When my family and friends asked me how I wanted to spend this summer, I told them that’s easy. I’m taking True Colors back across America again. But if you really want to know where I’m coming from, let’s dial back the years.
Growing up in the 1960s in New York City was a wild ride for any kid. City streets can play rough. But I did find a world full of amazing and different kinds of people all around me. The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, Shea Stadium, and the World’s Fair Grounds had opened. New York City was electric.
It was also time of great change in this country. It was the time of the great civil rights marches and of Martin Luther King and Jack and Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X. It was a time when an extraordinary and brave woman, Rosa Parks, simply refused to sit in the back of the bus. It was the time of Motown and the Beatles, of Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan and James Brown, Yoko Ono and Gloria Steinem. It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius and peace marches, hippies and Woodstock. It was a time when music helped to open the world’s point of view to change.
And, in return, a generation promised to change the world for the better.
In Queens, where I lived, my family was like other working-class families around us at the time, except that my mom was divorced. But divorce was very different then. Because of that, I started to see firsthand how things go when your family is different. I started to see how women were treated differently. How they weren’t afforded the same opportunities and not paid the same. And after that, I started to see a lot of other things around me that weren’t open or fair for all sorts of folks. I started to understand what exclusion was. I heard bigotry on the radio and on TV too. I heard radio interviews with people who hated the integration of schools.
I thought, I’m just a school kid. If someone asked me what I thought, I would have said that the world of grown-ups was a crazy one. It was a world where you could sit at the beach listening to Nat King Cole’s voice blaring out of a tiny transistor radio, and also listen to white people on a blanket across from you, ranting and raving about someone who was black or dark brown moving near their neighborhood. This, of course, was after watching them oil themselves and bake in the sun for hours, turning like a rotisserie, bragging about how dark and black their skin would turn. It was ironic. It was also a world where friends couldn’t be friends.
I had a friend from school with naturally brown skin, short fuzzy brown hair, and one of the nicest smiles I ever saw. He lived three to four blocks down from me, but there was an invisible fence. It was a fence made up of bigotry, anger, and fear. We started walking home from school together and at first I didn’t understand about that fence. I could never go and play with him or him with me because that would be asking for trouble. He didn’t want any trouble and neither did I. And then I became frightened for him, and frightened for me because I lived in a world filled with so much hatred and fear of people they didn’t even know. But the times they were a-changin’, or were they?
At 14, high school was a huge step. I traveled to Manhattan from Queens every morning on the A train to get to school, riding deep through the heart of Brooklyn before arriving in Manhattan. I could sit or stand and watch so many different kinds of people travel together. I was now in a melting-pot world. I could befriend whoever I liked and whoever liked me.
I studied art and played guitar and I was in a folk duo for a while too. I sang high harmony and played all the odd accompanying guitar parts to my best friend’s lead vocals and guitar riffs. And it wasn’t long when my friend and some of my childhood friends came out to me and told me they were gay. And I told them that I didn’t care as long as we could still be friends.
I looked at it this way. We were all artistic people who wanted to blaze our own trail in a new world. I hadn’t been aware, yet, about another invisible fence that nobody likes you to cross. It wasn’t until my sister came out in the early ’70s that I became more aware of the bigoted slurs and the violence against a community of people who were different. Now I watched as more hatred and fear was turned against a community of people who were gay.
There was a big difference between watching powerlessly as a child in a topsy-turvy world and turning 18. At 18, I was able to vote. I remember the first time I pulled the lever too, just before Nixon resigned. I felt that Americans were being sold a bill of lies. I watched regular folks who were too busy struggling to survive to actually pay attention to what was happening to our country.
So when the time came to vote, I thought maybe through my vote I could voice how fed up I was. I was proud to have the chance to vote for Rep. Shirley Chisholm for president during the New York primary. I also signed the petition to impeach Richard Nixon. Unfortunately for me, Chisholm never made it to the White House, but President Nixon finally had to go. And that’s when I knew that even if it doesn’t all come out the way you want, you can still effect change.
I’m writing this whole story now because I have heard a lot of talk about inclusion. But there comes a time in life when, if you want inclusion, you better include yourself.
What good is it if you stand on the sidelines of the world and just complain about what goes on? Even now, lots of people struggle because they don’t have enough to get by day by day. And it makes it even tougher for the people in 31 states who, on top of barely getting by, have to live in fear of losing their jobs if they are even suspected of being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. In these tough times, that’s too much to cope with.
But the one thing everybody seems to forget is that if you don’t vote, you stay silent. And that means that the invisible fence of discrimination will remain strong because nobody sees how many people aren’t counted. Nobody changes the tide. The thing about voting is, it’s our chance for equality.
Now I am no mathematician, but I always thought that “equal” means “the sum of equal parts.” And I figure if we’re still struggling with equality, maybe those equal parts aren’t all counted. Maybe instead of everybody equally raising their voice, we’re hearing from only a few. And if that’s the case, it’s the same old story. Our future is being decided by the few rather than the many. This is a big election year, and there are bigger changes on our horizon.
That’s why I was so determined to bring True Colors to America again this summer, stopping in 25 cities throughout the United States -- but I’m not going alone. In select cities, I’m bringing along the B-52s, Carson Kressley, Rosie O’Donnell, Wanda Sykes, the Indigo Girls, Joan Armatrading, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Regina Spektor, Tegan and Sara, Nona Hendryx, Deborah Cox, and the Cliks. I’m also blessed with a posse of believers from PFLAG, CenterLink (the nation’s LGBT community centers), and the Human Rights Campaign to beat the drums loudly for us. Logo, Sirius Radio, and American Airlines are also helping make this all possible.
Our message is simple: If you are eligible, join me by pledging to register and vote this year. Take your power and use it to make equality come to life.
Our tour will be a monster nonstop five-hour music party with a message that everyone can understand and embrace. This year the True Colors Tour asks for equality for all, not just for some, a principle upon which our nation was founded. So let’s celebrate and have fun this summer while we spread the word to get out the vote and all become a part of the changes in America.
As Americans we need each other, and we know that equality is only fair. Maybe there are more people whose loved ones or they themselves are affected by this discrimination. We need to speak loudly. We need to raise our voice and vote. It is the one thing we equally share as Americans. We share the right to vote. Let’s use it and rock this election year.