everybody knew I was gay. They found me in a lesbian bar, they met my girlfriend; it couldn’t have been more obvious. But there was a gap with the press. It was kind of, “Don’t ask, don’t tell”—nobody asked me, and I didn’t tell. However, I knew, right after my third album, “I’m going to have to come out myself; I’m going to have to just say it.”

What motivated you to disclose your personal life publicly?
There are a whole lot of reasons. People were asking me about my songs, “Who is it about?” I would answer in very gender-neutral terms, but I was still being misquoted. One of the first times I was on a cover, the writer changed all my pronouns to “him,” and “my boyfriend,” and that was horrifying to me because so many people knew the truth. I was like, “They’re gonna think I’m lying!” And then, socially, around me there were so many things going on. The end of the ’80s and the early ’90s were the height of the AIDS epidemic and people coming together. I had been working with some really amazing people. Urvashi Vaid was one of my friends, and she was constantly telling me, “Come to this thing here. You’re involved with this.” Alan Hergott and Curt Shepard took me under their wing. I was with these really powerful gay leaders, and I knew I needed to join, lend my support and be visible. It was the right time.
What would you say is the biggest difference between the climate for LGBTQ+ artists at the outset of your career and the present?
Back when I came out, that was the only story; it was the headline. I spent years just talking about being gay, and I was willing to do it. Now I’ll hear songs and think, “Wait! Halsey said ‘Girl’! It’s wonderful—it’s delightful.” Today there’s this great range of artists who are mainstream and just happen to be gay or bi, and then there are artists who really want to put their sexuality out front. I love it, and I love where it’s going. My favorite thing is this queer-country thing that’s coming up in Nashville. Who would have thought?

Are you politically involved and active at the present moment?
I help more on the local level. What’s happening locally is really important stuff. I feel strongly about that. The national level is kind of wacko. I just did a thing for a gay candidate running for sheriff in San Diego County, and my very good friend Heather Mizeur is running to get [Republican Congressman] Andy Harris out of office in Maryland. I’m involved with local things like that.

You’ve touched on the tone of our current national politics. There’s clearly a group of people at the national level who are trying to squash LGBTQ+ rights and the rights of a lot of other marginalized communities. What do you think artists and industry executives can do to counter those efforts?
I’ve always thought the best thing one can do is to be the best person you can be, love yourself and show the world just how much fun we’re having being who we are. Know the strength in that, because that’s where most of our strength lies. When people know a gay person at work, down the street and in their family, it changes everything—changes hearts and minds. I really feel that the loudest ones who are trying to roll back things, deny people their rights or make it an “us and them,” they’re the ones full of the most fear right now. I think they’re a smaller group. The best thing we can do is keep living our best lives and moving things forward.
Most recently, the Supreme Court and Roe v. Wade has been front and center in our nation’s consciousness. There’s a palpable sense that this case may embolden certain forces to utilize those same arguments to do things like repeal gay marriage and other gay rights. Is that something that that worries you?
No, I’m not worried. I believe we are always moving up and always moving forward. The power of some very fearful people may shake things up in the moment, and they might be able to get up there and mess things around for a little bit, but in the long run, I’ve just been around long enough to know we’re all moving forward.

At this point, you’ve been at the forefront of witnessing this enormous change within the LGBTQ+ community for the last 40-plus years. What advice would you give to someone who’s part of the LGBTQ+ community and just starting a career in music?
I would say what I have always said: Just be yourself; be exactly who you are. And you’d better love what you’re doing. Because, hey, you might have a hit, and then you have to sing that song forever and ever and ever. If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re gonna hate it in the future. Love what you’re doing, love who you are and have fun. You’ll have a happy journey. 

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