You can pretty much count on one hand the number of pop stars to come out since Melissa Etheridge publicly acknowledged her sexuality in 1993.
Still, the reigning lesbian rocker is confident there will be more gay pop stars in the near future. “It takes a special kind of strange person to want to be a pop star anyway,” says Etheridge. Often part of the appeal, for both the artist and the public, is a mystery about exactly who the person is, especially when it comes to sexuality. And today there’s far more room for mystery than ever before.
“My generation, we were more gay or straight — there was a big divide between the two,” the 54-year-old says. But progress in LGBT rights in the past two decades “allows more fluidity to sexuality in general…. I’m sure there are some major pop stars right now in their twenties that are kind of going, ‘I don’t know. I might be this or that. But I don’t have to label myself right now.'”
It turns out that’s not mere speculation from a woman with an optimistic disposition. In fact, Etheridge has personally given advice to some not-yet-out young musical artists. “We have long discussions on the benefits of coming out, the benefits of being out, and what it might look like for them,” she says. To be sure, it might not look quite as rosy as it did for Etheridge.
She came out in January of 1993 at an inaugural ball for Bill Clinton. She returned to Washington that April to perform at the third gay March on Washington on the National Mall. Later that year, Etheridge broke through to the mainstream with the release of the appropriately titled Yes I Am, which sold over six million copies. All in all, coming out was a boost to her career.
“The only reason that we see change in the world is because we have been brave enough to come out,” Etheridge says. “More people know more gay people because we have come out.” More frank talk about sexual experiences will advance us further. “It’s about sexual freedom, bottom line,” she says. “It’s not just about being gay — it’s about not being so fearful about sex in general.”
Beyond sex, there’s love — and being gay or lesbian today does not preclude getting legally married, much less publicly proclaiming a relationship. Etheridge and her wife Linda Wallem were among the many who expressed elation after the Supreme Court’s breathtaking, landmark ruling last month, which effectively struck down barriers to same-sex marriage in all 50 states. “My wife Linda and I join everyone around the world as we celebrate…the Supreme Court in upholding the civil rights and liberty of all the citizens of this great land,” Etheridge said in a statement. “Life is full of wonder and love is never wrong.”
In an interview before the Supreme Court had issued its ruling, Etheridge said she hadn’t given much thought to what might happen if the court ruled against marriage equality, because she saw it as an inevitable outcome. “You can’t roll this tide back,” she says. “I just can’t believe that for very long…you could interpret our constitution as meaning everyone except gay people. It doesn’t work that way. That’s not the way our forefathers built it.”
Etheridge tries “to think very positively,” an outlook she applies to pretty much everything, from politics to the environment. Even her home state of Kansas isn’t as hopeless to Etheridge as it is so often regarded.
“I think it’s misleading to say ‘these are blue states, these are red states,'” Etheridge says. “Because even in the red states, many of them are only 51-percent red…. I think the whole country is more purple than we know. There’s a lot of just good people trying to do their best, trying to live and let live.”
Etheridge expresses optimism when reminiscing about her early life in Leavenworth, outside Kansas City. “I remember we didn’t have liquor — we had to cross the border to Missouri to get alcohol,” she says. “So they’re a little bit behind. It’s okay. Everybody is getting there. They’re on a journey.”
Nearly a decade ago Etheridge won an Oscar for her song “I Need to Wake Up,” written for the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which focused on Al Gore and his work in raising awareness about climate change. As with LGBT rights, Etheridge says environmental progress “starts individually” — person by person. “I think we are headed in the right direction,” she says, singling out the Waterkeeper Alliance, a network working to protect waterways. Headed by Robert Kennedy Jr., it’s the one environmental organization she’s been championing these days. Naturally, she’s troubled by the water issue — or to be more precise, lack-of-water issue — in California. It’s become “the number one issue in the state.” But she doesn’t dwell on the negative impacts the drought has had even on her own life. “I’m looking at my brown yard right now,” she says. “Which is fine. We live in a desert.”
Though she’s certainly had her downs, including two very public breakups prior to Wallem, and a bout with breast cancer last decade, Etheridge focuses on the ups — many of which she could not have planned or even predicted. That includes her relationship to Wallem. The two were born on the same day — May 29, 1961 — with just a four-hour difference between them. Whatever celestial cautions there are to pairing up with someone of the same sign, astrology has nothing on this Gemini’s terrestrial experience. “I haven’t had my astrological chart read in 20 years or so,” Etheridge says, “but believe me, I’ve had many relationships with many signs, and this relationship works across the board on every level.”
Etheridge also had no plans to have one kid, let alone four. “I did not expect to be a mother,” she says, “but it’s probably the greatest experience I’ve ever had. Just the experience of being around these four amazing souls, and helping through the world is everything.” She laughs at her quick response to the obvious next question, whether she’ll have more. “No. Can I answer that faster? No!”
Touring is another “up” that keeps on giving, which Etheridge hopes is true for concertgoers as well. Beyond a natural rapport with the audience and a personable, engaging stage presence, no two shows are exactly alike. “I create a set list before every show now,” she says. Aside from the staples — the biggest hits and other proven crowd-pleasers in her 27-year-old repertoire — “there are four, five, six songs that I’ll do different every night. I want people to be able to see it multiple times and have a different experience every time.”
Next month, Washingtonians are in for an extra treat, when Etheridge returns to the Music Center at Strathmore. “It’s so beautiful,” she says. “And it’s an acoustically perfect place to play.” The Strathmore stop is part of Etheridge’s current solo tour — solo, that is, not acoustic. She’ll play a variety of 10 guitars, a keyboard, a little hand drum set and a digital looper, recording rhythms on the spot, live.
“It’s a show where I really get to show off what I can do,” says Etheridge. “It’s very intimate, yet it’s still a major rock and roll show. People are up and dancing and going crazy.”
Melissa Etheridge performs Wednesday, Aug. 26, at 8 p.m., at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $45 to $85. Call 301-581-5100 or visit strathmore.org.
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