COMING OUT TO PLAY

 

THERE are lots of things for which a writer might want to be remembered. However, chief among these is definitely not being remembered as the "Irish journalist" whom Melissa Etheridge once criticised in Q magazine, claiming he finally forced her to "come out" as a lesbian. How? Because, in the Hot Press article that followed our last interview, in 1988, I. referred to her then ex lover as "he" instead of "she". But then my base ignorance on the subject was hardly surprising, given the fact that in response to the question, "do you miss him?" Melissa had merely answered "yeah". Eight years later, speaking on a phone line from California, Melissa laughs loudly on being reminded of this tactical evasion and the identity of this interviewer.

"You didn't piss me off, you just scared me" she says. "But that definitely was one of those times when I realised if I don't make a stand, those people who assume I'm heterosexual will always write about it that way, so I can't walk the line on this. And there was another American interviewer that did the same thing, so both of you guys made me go for it"

The last time we talked Melissa also remained silent when asked to clarify what she meant when she referred to a "scar" that stemmed from her adolescence, led to a profound sense of separateness and made her immerse herself in music. She has since spoken of how, in High School, she was known as "missy" and that her fellow students would write "missy is a lezzie" on the bathroom wall. So, was that "scar" her sexuality?

"Sexuality was part of that scar, for sure," she admits. "But it also was rooted in my childhood, as a result of growing up in an emotionless home, where the only kind of `in depth' conversations you'd have at the dinner table, were like, well, how was your day? though, as I said somewhere, there also was a dark undercurrent underneath. Yet that missy is a lezzie stuff definitely did deepen my sense of isolation, and my determination, made me think When I graduate, I'm out of here, and on to another world as in rock'n'roll."

Clearly, there are many parallells between Melissa Etheridge's life and the sexual rite of passage Janis Ian travelled through in her teens. Ian recently revealed that one of the key reasons she didn't declare her lesbianism earlier is because she didn't want people saying "Oh, now I understand the anxieties at the soul of a song like At Seventeen didn't want the lyric reduced to just a coded text that applied only to closeted gays. Can Melissa identify with that?

"I even had this conversation with Janis," she says, enthusiastically. "I told her that I, in fact, had related to At Seventeen as a coming out song and she told me it wasn't that. But then again, songs are what they mean to people, rather than simply what they meant to the songwriter. I write a song like Nowhere To Go for the new album, and mean one thing, then give it to the rest of the world and they can take it anywhere they want. But, unlike Janis, I haven't had the lesbian community try to reclaim the songs because I think that from the beginning, the gay community grabbed on to what I was saying."

COMMENTING on the third of the current gay female rock icons, Jan is Ian also recently suggested that kd lang is not necessarily a " good role model" for lesbian women, claiming she shouldn't "come out then refuse to talk about it" and thus dump public declarations on the subject in "my lap and Melissa's". Does Melissa agree with that, and Ian's assertion that "it's important for kids, like I was at nine, to see gay people who are relatively normal about it all and open"?

"Absolutely, but I don't think any of that was done on purpose, on kd's behalf," she suggests. "Coming out is a personal experience and to do it in public is even more difficult. Kd did it and then, I think, felt she'd made her point. Yet what people forget is that kd is not a public person, in any sense. Whereas me, I'll talk to anyone about this At least, now I will"

Thanks partly to kd, who introduced Melissa to the audience during the first Gay and Lesbian Inauguration Ball, which took place when Bill Clinton became President. Having grabbed the microphone after kd announced that coming out was the "greatest thing" she'd ever done, Melissa simply added to that sentiment, saying, "You know, I'm really proud to say I've been a lesbian all my life." She then walked over to her lover since 1988, Julie Cypher, and mumbled, "I think I just came out" Not surprisingly, she "can't agree" with Janis Ian who has also suggested that "to fall in love with a married woman, who is straight, is not good role modelling which is what kd did." When Melissa met Julie she was married to actor Lou Diamond Phillips.

"I can relate to that totally obviously, but I don't know what Janis is talking about there" Melissa says. "The heart can't choose its targets. These things just happen. And I wish I hadn't fallen in love with a married woman. But I did. And I'm glad things have worked out so well for Julie and I."

So much so thay both have publicly declared their mutual longing to marry each other. And have children? "Yeah," sighs Melissa. "But it's so difficult with two people in intense careers. That's the biggest problem. It's time that is the only barrier to that, though how we'd have children is something personal, closed to the rest of the world. Yet if we marry we probably will wear dresses and go through all that stuff. It's certainly something we talk about more and more these days.

OF COURSE, matter of fact conversation on this subject is relatively subversive in the context of the more tight assed elements of "straight" society. And maybe even more so in terms of the heavily homo phobic world of rock'n'roll. What is Melissa's response to the Irish lesbian duo Zrazy, who claim chat rock is a "dysfunctional male music system" which "strengthens rather than challenges sexual stereotypes and adds to the sense of homo phobia in society"?

"When I started making the first record, in 1988, that aspect of the business was scary" she asserts. "It was the height of Guns N Roses and many of those heavy metal bands, whose songs were misogynist as well as homo phobic. But the thing was that I loved rock'n'roll, loved the spirit, and wanted to be Mick Jagger and Bruce Springsteen and never thought I couldn't, because I was a woman. Or a lesbian. So I went for it and, eventually, audiences started looking at the lyrics of people like Guns N Roses and rejecting the homo phobia and misogynism. And now I can play, and look out at 15,000 people gay, straight, factory workers, college kids and they are all in the emotion of the song, rising above all that other crap. So, see, I won"

Maybe nowhere more so than in one particular photo which appeared in Rolling Stone last year, which shows Melissa and Julie snuggled up together under a blanket, kissing. No big deal, you may say. Yeah right, until you remember that Rolling Stone is the magazine which once polled its readers on their attitude to gays and got the resounding response that 75 per cent "didn't approve of it". Even more of an achievement, along these lines, is the fact that Melissa can now perform a song like Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road, with its lyric "Screen door slams, Mary's dress waves" and make it a prayer of longing from a woman to a woman, as well as from man to woman. Similarly, in terms of classic "laddish" songs like Maggie May.

"But the real political achievement in that is the realisation that it's the same passion, the same feeling we're talking about here. And in terms of my own songs, I've found that the more personal you get, the nearer you come to that point of universality that transcends gender, sexual preferences, whatever," Melissa suggests, adding that she encountered "no negative response whatsoever" as a result of the photograph in Rolling Stone. But what about the music industry in general? Is the response to her lesbianism basically "it doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, if you're making a lot of money for them, you're great" as her friend Janis Ian claims? Now that she herself has amassed multi million sales is that also the bottom line in relation to Melissa Etheridge?

"Very much so," she says. "But I also think the record industry is a liberal industry and you're not going to see them take a stand against issues like this. Though, having said that, I think they look a little differently on lesbians than they do on gay men. We're less of a threat. But us being accepted does open the door to everyone eventually being accepted, I hope.

MELISSA Etheridge certainly has been accepted, particularly since her 1993 five times platinum album, Yes I Am which, incidentally, was released in the wake of her coming out. Her latest album, the teasingly titled Your Little Secret, also finds her on top form, particularly in sexually assertive songs like I Want To Come Over. Looking hack, Melissa claims the "most important thing" is hearing that her music "inspires people", particularly the latest breed of female singer songwriters.

"A woman making great music today, Alanis Morissette, said she'd been inspired by my albums which really made me feel, cool, I'm having some kind of influence with my work" she explains, emphasising that the same applies in relation to fans who tell her that the music on her last two albums, specifically, has similarly affected their lives.

"That's why I think a lot of people, in the long run, will thank me for coming out in particular. What happened only made me realise I had to be more up front about my life what I write, say and what I sing."