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Rock Icon Melissa Etheridge Shares Her Story for National Coming Out Day

‘I was never going to pretend I was anything else,’ says the Grammy Award-winning musician


Video: Melissa Etheridge Never Planned to Be a Gay Icon

Melissa Etheridge, 62, knew as a teen that she was a lesbian. But when she was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s in Leavenworth, Kansas, being gay wasn’t something that was often spoken about. “It was only whispered, badly, behind people’s backs,” the two-time Grammy Award-winning musician tells AARP.

Speaking out about the spectrum of sexuality and gender identity drives awareness. That awareness is at the forefront for many LGBTQ+ individuals on National Coming Out Day, recognized annually on Oct. 11. The day of observance celebrates the bravery of LGBTQ+ individuals coming out of the closet and living proudly in their full identities.

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As for her own coming out journey, Etheridge says she never hid any part of her identity. However, she didn’t intend for it to be a watershed moment.

spinner image melissa etheridge smiles while holding a black guitar in front of her
Photo by Dylan Coulter

She came out publicly as a lesbian in January 1993 during the Triangle Ball, an LGBTQ+ event celebrating the inauguration of then-President Bill Clinton. That pivotal moment caused her record sales to skyrocket “overnight” from a mere million to 6 million or 7 million, she says, despite her record company’s earlier requests that she not “flag-wave.”

“I never had a plan to be any sort of a gay icon,” she says. “In the early ’80s … it wasn’t an option to come out and think you were going to be a professional.”

Etheridge had come out to her family as a teen. She had a feeling her parents knew. Her father, a high school teacher, had been supportive of her music career, giving her rides to her various gigs and rehearsals, despite his initial warning when she was 8 years old (when she insisted on guitar lessons) that her fingers would bleed. She came out to him when she was around 19. His response?

“Is that it? Is that all? … Oh, OK. I don’t understand it, but as long as you’re happy,” Etheridge recalls him saying. Her relationship with her mother was a bit more strained, but by her early 20s, her parents “had no problem with it whatsoever.”

She never hid her sexuality within her music — she drew inspiration for her songwriting from her love life.

“I was never going to pretend I was anything else, and I told my record company that,” she says.

Etheridge knew she had to come out publicly after she was misquoted in a music magazine.

“They had changed everything to me saying ‘my boyfriend.’ And I was like, ‘No, I can’t do this,’ ” she says. “So after my third album I knew I was going to come out just because I didn’t want to be seen as a liar, because there [were] enough women who had seen me in bars, that they knew. There was an underground knowledge that I was gay.”

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She didn’t plan on coming out at the inaugural ball — she was just in the moment, she says.

“My sister K.D. Lang has been such an inspiration,” she said at the Triangle Ball, shouting out the musician who had come out the previous year. “And I’m very proud to say right here, I’m very proud to have been a lesbian all my life.” 

spinner image melissa etheridge smiling in a room filled with guitars
Photo by Dylan Coulter

Thirty years have passed since then, and Etheridge says there’s been progress, but change still triggers fear for many.

“I don’t know if everyone will ever be comfortable with all the different shapes and sizes of sexuality. But it sure would be nice if people just understood that difference and diversity is the juice of life.”

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