The best revenge

After a life of struggle, doubt, and abuse, Janis Ian comes out on top with a new album, a world tour, and a thriving writing career and Melissa Etheridge does the amazing interview



Before I was out I was writing very genderless, very nonspecific. And yet I was always writing about women. Is this the same for you? It depends on the song. I still write genderless as much as possible.

Who was Jesse in your song “Jesse”? Jesse was—in my mind—a Vietnam war veteran, always very male.

To me Jesse was a beautiful 5-foot 8-inch dark woman. That’s great.

When you were first famous and just becoming an adolescent, did you know you were gay? I was outed in The Village Voice in 1976. I went to bed for a whole day and hid under the covers. It took me a long time to figure out what to do. I had a boyfriend, and then I had a girlfriend. I really fell in love— like boom—the first time when I was 20. She was living with somebody, so I wound up in a ménage à trois. That’s not a good way to discover anything.

No, no… But the older I get, the more comfortable I get with my body. I’ve never minded my body—but I would have been Sonia Braga if I’d had my druthers. Pat and I have this deal: If Whoopi Goldberg or Sonia Braga wants either of us, we can do whatever we want.

Julie and I have the same deal. Did you have any role models? When I was young and queer, I didn’t have any role models—just Boy George. I never had one role model. Period. End of discussion. But I never used a beard. I always brought my girlfriend everywhere with me on the road. In my daily life I was out. But there’s a big difference between that and when you suddenly say to the press, “l’m a lesbian,” and you feel that door swing off its hinges. You know that it is never going to be put back on.

For me it was a wonderful, scary, exhausting six months. I have never talked so much. And I didn’t know how to talk about it. I had gotten to where I could go to sleep and do an interview about music. Then all of a sudden they were asking questions about sexuality. Then there’s the whole thing about what we call our spouses. I say, “This is my wife,” and it’s like, ‘O-o-oh, you call each other wife’?” What do you call Julie?

“Lover” or “girlfriend,” depending on whom we are talking to. I find “girlfriend” hard just because Pat and I are in our 40s. It sounds weird.

Unless I’m talking to somebody who would faint if I said “lover,” I introduce Julie as my lover, and it’s very freeing. The whole experience is freeing. How do you explain to someone how much better they are going to feel when they come out?

You can’t. You can’t. You can say, “Look, you can’t be in two places at once.” How many gay women and men do you know who are a little crazy from it? How do you tell those people, “You’re going to like this part”?

I’ve had such an amazing time. It’s undeniable how everything has grown and taken off. I can say to people, “Look what happened.” But what has coming out been like for you in the South? Nashville has been great to me. I had visions of coming home and seeing FAGGOT written on my house. I think it’s much easier for performers to come out because we are not dependent upon a small community for our living. I know closeted gay people who would lose their kids and jobs if they came out. However, at the end of the day, if you’re not willing to risk that, then what is that saying to your lover? That was the bottom line for me. Pat said something like, “Well, doesn’t that seem like you’re ashamed of me?” So I was like, “I’m out! I’m making announcements.”

And you were pretty wild. When I moved to Nashville, one side of my head was shaved, and the other side was pink. I arrived there beaten up: I had been dumped by a lover, I couldn’t get a record deal to save my life, I couldn’t get a publishing deal, I couldn’t get work to feed myself. I lost everything I owned, and I went there seriously humble. They welcomed me as a songwriter.

A lot of us homosexuals have a fear of the South. The South is another country. I will never learn the body language. I would not know a “Bubba” if one fell on me. Pat is my guide; she has been there 24 years now.

Betsy Smittle, Garth Brooks’s sister, is in Nashville, right? I heard she was going to come out in The Advocate. But she says it’s too hard to be out in Nashville. Poor Betsy. I find it hard to imagine her saying that because she is out. She was going to come out in The Advocate, but the National Enquirer got there first.

She’s a bit afraid, naturally. Well, I’m sure there are people in Nashville who would not invite me to their house. There are a lot of people who have strong religious objections and only know the King James version of the Bible and think that God speaks English.

But some people are really trying to learn and change. Yes, I tried to make this point in the speech I gave at the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center when they gave me the Creative Integrity Award in 1994. It’s the same award you got this year. I asked my friend Kathy Bates to give me the award, and all hell broke loose: A small contingent of people felt that Kathy Bates should not be presenting me with the award because she’s straight—which I just found remarkably offensive. If people like Kathy aren’t marching down those corridors of power that we are denied access to, talking for us when we can’t, it’s never going to change.

I have seen it change in my lifetime. I look at my mother and the information she grew up with. It was just abhorrent to her, just beyond comprehension. She’s from Arkansas—we’re talking deep Deep South Arkansas. You’re talking serious South. I had a lover from Arkansas, and the reaction around there is, “You would have been better off if you had never been born.”

Exactly! OK, let’s get into your column, Breaking Silence, for The Advocate. The Advocate had this idea that I should do a column, and I have no idea why because I had never written prose before, just songs.

Your column has been a beacon for lesbians who loved The Advocate but felt like we were always looking in on the men’s lives. I still hate the three days a month it takes to write it because it’s like three days of total panic. It scares the shit out of me. But then I’ll get one letter from somebody, anonymously signed, from Fort Wayne, Ind., that says, “Your column keeps me alive.”

How have the letters been? I took a lot of shit for the lesbian chic “Dressed to Chill” column. A lot of shit.

But people who write in are going to complain. Those who like it are just going to go, “Oh, I like that,” and never write in. Yeah? Well, write in if you like it, please. Actually, the mail has been good. I thought for sure that when I wrote “Women’s music is music for the deaf,” I would get my head handed to me. But I think there are enough people who are tired of the attitude “She’s a sister, so she won’t treat me bad.” I think everybody is starting to figure out that ain’t so.

Does Pat actually help you write your column? My editor at The Advocate talked Pat into talking me into doing this column. We were having breakfast one morning, and I got up to go to the bathroom, and they concocted the whole thing. So my deal with Pat is: OK, I will do this if you will swear to stop everything you are doing once a month and help me. The “Mr. Lesbian” thing started because she made some rude comment, and I said, “That’s great, I’m going to put that at the end of the article.” Then The Advocate wanted it in every column.

I bounce songs off Julie. It’s such an unusual thing in life to have a marriage that is a partnership.

How about you and Howard Stern? Howard’s a trip. I like him, and I think he’s a real asshole. Doing his show is like living in a boys’ locker room.

But he is lesbian-friendly. He’ll make a big shtick out of it and say, “Oh, I love lesbians, two women in bed, yes.” But on the other hand, he is genuinely supportive.

He’s said only good things about me, but I think, Oh, I can’t go on that show. It’s a piece of cake. The thing about Howard’s show is that if you go on with anything to hide, you’re fucked. You are dead in the water.

Julie’s ex-husband [Lou Diamond Phillips] was pretty much crucified on his show because he was hiding and thought he could get away with charming him. It didn’t work. Melissa, you should do Howard—he’ll love you. He’ll say, “Can I see your boobs?” I’ll go do it with you.

I can see it now: “I’ve got two lesbians. Are you girls going to do it? I can’t stand it, I’ve been waiting and waiting!” After I did his show, it was amazing how many straight football-player types came to my show. They were seeing their first real live lesbian, seeing a woman make cracks onstage about women, a woman who wasn’t afraid to be sexual and flirt onstage but was at the same time very monogamous. Howard brought me a straight audience, so I figure Howard has done worlds for people like us.

I have to take this opportunity to ask you something. Did you really know Janis Joplin? Yeah. She was always lovely to me. She was shy and very quiet. She drank an awful lot. You don’t think the people you hang with are going to become legends. Joplin and I would go shopping for clothes to wear to the Grammys and stuff. It was very hard to be 14 when everybody else was in their 20s. There was a lot of jealousy and anger. Joplin and Hendrix both looked out for me. I told Pat recently, “See that house? I went to a party there with Joplin. Someone was walking around with hypodermics, shooting up people through their clothing.”

Did you sleep with her? No one slept with Janis Joplin. Everyone had sex with her, but somebody should have slept with her, somebody who loved her.

Tags: Commentary