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Melissa & Tammy: A love story

News9062004-01-202003-12-24

Melissa & Tammy: A love story

While the same-sex marriage debate raged in 2003, Melissa Etheridge and Tammy Lynn Michaels took matters into their own hands and threw themselves a wedding. Now the couple sit down for their first joint interview, Tammy's first since coming out. An exclusive glimpse inside the Etheridge-Michaels household--and of Melissa's rocking new album, Lucky; Tammy's debut on The L Word; and the two mothers' plans for another child

By Bruce C. Steele

What does same-sex marriage look like? On some fall Sundays, in one big house with classic white siding in the rolling hills of western Los Angeles, it looks like this: Melissa Etheridge and friends are watching the Kansas City Chiefs play football on a big-screen TV in the family room. Etheridge's partner of two years, Tammy Lynn Michaels, and their children--Bailey, 6, and Beckett, 5--are likely dividing their time between the family room, the cozy and chaotic playroom that the children govern, and, weather permitting, the inviting green lawn out front.

In a home not far away resides Julie Cypher, the children's other mother, who shares custody: Seven days here, seven days there. And dropping by for occasional visits is David Crosby, the children's biological father, and his wife, Jan. "They're definitely one wing of our family," Michaels says. "We have, like, a family mansion, and they live in one wing. We've got all these little wings that make it nice."

She's speaking metaphorically, because the big white house feels not like a mansion but like a lived-in suburban home, with comfy furniture, children's rooms that have toys spilling out in all directions, and family photos crowding the walls. Sure, there's a cluster of Etheridge's cowboy hats on one wall and a scarf that belonged to Janis Joplin in the family room, but every married couple has its unique mementos.

For Etheridge, this family life is the most precious time she's known. That's why she asked Michaels to marry her and why they celebrated their union in front of 200 friends and family members in a ceremony in nearby Malibu on September 20. "I'd never been so clearly and purely in love before--ever in my life," Etheridge says, sitting with Michaels on the living room couch for their first-ever joint interview. "Not until I was 40 did I find something so clear and clean. For my children, for my partner, I wanted to get married." (By design, the children are not home today: The press will not meet them "until they're older," Etheridge says firmly.)

Etheridge and Michaels met just as each was emerging from her own dark period. Etheridge still ached from her breakup with Cypher after 12 years, a painful split that she turned into her searing, defiant album Skin. Michaels was shedding the self-loathing of the Hollywood closet, where she'd been when she joined the cast of the WB series Popular. How their marriage has transformed both of them is evident in the way they sit, cuddled and intertwined, in the way their eyes meet as they recall intimate moments, and in Etheridge's kick-ass new record, due out February 10. Titled Lucky, it's her most celebratory music since Yes I Am. "When you make a choice to believe in your existence," she sings on Lucky's sweet finale, "When You Find the One," "with 'hello,' you will know."

This time, she knows. They both do.

Tell me about the wedding.
Etheridge: There isn't a word for it. Whenever someone asks me, I go, "It was really..." Great and wonderful doesn't even begin to explain it. It was moving. It was more than I ever thought something like that would be. I never invested much into that--especially in my last relationship. It was something that-- [pauses]

That you thought other people did?
Etheridge: Yeah. I mean, growing up gay, knowing I was different--marriage was just, "Well, I won't do that," and you push it aside. It wasn't until just a few years ago that our whole community started talking about gay marriage.

It came along a lot quicker than anybody expected.
Etheridge: Oh, my gosh! Even when I met her [Michaels giggles] and started the relationship with her, I was like, I ain't getting married or anything. I ain't getting married until some day in the future when they make it legal. She was respectful of my feelings, but I would see her talk with her friends--her girlfriends from high school--because she'd go to their weddings. And I said, "Why should I keep her from having that?" And it was about a year of me changing my mind.

Michaels: But without telling me. I didn't know this until after the proposal.

Etheridge: Until I got down on my knees! [Laughs]

When did this happen? Where were you?
Etheridge: About a year and a half ago. At a friend's house.

Did you preplan it?
Etheridge: I did. I did. The Hamptons have been a special place for us for a whole lot of reasons, and I knew that that's where I wanted to ask her to marry me. Because I'd never been so clearly and purely in love before, ever--ever in my life.

So you got down on your knee.
Etheridge: Oh, I did. Yeah, I went the full--

Michaels: Oh, she had the speech in one hand--

Etheridge: I had the ring all made.

Michaels: She designed it. She had it in her pocket. She picked the evening and got the kids distracted with the other kids that were there. She took care of everything, and we went on a walk.

Etheridge: [Chuckles] And then, you know--she knew when she turned around. I was on my knee. She said, "Oh, my God!"

Michaels: I freaked out!

Etheridge: [Laughs] She was just wonderful. And then she realized that I was being very serious. It was a very special moment that I will always remember.

Did you plan the ceremony itself as carefully?
Etheridge: Yes. Yes. It was--

Michaels: Step number 1, we were like, OK, this has to be original. And so we looked into every tradition: Why was it important? Was it valid in our lives? And what is it that the tradition had not provided that we needed to provide?

Etheridge: We found a reverend from the Agape Church, [which] is amazingly and truly nondenominational.

Did you write your own vows?
Etheridge: Yeah. And our community that was with us was so supportive, it was wonderful.

Michaels: And fun.

Etheridge: And fun, yes.

Is there any part of your vows that keep coming back to you?
Michaels: One of my vows was to be a [Kansas City] Chiefs fan. [Etheridge laughs] And I'm very happy right now, because for the first time ever, they're undefeated. It's 9 and 0. I'm very excited.

Etheridge: I want to write the Kansas City Chiefs football team a letter and tell them it's because my wife vowed to be a Chiefs fan that we obviously are having an undefeated season.

And what was your vow in return? There's always a give-and-take.
Etheridge: See, I didn't know what her vows would be.

Michaels: We wouldn't tell each other.

I couldn't have handled that, because I would have been a puddle 30 seconds into it.
Etheridge: Oh, we were. We were both complete puddles--at the beginning, the middle...and the vows were just our personal way of making our commitment, just to say, "I know there will be ups and downs, but I will always be here for you." And it's very, very powerful to say that in front of 200 people.

Michaels: Every promise and every vow we made had to ring completely true, and that made me get to know myself better. It forced me to go, Well, what am I capable of promising? What do I see as forever? What do I see as what I need in a relationship and what she needs in a relationship?

Was there any discussion between the two of you that this would also have a larger meaning to a lot of people beyond those 200 guests?
Etheridge: [Slowly] We acknowledged it. In some ways we have no control over that. The best thing that I can do with this wedding--and the best thing that we can do--is just be true to each other, to walk on a path that we are proud of and just live a good life.

But this is a perfect example of the personal as political.
Etheridge: We did talk to Badgley Mischka, who designed our outfits--fabulous, fabulous--acknowledging with them that we will be giving a look to something that people don't know what it looks like.

Michaels: You know, Grandma and Grandpa, they're out there hearing about this newfangled gay marriage, and we knew that this might be their first view of "Well, that's what a lesbian looks like!"

So no tuxedo. [Michaels laughs]
Etheridge: Exactly. But what do I wear? Because if I'm in a dress, then I'm going to feel like I'm in drag. So if you've seen the pictures--

Michaels: Have you?

I only saw the one picture.
Michaels: You know what? I'm going to show you it. [Leaves to get pictures]

Wedding pictures! So, Melissa, why not go to Canada?
Etheridge: Because I have a belief in my heart that very soon, the walls and the gates that have been held closed by people with narrow minds and fear and hate in their hearts will burst open. And it has to. When they finally let the "coloreds" use their bathroom or their washroom, we all didn't die, did we? No. It's the same thing.

Michaels: [Showing photos] There's Melissa getting ready.

Etheridge: We had two bouquets.

Michaels: I designed this whole thing--the bouquet. It's hydrangeas and roses. [Showing another photo] And here's the dresses. Here we go.

Etheridge: How gorgeous is my wife. Holy cow.

Michaels: There's my mom.

Etheridge: Oh, her mother's wonderful. Her mother gave a speech at the reception that moved the whole place. And Tammy got up and gave a speech that acknowledged her family from Indiana.

Michaels: They've never been on airplanes before. Can you believe that? Like, two of them had flown, and the others had not, and my uncle Don was like, "Do you know, I looked down and I saw the Grand Canyon."

Etheridge: And here they were at this big lesbian wedding.

And what did they tell the folks back home, do you think?
Etheridge: That Steven Spielberg's really nice. [Laughs]

Was there a honeymoon?
Michaels: Yes. We went to Vermont.

And in the two months since then, has the marriage changed your relationship?
Both: Yes.

Tell me how.
Michaels: Any choice I make is much heavier. Anything that comes up, whether it's a job, an audition, a run to the grocery store--it is part of my life to make sure that Melissa has what she needs too. The devotion runs much deeper. For me anyway.

Etheridge: Yes, yes, yes. I found that that fear that she will leave me is no longer there. There's a solid ground to the relationship where you land and you go, OK, we had a disagreement--now, how do I make this work? There's no out door anymore.

Now, people are going to inevitably say, "Shouldn't you have done that with your previous relationship? Wouldn't that have helped?"
Etheridge: Oh. No. No, no, no. You can't--then [marriage] becomes a Band-Aid, and not a solid commitment. I never had that solid commitment in my relationship. It didn't exist.

Michaels: Marriage is not a toy. People seem to think it's like a fancy toy that you can buy and play with and use and then discard when you've outgrown it and you've started to change. That's not marriage. That's not what it is.

Tammy, is this your first marriage?
Michaels: Oh, yeah. I just got out of high school! [Both laugh] Class of '93!

This is your first adult committed relationship?
Michaels: Oh, no. Melissa's one of the younger ones I've dated. I've been in relationships. One of my exes went through rehab. I've been through the darkness of relationships. I think it's the first time I chose to be with somebody because of what a good person they are instead of how I could fix my childhood by dating them. Do you know what I mean? And so it is the first adult, mature emotional relationship.

Etheridge: I've never had sex with anyone else, ever. [Michaels laughs]

Is that what you told her?
Etheridge: It's a joke. Just kidding.

Michaels: I've been with people who were not proud to be gay: Some were actively unproud of being gay; some were still actively ashamed by their parents; some, you just weren't allowed to talk about it. I was the "roommate" in a one-bedroom apartment. So I haven't been with somebody who's like, "Young, gay, anyway--what are we having for dinner?" I hadn't experienced that, so it was such a breath of fresh air to be with somebody like "Yeah yeah yeah, gay--and?"

So how much of that was the journey of the people you were with, and how much was your own journey?
Michaels: I'm going to go ahead and say it was all my journey, because I'm the one who made the choices to be with them. I was advised by a lot of people in my career not to come out and that I would never be anything--do anything, get cast in anything--if anybody had any idea that I was gay. That's what I was told, and this was not too long ago--'96, '97. And so I'm not surprised that I chose people who wouldn't fight with me to walk down the red carpet at the premieres and at the WB media shindigs.

The closet is a heavy burden on a relationship.
Michaels: [Sighs] The closet is a heavy burden on the soul, period. You get two people in that, and it's too dark--you can't even see 'em. And then she walked in.

The way I hear it, you walked up to her at lesbian night at Felt [a West Hollywood bar].
Michaels: I had lots of wine, thank you! [Laughs]

Is that what gave you the nerve?
Michaels: You know what? It was some pushy friends and a glass of wine and a bunch of girls talking about how you really ask a lady out. And so I was, "You tell her you want to take her out to dinner. You don't come on to her. You don't flirt with her. You don't make sexual innuendoes. You look her right in the eye and you say, 'I would love to take you out to dinner.' And that's it."

Etheridge: She went to Felt because she was ready to come out.

Really? So you had more of an agenda than finding a girlfriend?
Michaels: You know what? I had been outed by somebody at work--

Someone on the show?
Michaels: Somebody at work is all I'm going to say. They then turned my sexuality against me and started whispering it shamefully to our grips and our camera guys that I worshipped and still do to this day. And I was devastated that somebody else had to tell my friends, my guys that I work with 18 hours a day. I've been in therapy 15 years to learn how to live my life honestly and be OK with who I am, and I'm sure as hell not going to come out here and sell all of that away for a job, because you can't sleep at night. And so I was talking to some professionals, and they were like, "Look, baby, you're depressed, and the only way you're going to get out of it is if you start with the truth." I was like, "OK--we wrap at 4 in the morning. Why don't we go to Felt that night? I hear it's ladies' night." I hadn't been in a lesbian bar in forever; I was like, I need to own being gay again and quit being ashamed of it again. And then this one comes in and I was like, Whoa! Jesus! [Etheridge laughs]

Your first therapeutic night out as a lesbian, and you met Melissa!
Michaels: And she said yes [to the dinner invite]! I was like, This coming-out stuff is good! [Both laugh]

So how are you different as a couple in private than you are as a couple in public?
Etheridge: Much more affectionate, I think.

I can relate to that. My boyfriend doesn't like the PDAs.
Etheridge: I'm actually more affectionate now in public than I ever was. Just in a natural way, not in an overt way. Just holding hands and being a couple.

Was there any sense, Melissa--because you had been through a lot and she was younger--that you expected her to be less mature? And then that's what surprised you?
Etheridge: She is young in years--she's 28--but in experience, she can often be wiser than me, and more experienced. And well along her journey. But I knew from that very first date that she was not just some young thing.

So, Tammy, when was your "Eureka!" moment with Melissa?
Michaels: You have to understand that as much as I really liked her, she was also telling me that she didn't know which way was up and that she was cracked in half and broken. So I kept having to push away any "Eureka!" moments. But there was a night where she crossed a room and brought me a blackberry--

Etheridge: The fruit, not the electronic--

Michaels: "She brought me a cell phone and I knew she was the one!" [Etheridge laughs] We were at a GLAAD function--she had gone to present something to k.d. lang, and I was there for Popular. For dessert there was this creme brulee with a couple raspberries and a blackberry on top. It was our third week together; I had just told her that I love blackberries. And in the midst of that crazy thing and the media and people all over and people getting up and down and talking and applauding, she sneaks across this giant ballroom to my little table in the back. And she opened my hand and put the blackberry in my hand and closed it. And then she went back to her table. That is the most priceless thing she has given me. Well, it's one of them--there's a lot of them. It's in the top 10.

And you probably just ate it!
Michaels: I did. Of course, I did--I wanted to hurry up and put it inside. I've never had somebody love me the same way I love them, who shows love in the same ways.

But this was also a big deal for you, because if you're going to date Melissa, people are going to talk.
Michaels: That came up on our first date. Melissa was like, "Look, I know that you want to live your life honestly, but if you date me, people are going to talk." And I said, "That's fine, but I'm not showing up anywhere with you until I have some sort of commitment, until something's going on." And she wasn't ready for that, and I wasn't ready for that. I had just gotten out of a really, really, really bad relationship--I was not looking for anything. And I didn't want to use the fame I was getting from dating her to further my career.

Were you stalked by paparazzi?
Etheridge: We were noticing if we'd go out to dinner or something, there'd be paparazzi out front. We snuck out of a few restaurants, and--pre-9/11--we were ambushed at the airport, which is a pretty frightening thing. So we decided, "You know what? A friend of ours, Alan Cumming, is having his premiere for [the film he codirected,] The Anniversary Party, a little small movie--no big deal. Let's walk down the red carpet; let's hold hands. It's been a couple months; we are definitely dating. We want people to see this." We were some of the last people to arrive, and the photographers were like-- [bored] Oh, it's Melissa Etheridge. And then Tammy stepped out, and they're like, [excited] And her new girlfriend! Let's take a picture! Snap snap snap snap snap, and it was in the tabloids the next week and there you go. It took a lot of the pressure off. The price [for a photo of us together] dropped. It just made our lives more comfortable.

How did you handle Tammy meeting the children?
Michaels: I met them well, well, well into our first year together. I had told her from the beginning that I didn't want to meet them [right away] because I didn't want to fall in love with the children and not in love with Melissa. I didn't want anything to interrupt this woman and I getting to know each other--and that included, I didn't want to see her in concert for a while. I wanted to really know just who she was.

Once you felt the time was right, how did you meet the children?
Michaels: I became one of the members of their large group of friends with all the kids. I just kind of came in when lots of people were there.

Etheridge: And they got to know her and form their own relationship with her. Then it became clear that we were romantically involved. And I told them constantly what was going on. Taking one step at a time. They are in love with Tammy. In love. If you were ever to see my kids--which you won't until they're older [Michaels laughs]--you would see the amazing bond and relationship she has with both my children. I'm so grateful for that.

Michaels: I had never pictured that my introduction into the kids' lives would go as smoothly as it did. I mean, there was no uncomfortableness, and I think that's because Melissa and I took such careful, careful steps. And I was fortunate to meet them very young.

Etheridge: My son doesn't remember you not being there.

Michaels: He's going to be 5. He was like 21/2 when I met him. And I potty-trained him. So that's my boy too. He's got lots of mommies to love him. [Etheridge chuckles]

But you no longer have Julie [Cypher] across the back alley.
Etheridge: No. No, that was good for the year that we split up, and it really helped them get used to two different places. We still live close--they actually live in this neighborhood--so it's still that sort of community thing. But--

Michaels: We can't see her kitchen window from here.

Probably a good thing.
Etheridge: Yes. Ultimately, as one moves on with their life, yes.

What do the kids call each of their moms?
Etheridge: Well, she's Tammy--sometimes Mommy. [Laughs]

Michaels: 'Cause they have a Mommo and a Mama, and it was decided after the wedding that I'm now the Mommy. Not by choice--I didn't bring it up.

Etheridge: These are my creative kids. Mostly, if they stub their toe, it'll be "Tammy!" And I'm Mama. Or Mom. "Mom" pretty much covers anybody and everybody.

Michaels: Unless... Bailey likes to call her [mockingly] "Me-lis-sa Eth-er-idge!"

She's figuring out Mom's famous?
Etheridge: Yeah. I wanted to let her know that; I didn't want it to be this sort of secret life where we're actually famous. I have to spend a lot of time describing it. I'll say, "Say you met Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. [Michaels giggles] You would know them--but you don't really know them." Because there would be people that would come up [to me] and [the children] would say, "Who is that?" "Well, I don't know who that is, but they know me." And so if you're truthful and open and clear with kids, they get it.

Tammy, you have such an affinity for children, do you want to have biological children of your own?
Michaels: Um--I don't think it has to do with "biological." I think that Melissa and I will choose to bring a child into the world together, she and I. I love Beckett and Bailey more than I ever thought I would or could, and there is a desire to bring another little person into our lives. Definitely.

Have you met David Crosby?
Michaels: Oh, my God, yeah. Look, my mother raised me on John Denver and Engelbert Humperdinck, and I was like, The Byrds? They spell it with a Y? Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Crosby and Stills; Crosby and Young--what? I had heard of him truly because I had heard he had fathered the children of Melissa Etheridge.

But isn't it kind of cool that you know David mostly because of his connection to your family?
Michaels: Well, I don't know if it's cool or not; it's just the way it is. I mean, David hates that I don't know all the words to his songs. He's a sweet man who definitely likes to be appreciated, and I think he got a real kick out of, Are you kidding me, kid? You don't know who I am? You like me just 'cause you like me? He's a sweetheart; he's one of the warmest souls I've ever met.

Let's change the subject for a moment and talk about your careers. Tammy, tell me about The L Word. Who do you play?
Michaels: Lacey. She's that lesbian who, unfortunately, caught you on your bad night when you were really drunk and in the mood for sex, so she slept with you, but now she's going to stalk you.

How did you get cast?
Michaels: Angela Robinson, who wrote and directed D.E.B.S., this little short film that I'm in, was writing an episode of The L Word, so when they asked me to guest-star, I said yes. And then they kept just asking me, "Will you do another one? Another one?" So it turned into three of the first four episodes.

As a lesbian, what do you think of the show?
Michaels: They are so respectful. It's not a joke. They don't take lesbianism as a way to get [men] hard, which is how some people have dealt with it.

Respectful is good. But is it fun? Is it sexy?
Michaels: OK, it's hot. I'll tell you, there was a pool built on the set for some of the love scenes, whereupon there will be nudity with steam coming off the pool. It's hot. And those girls kiss each other. They're sexy, they throw themselves at it, they're not afraid.

Is your career going in a different path since Melissa came along?
Michaels: I don't think it's that Melissa came along.

Well, then, since being out, I guess.
Michaels: You know, I had so many people tell me at the very formation of my career, "You cannot be out and a successful actress." And I think when I was like, I can't continue going to bed at night crying and having anxiety attacks about my life--when all that stuff started kicking in, I wonder if there was a piece of me that went, This is not worth it. Acting is not worth this. Acting is just cheap, cheap time that's making me feel rotten because I'm lying. I can tell you that I'd rather make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches than hit my mark. I'd rather make sure that all their slippers fit and all of their clothes are warm and they've got their stuff for school and that [Melissa]'s got the stuff she needs. That fills me up and makes me go to bed full, rather than memorizing some lines.

What do you think acting meant to you that brought you into the career in the first place?
Michaels: [Sighs] I had to get out of Indiana, and I needed a vehicle that would move me out, and my dreams were my vehicle. My first passion is writing. I would love for something to happen with my children's books.

You write children's books? Just like Madonna!
Michaels: Yeah. Mine are for children from alternative homes. There's no books for kids about sharing, playing, copycat little sisters, hitting with their younger brother--a nice sweet story--where the two daddies are lecturing them, you know?

Etheridge: But the book is not about two dads. They just happen to be gay.

But at the same time, Tammy, you haven't given up on acting.
Michaels: Oh, no, no, no, no. I went to an audition yesterday, I met my agent. Etheridge: She would like to work, but she would like to work on projects that move her. Not just anything that comes along. The L Word, she was so excited--not only did she love the part, but she loved the writers and the people. I think she's more selective now.

Which leads me to ask you, Melissa: What impact has Tammy had on your music?
Etheridge: The next project, called Lucky, is some of the most powerful-- it's not just a bunch of happy songs, it's songs of discovery. It's just--I'm back on my feet. I'm rocking; I don't have this black hole in me where everything's just seeping through. It's real. I cannot wait to get onstage with these songs and play and lose my mind with this solid base underneath me. I don't have to get in front of an audience to fill me up anymore. I get to get in front of an audience and have a celebration and have a great time. Not suck it all out of them, but be there with them.

Is this a new direction for you?
Etheridge: It's not a new direction. It's just better at what I do, you know? I've realized in the last few years, being out in the world, that there are people who love my music, and there are people who know me just for me. Every now and then I'd like for [those two] to meet. And I think this is one of those albums that can do that.

Skin was almost a concept album, very specific to a painful moment in your life. And Lucky is--?
Michaels: --a kegger party! [Both laugh]

So, Tammy, when Melissa starts touring in February, will you go along or stay home with the kids?
Michaels: Sometimes she goes out and we have the kids, so I'll just stay here and take care of the kids. And then she'll come and meet us, or we'll go out and meet her. Whatever she needs.

You're both entertainers? Any kind of competition there?
Etheridge: No.

Michaels: Oh, no. [Laughs] I can't sing.

Etheridge: And I can't act. She's a fabulous, fabulous actress, and I love her talent. I watched every episode of Popular. I became this crazy kind of fan about it, and I was sad that it got canceled, because I loved it. But no, there's not a competition at all. When I first was with her, I remember once we were up in San Francisco and we got caught in--

Michaels: Oh, at the museum.

Etheridge: There's a little museum where 15-year-old girls were on a field trip. And [to them] she was like the Beatles. They were screaming, and they all were gathered around her asking her for an autograph.

Michaels: Pushing her out of the way.

Etheridge: Literally! I literally held her purse while she signed a hundred autographs, while the chaperones were looking at me like-- [mimes surprised recognition and pointing].

Gay people have certainly been the center of attention in the news this year. Did you experience the victories of the year together? Did you sit down at night and go, "I can't believe Canada...sodomy laws..."
Etheridge: Yeah. She was up in Canada when all that was happening. And she would bring the newspapers back, and we would hang them up.

Michaels: There was a clipping that I had for so long--

Etheridge: "Court Approves Gay Marriage." We stuck it up [on the wall]. A Canadian paper, but we had it up there. Yeah, as homosexuals in this world, it is an interesting time and a good time. And I am just about to do a press conference call with 20 journalists from Iowa to talk about Howard Dean. [Melissa leaves to do her telephone interview.]

So, Tammy, now it's your turn. Take me to the point of wanting to leave Indiana when you were 18. Tell me a little bit about your growing-up.
Michaels: It is really hard to grow up in a very small, religious town when there is no father in the picture, when the town looks at your mother like she's got the scarlet letter on her chest because she's [whispers] divorced in a Catholic town. And there were times we were homeless and sleeping in other friends' houses. It was hard. Me and my mom and my older sister.

When did your father leave the picture? After you were born?
Michaels: Yeah, I look at him as a sperm donor that happened to my mother for a second. So he was pretty much gone, but my mom worked. My mom was a bartender--she worked as an account clerk during the day; she was a bartender and a cocktail waitress at night. I had to get my own job when I was 11. My poor mother could barely afford the rent. The family had shunned her completely--no help. My uncle Don kept his true ties with us; he's the one man that was my angel. He's one of my guardian angels, my uncle Don.

When did you know you were gay?
Michaels: I knew I was gay in first grade. I wanted to grow up to be a boy so I could marry my teacher. Like, I was in love with her. I found her to be so beautiful and so kind and so wonderful, and I just thought, Well, she's not married, so I'll just grow up and be a boy. I didn't know how that was going to happen, but I knew that I wanted to marry a woman.

When did you know what gay was?
Michaels: I put the word to my feelings when I was 13, and that was when I was very suicidal. I went through about four years, five years praying to not wake up every morning. I had no clue how to get through the day.

Did you ever try anything?
Michaels: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's the most difficult thing to be a gay teenager, especially in the Bible Belt--that belt will strangle you dead. It will kill you. My mom did the best she could, but she had a lot to do--she had jobs, she had to keep her jobs. My sister--out of respect, I don't want to talk about her life much, but she had quite a journey. And overall, I was abused in every way until I was 12. And so my adolescent years were about I've got to put myself together if I'm going to get through this alive--I'm on my own. And so I wrote. I kept journals, and that's how I got through my life. And they're all in there [points to a side room] in the office--I have rows of tearstained, wrinkled journals saying, "Please, God, don't let me be gay." It was hard. Parents looked me in the face and called me a dime-store hood and told me to get my white-trash self out of the school. And the born-again Christian church in our town hired private investigators to follow suspected gay teachers and then kept transcripts of all their movements for a year, and they were all fired. Seven of them. Actually, I'm sorry--they were "asked to resign." And in a small town, you resign and move on.

What's the name of the town?
Michaels: Lafayette. It's across the river from Purdue [University]. It's in Tippecanoe County. But does that give you an idea of my path? I'm 28, and I've been in therapy since I was 3.

Really.
Michaels: Yeah, my mother--God bless her, this woman, so smart--saw that something was not OK with me. I got back from a visit with my dad once, and she looked at me rocking myself in the corner and said, "I need to get my little girl to talk to somebody." And so she took me to a therapist.

When you wrote in your journals about how you didn't want to be gay, were you at the same time able to connect with anybody who would understand that?
Michaels: Oh, no. I was so in love with [one of my teachers].

Was she gay, do you think?
Michaels: All I can think of, it's such a small town, and if they read this, are they going to break her windows too? I can tell you this: I've had a gaydar from the time I was born. And I was awakened with this intense crush.

When you were a teenager?
Michaels: Yeah, when I was 13 and at Central Catholic High School. It was the first feeling that wouldn't leave me alone--wanting to be around her all the time, being sad if she wasn't [there]. And she was young--she was in her early 20s, so there was a 10-year age difference. That's when I went, I know nobody else [in class] is experiencing this. There were a couple of girls where I was like, Hmm, maybe, but I don't know if they ever decided to be honest with it. But for me, that was when I really went down to my journal and I was like, "Oh, my God--what if I'm gay? That's disgusting!" And I started repeating everything I'd learned in CCD and in church and the Bible. And so it took quite a bit to get over that shame. It took moving to New York and seeing a gay pride parade! [Laughs]

So you never came out to anyone in Indiana.
Michaels: No. I told two girls on a field trip once. It was like that, you know, when you're in ninth grade and it's dark outside and everybody's asleep on the bus and you've been in Chicago all day watching Miss Saigon. And it was me and these two girls, and we were having midnight talks on the bus and nobody was listening. And we all said, "Sometimes I think I'm gay." I don't know what the other two girls are up to now, but I know that they never spoke about that night again. Ever. And then the summer before I moved to New York, I told my friend Brooke, "I'm moving to New York to be gay." She was like, "OK." She was a big fag hag, so she was like, "Whatever!"

When did you know that things were going to work out?
Michaels: Oh, sweet baby. I dropped out; I got into psychotherapy three times a week for two years, cleaned up any old, unhealthy patterns I'd learned; I started nannying, which was the best job I ever had, nannying for this little baby for three years. And I'd say when I started nannying, I knew I was going to be OK. The family took me in, they got me an apartment, they bought me food. Up until then, I'd been eating cereal and water. So I knew it was going to be OK about the second, third year. But let me tell you something: It was never an option to go home. There was no home to go home to. And thank God, because it made me build something better for myself than what had been provided in my family's legacy.

What did you do when you actually got to New York?
Michaels: I tried to date boys for a while! [Laughs]

Did you?
Michaels: I did! I tried. And they were so nice! But then they'd move in to kiss me, and I'd be like [groans], "You were doing so well until then!" I was still carrying a great deal of shame and baggage and that "trashy Tammy" now. I just was like, Let me just make sure that it wasn't just the guys in Indiana I disliked. And then a friend of mine said, "Hey, I work at a restaurant with this girl and she says she's gay," and I ran down to the restaurant and sat and waited for her to show up to work. I immediately fell in love with her. I just was like, There is one other lesbian on this planet. That has to be my girlfriend. And I stalked her for about a month.

Good material for The L Word.
Michaels: [Laughs] See? They knew! And I would "just happen" to show up at work when I knew she was going to be there. And then she was my first girlfriend. One of the ways that I was loved as a child was by abusers, so I thought to be abused was to be loved. And it took me a couple relationships to go, Oh, I'm just fucked up and this is not OK--I'm not going to be happy if I keep seeking out this kind of relationship. [Melissa returns] And then she walked in. By pure accident.

Etheridge: By accident.

Michaels: By God, I say.

So what's the takeaway lesson for Advocate readers from your story?
Etheridge: Love happens.

It's worth saying.
Etheridge: Yeah. You know, I have made a career of singing about love and writing about love and dreaming about love. Romanticizing about it. To actually sit and be surrounded by love is amazing. And it can happen. Once you love yourself. As corny as it is, love yourself enough to be loved right. That's my lesson.

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Melissa Etheridge Information Network

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