Melissa Etheridge has a voice.
It’s a voice that, over her career as a singer, songwriter, and activist, has been used to rouse. It’s roused anyone who’s seen and heard the electricity with which she uses it on stage, performing any one of her indelible songs. And it’s roused to action those who can’t ignore its plea when it’s making a call for social change.
The Grammy and Oscar-winning artist is now using that voice to support LGBT activists in Russia, a group at odds with the country’s government following laws passed banning gay “propaganda,” imposing fines on those who hold gay pride rallies, and preventing any discussion of homosexuality in front of or among teenagers. She released a song, “Uprising of Love,” in support of the Russian LGBT community, and partnered with Bruce Cohen to launch a coalition of celebrities and influential public figures—also called Uprising of Love—with the goal of supporting Russian freedom by giving gays in the nation the tools and support they need to fight for change.
Leaders from around the world are protesting Russia’s laws by boycotting the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. This will be, for example, the first time since 2000 that the U.S. delegation to the Olympics will not include the president, vice-president, or first lady of the United States. In their stead, the U.S. will send openly gay athletes Brian Boitano, Billie Jean King, and Caitlin Cahow—a message that Etheridge calls “perfect.”
Not everyone would agree. Last week a senior Italian IOC member criticized the U.S. for sending openly gay athletes in its delegation. “It’s absurd that a country like that sends four lesbians to Russia just to demonstrate that in their country gay rights have [been established],” said Mario Pescante. “The games should not be an occasion and a stage to promote rights that sports supports daily.”
Hours after Pescante’s comments, we spoke to Etheridge about why she’s lending her voice to support gay people in Russia, her stance on boycotting vs. going to the Sochi games, and why people like Pescante might want to be careful with how they use their own voices.
Have you heard the comments from Italy’s senior IOC member?
Wow. Isn’t it interesting now? It’s almost like here in America we’ve pushed that boulder up the hill and we got it going down the other side. Now it’s almost like we don’t know how to behave. Yet it’s a basic civil right that we’re looking at in Russia. It’s these subtle, supporting, very loving gestures that we make to something that brings out such violence against it. I’m just fascinated with everything everywhere about gay—just about gay, in general. Like, “OK, OK, the light’s on! You’re all out in the open! Do we have to like you?” It’s crazy! It really pushes people’s buttons, deep down inside.
Can you shine a light at all on what it feels like to be gay in Russia right now?
I can’t even begin to really understand and get across to you. All I know is it’s turning the knob back. Because what was happening was that gay rights were moving forward. Things were getting set up. People were coming out. They were little rights here and there. Then it was this big, big switch that turned and said, “No no no. We are putting this back. We are marking these people as bad.” It’s so subtle, what it does to a group of people. Here in America we are experiencing exactly the opposite. Our country, our laws have said, “No. This is not right. Even if you choose to love someone of your same sex, you deserve the same rights.” Everyone knows that’s where we’re going. We’re not going to turn that back. But they’re trying to turn that back! It allows the hate. They call them “hooligans!” And they’re allowed to.
So you think things are headed in reverse there?
Everyone looks the other way, because these subtle laws tie their hands. So it’s very dangerous. People who have been out now have to go back in. It’s interesting because it’s causing quite a divide in Russia. There’s a big liberal part of Russia. There’s a big liberal movement in Russia. Left civil-rights minded people who are really trying to make another stand on this. That’s what we as a coalition are trying to feed and give support to. We can’t go in there and tell everybody to change. We’re Americans doing that. What we can do is support those who are standing up every day in danger.
It’s really hard, I think, for a lot of people in the U.S. to wrap their heads around, because it’s such a different state of affairs from what’s going on here.
Yes! Yet it’s the same feeling. I haven’t been over there, but my partner Bruce went over there and said it looks like any progressive city. Go to Moscow, and it looks great—except there’s this one not-talked about, hush-hush thing where they’re not tolerating gays. So it’s a weird mind trip. And it’s a very dangerous thing. They’ll shut a movie down. They’ll pay a 16-year-old to go in there to a place where you’re talking about gay issues and then someone will come in and go, “There’s teenagers in here!” And that will disrupt everything.
What was the moment when you were inspired to make the song and get involved with the coalition, when you realized it was time for you to step and start speaking out about this?
It was a few months ago. What was it? Summer time? It was right after DOMA was knocked down. We made that big movement. It just felt like, “Yay!” There was this big celebration. “Yay! We did it!” Then Russia enacted those laws. I remember reading that and thinking, aw, this is sad. The work is never done. We have a moment to celebrate here, but we have to be reminded that there is work to be done. There are people everywhere. We are being killed in other places in the world. It’s a long road. I knew back then I wanted to do something, and then a week or two later I get an email from Bruce Cohen about wanting to do something. So we put our head together. I knew what I could do, I could write a song. That’s what I can do! I do that! So I wrote the song, and it’s been a wonderful journey ever since.
I always wanted to talk about this tension I’m noticing amongst people who want to express their anger at Russia over these anti-gay policies. There’s a camp of people who think we should boycott Russia—not go to Sochi, not go to the Olympics, and boycott the whole place because of these policies. Then there’s the camp that I think you are in, who thinks that we should get there and protest that way. What is the tension there?
Well everybody’s going to have a different perspective of this. And I understand the people who are like, hey, we should not go. We should boycott and the way to do it is to remove what we have from it. Sometimes I say that’s very last century, that’s how we used to it. But nowadays everything is so instant that it’s just my thought, my belief, that actually being there and doing exactly what America did, sending the gays: here’s our gay athletes. We’re so proud of these people. They’re our gay ambassadors, that’s right! That’s what I’ve always done. The last 20 years of me being out, I’ve said, “Let me just show up. Let everyone see I’m a regular human being. I have no desire to harm a child, you know?”
So showing up is the best thing people can do?
It’s about being there, and then it’s about also supporting those who are there who can’t get out—who don’t want to get out. It’s their home. They live there! It’s the only way we’re going to bring about change. But that’s the way it happened here. People started knowing that, oh, the people down the street—they’re gay! The people at school—they’re gay! Oh he’s gay: my cousin, my brother. Whatever it is, once people come out, other are like, oh, this is what it is. They understand it and they don’t fear it as much.
So if openly gay people travel to Russia for Sochi, how should they behave? Should they demonstrate and be outwardly “gay” to make a statement? Or do they go and just exist? What’s the best way to make change?
What’s strange is that who we are as gay people, it’s what we do behind closed doors. It’s not what we do everywhere. I mean we hold hands with our partners and there’s some loving public displays of affection, but we’re not going to do what we do in front of other people.
I mean I’m not saying that anyone’s going to fly to Sochi and start making out in the streets with every single person of the same sex. But I’m wondering whether you think it’s beneficial for people to be waving rainbow flags and holding signs and protesting or demonstrating in some way. Or is it more productive to go there and just be?
I would say both. If there’s an athlete who’s like, God, it’s going to make me happy and proud, I’m going to put this rainbow thing right here—that’s going to make me feel good. Then they should do that. I don’t think that we “should” anybody, say that anybody “should” do that or “shouldn’t.” I think that the stuff that feels right to someone inside, then that’s what they need to do. Russia’s going to be on its best behavior during the Olympics, you know? So it’s the time to do it if you feel like doing it. Don’t do anything out of fear. That’s what I would say. Fear’s going to fix anything.
How did you feel when Barack Obama named to the U.S. delegation Billie Jean King and Brian Boitano, openly gay athletes. How did that make you feel?
I thought it was perfect. I thought it was a perfect, beautiful, thoughtful, fun kind of thing to do. I really do. I think it was a really perfect response.
Already before the Olympics have even started there has been so much discussion and attention being paid to gay people in Russia and what needs to be done there. Have you seen that because of all the attention that there’s already been that change is already starting to happen there?
Yes. Definitely. And the progress will absolutely peak during the Olympics. It’s the goal of this coalition to then keep it up and when the cameras go away not let it go dark again. So yes, it’s getting so much better. Better funds are coming. The support. Fearlessness. All of this is helping. And it’s about taking it as high as we can get it, because we know once the Olympics are over the hard work is going to start.
So what is the ultimate goal? What’s the strategy the coalition has right now?
With this sort of thing the ultimate goal might be 10 years away. You know? The ultimate goal is to give a sense of self-worth and a sense of pride to every human being, no matter what their preference is over there in Russia. That’s the goal. It’s to get where we are today in America, get that thing moving forward. Surely the short-term goals are getting those laws off the books. It takes the people. We’re over there to support the people, to change hearts and minds.
Throughout your career you’ve been a person who speaks out on issues. Not just gay-rights issues, but a wide range of them. It’s not mandatory for someone in entertainment to do that. What drives someone—drives you—to use your voice in that way? What is it about a person that leads to that?
Well these are, and it’s always been, the issues that are me. I am a gay person. I did have cancer. I am affected by what happens to the world, to our earth. Those things absolutely affect me. It’s funny because I’m probably the most inactive activist. Most of the work I do is just speaking. You will ask me the question and I will say how I feel, my truth about it. I didn’t know how to do it 20 years ago, when I came out. I just answered the questions that came along. Pretty soon, that’s courageous. (Laughs)
You already said that your first reaction when this was happening in Russia was to write a song and do what you can do through music. What is it about music that makes it a tool for activism and change?
Music has always been there. Rock and roll music came from the cotton fields. It came from the slave quarters. That enslaved spirit is what keeps music moving. Bob Dylan sang of it. The Beatles sang of it. The reggae sang of it. Crosby, Stills, and Nash sang of it. Joan Baez sang of it. It’s the spirit of the music. It’s the truth that you can do when a human being is singing a song that people will hear that they won’t hear when you’re just speaking. It’s just a wonderful thing about human nature.
So last question—are you going to Russia? Or are you trying?
As of now, no. Certainly if someone comes along and says, “Hey,” I might consider. As of now, I’m right here.