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Melissa Etheridge: ‘What Are We Gonna Do About the Gay Thing?’

The trailblazer talks corporate pressure, defending Eminem's right to say homophobic stuff, and the prime importance of free speech
'As long as you don't flag wave.' Melissa Etheridge performing in 1989, four years before she came out publicly. (Credit: John Atashian via Getty Images)

‘What are we gonna do about the gay thing?’ asked an Island Records executive at a meeting with Melissa Etheridge.

The awkward moment came as Island prepared to release Etheridge’s 1988 self-titled debut album, as the trailblazing rocker tells Ryan J. Downey in a free-speech discussion for FIRE and SPIN.

Etheridge started her career singing “heterosexual music” in Kansas bars, she explains, before broadening her repertoire in lesbian bars – but the was still not “overtly lesbian” when the label picked her up. “It was self-censorship,” she says.

So when the Island exec raised the “gay thing”, Etheridge and the label came to a compromise. “I was like, ‘What do you mean?'” says Etheridge. “‘I’m not gonna pretend I’m something else. I’m not going to go find a guy to take pictures with, and pretend he’s my boyfriend. I’m not gonna do that. I’m gonna be me.'”

The Island response, Etheridge says, was: “As long as you don’t flag wave.”

Despite no shortage of gossip and rumors, Leavenworth’s rockstar did not come out publicly until 1993: the year she released her fourth album, Yes I Am, with its anthemic hit single, “Come To My Window“:

I don’t care what they think.
I don’t care what they say.
What do they know about this love, anyway?

Etheridge also talks about her defense of Emimem’s right to trash-talk gay people at a time when many in the LGBTQ community were calling for a boycott of the rapper.

“I said, ‘No, no: it works both ways,'” Etheridge says. “We want the freedom to be ourselves, to say what we like, even though it offends some other people. I gotta let him be who he is and say what he likes, even though it offends me, because that’s freedom.”

Enjoy the conversation!