It’s all right with Melissa Etheridge if you forget she’s a lesbian sometimes.
The two-time Grammy winning singer — who just celebrated her 60th birthday — rose to stardom in the early 1990s and made headlines when she came out publicly at the Triangle Ball, part of President Bill Clinton’s inaugural celebration, on Jan. 20, 1993. Her multi-platinum album “Yes I Am” followed months later and featured hits “Come to My Window,” for which Etheridge won one of her two Grammys, and “I’m the Only One.”
At the time, the sexuality of a mainstream rock artist was still a significant topic both in the media and in record label conference rooms.
Etheridge told TODAY she was sure she was a lesbian by the time she was 17 or 18 years old. After coming out to her father and leaving her hometown of Leavenworth, Kansas, for college, Etheridge said, “I was just out to everyone I ever met.
“It was kind of obvious to anyone who knew me. I never tried to be anyone I wasn’t," she said.
When she moved to California at the age of 21, Etheridge couldn’t find a mainstream bar that would pay her to perform. “It was all pay to play out here, and you couldn’t make any money unless you were a name,” she said.
It was women’s bars and clubs where Etheridge finally found a home and where, for five years, she played five nights a week. “I was supported by the women’s community around Los Angeles and Pasadena and Long Beach,” she said.
Eventually, “Almost every single record company in L.A. came to see me, and I was turned down by many, many, many, many record companies," she said. "Whether it’s because they looked around and went, ‘Oh, she’s a lesbian,’ I don’t know."
But her sexuality didn’t seem to bother Chris Blackwell, then head of Island Records. He signed Etheridge in 1987. But just before her first album, “Melissa Etheridge,” released in 1988, there was a moment of uncertainty, she said.
“I remember sitting at a conference table with all the people at Island, and someone said, ‘What about this lesbian thing?’” said Etheridge. “And then Chris Blackwell said in his lovely English accent, ‘Well, as long as you don’t flag-wave, I guess.’ It was weird and uncomfortable.”
Etheridge, who never tried to hide her sexuality, always figured someone in the media would “do their homework” on her background and figure out she was a lesbian. “I expected them to ask me, yeah,” she said. “But nobody did.”
It wasn’t until she was interviewed by The Advocate in 1992 that a reporter asked her if she was planning to come out.
“I said, ‘You know what? I have to, because this is who I am and I really want to be authentic,’” said Etheridge. She was already working on her fourth album by then, and she knew she needed to say something soon. “My music was personal, and people were figuring out who I was, so it was going to happen,” she said.
But Etheridge’s announcement at Clinton’s Triangle Ball was spontaneous, spurred by the excitement and momentum of the night and inspired by friend and fellow singer K.D. Lang, who had come out the month before.
“I’m proud to say right now, I’m proud to have been a lesbian all my life,” Etheridge told the crowd, as Lang jumped up and down in the background, cheering her on.
Etheridge said that although her Triangle Ball proclamation made headlines, coming out was still a slow process for her. Without the internet or social media, it took many newspaper and magazine interviews over the next few years for everyone to “catch up.”
She relied on her group of friends — Lang, Ellen DeGeneres, and Rosie O’Donnell — throughout that time.
“The four of us were really, really tight and supportive of each other and where we were in each of our careers,” she said. DeGeneres came out on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1997, and O’Donnell in a 2002 performance at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City.
“People say, ‘Aren't you afraid they're going to forget how hard it was for you?’ I'm like, ‘Let them forget it.’"
“Melissa Etheridge is an unforgettable talent and pioneer who gave countless lesbian women another woman to relate to and admire at a time when lesbian visibility was nearly nonexistent,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis told TODAY via email. “Melissa was unabashedly herself and her songs have ascended into bonafide American classics. Today, she continues to produce incredible music and use her platform to demand full LGBTQ acceptance for community members everywhere.”
Etheridge has been happy to support younger LGBTQ+ singers like fellow Kansan Chely Wright (“Shut Up and Drive,” “Single White Female”), who did not come out until after she had hit it big in the country music world. “That’s really not easy,” said Etheridge. “When she came out, I mentored and supported her big time.”
Then, more and more singers came on to the scene like Sam Smith — “artists who are gay, and it’s kind of obvious, and they’re just so good and the music is so good,” Etheridge noted.
In the last 10 years, Etheridge said she has been delighted by the amazing young talent (“millennial sort of youngsters,” she laughed) like King Princess and Hayley Kiyoko.
“And then there’s Halsey, who you’ll just be singing along with and suddenly, she includes a verse about a girl, and I’m like, ‘This is amazing!’ It’s so cool!” she said.
“I love the way this younger generation has relaxed,” she said. “For us, it was that you were supposed to be straight. Then, it was either you were straight or you were gay. Now, there’s this beautiful spectrum of people who don’t have to make up their minds. They can be, like, whatever they want.”
The youngest of Etheridge’s four children, twins Johnnie Rose and Miller Steven, 14, are heading to ninth grade next year. “For them and their friends, they can just go to high school and have a choice of identity, and that’s so healthy. I believe lives are being saved every day because of that,” she said.
Etheridge just released a new single, “One Way Out,” as part of a project bringing back songs that didn’t make it on to her albums in the early ‘90s or 2000s, including some that were too gay-positive or feminist to include when she first wrote them. “I didn’t feel quite as comfortable back then, but now I am,” she said.
“These songs are really fun, kind of pure rock ‘n’ roll,” she said. “I just think my fans will love it.”
The new songs are welcome excitement for Etheridge and her wife Linda Wallem after the past year, which included both the COVID-19 outbreak and the loss of Etheridge’s son, Beckett, at the age of 21 to opioid addiction.
Etheridge used music to cope with her own grief and to help others through her online “garage concerts” over the course of the pandemic.
“I realized I was playing for people who were alone in their houses for hundreds of days,” she said. “It just blew my mind. So, my wife and worked out this set up in our garage, and we have had so much fun doing this.”
Etheridge is happy, she said, after all these years, to be known as a rock star — not “the lesbian rock star.”
“One of my favorite things is how many people have come out since I did,” she said. “People say, ‘Aren't you afraid they're going to forget how hard it was for you?’ I'm like, ‘Let them forget it.’ Let's leave them alone, man, let's just let it go.”
This LGBTQ Pride Month 2021, TODAY is highlighting the LGBTQ trailblazers in pop culture who paved the way, along with the trendsetters of today who are making a name for themselves. By examining their experiences individually, we see how all of their stories are tied to one another in a timeline of queer history that takes us from where we were to where we stand today.