Melissa Etheridge on the Continued Fight for LGBTQ Rights: 'We Have to Stand Beside Love'

Lauren Dukoff
Melissa Etheridge

Taking to the stage at WorldPride’s Closing Ceremony in New York City’s Times Square, folk-rock icon Melissa Etheridge delivered an empowering message of hope and love to her community. “We were fierce,” she proclaimed. “And we will always be fierce. We are so fierce, we made it to the center of it all.”

The star has more than earned her right to perform on that stage -- 26 years ago, Etheridge came out as a lesbian, and has been fighting ever since to end discrimination and intolerance toward the LGBTQ community, through both her music and her politicial activism.

Speaking to Billboard ahead of her WorldPride performance, Etheridge said that her mission remains the same today as it did 26 years ago, even as the world has changed. “People who are afraid of the different, who have been raised to fear the other -- the way our society is set up right now has given them a mouthpiece,” she explained. “I would say our task is to find a way to neutralize the fear. You can't scare another person into not fearing us, you know?”

Etheridge chatted with Billboard about the evolution of Pride, seeing more LGBTQ talent represented than ever before and how our current political situation inspired her latest album.

You're performing at the Closing Ceremony for WorldPride. How does it feel, knowing that you'll be celebrating with everyone at the biggest Pride event of the year?

I just love being a part of it. I love that New York City has really turned it out for this. I was there, you know, a month ago, and it was already rainbows everywhere. I really thought, "What a wonderful way for a city to welcome a big part of its community, and the world's community!" I think they've done it well. 

That this is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall puts the festivities in a different light. What do you find yourself fighting for today?

Oh, wow, because this day and age is...an interesting time. [Laughs.] I don't know you, but I'm in my 50s and I've seen a lot, and I have seen the world change. I was in Berlin when the wall came down -- I happened to have a show there that weekend. I've seen what people can do. I have gone from being one of the only [artists] out in the '90s, to seeing this beautiful rainbow of LGBTQ talent with so much strength. I have seen marriage equality come, and then I've seen the backlash happen, as it always does! Throughout all of my years, I've seen that inevitable backlash. 

People who are afraid of the different, who have been raised to fear the other -- the way our society is set up right now has given them a mouthpiece. You can reach a lot of people now, through the Internet. We're not isolated anymore. As we are lifted up with communication and strength in numbers, so are the darker aspects of fear in our society. So I would say our task is to find a way to neutralize the fear. You can't scare another person into not fearing us, you know? We have to find a way to stand strong. When we say, "Love wins," we have to stand beside love, and not meet hate with hate or fear with fear. But we ought to show how to come together. That's our issue moving forward. 

It's weird, because when I look at stuff like this, I always think, "These are the kind of headlines that you would see coming out of Russia a decade ago!"

But we can do this! Never underestimate the force of people coming together. That's what we do, that's what works, that's our strength. Meeting in places like WorldPride, it's very important, it charges us, it gives us power and strength and life, and gives us the power to go back into our community and be a beacon of light, and to not be feared. 

Absolutely. And ultimately, Pride is an act of protest in and of itself. 

Yes, exactly. Though now, it's protests being backed up by a lot of corporations. [Laughs.] It's a little crazy, and yet, it is still an act of advocacy, it's an act of strength to stand up, and be who you are. 

As you mentioned earlier, there is a new wave of queer artists making their way toward the top of the music industry right now. As someone who came out at a time where it was much harder to make it as a gay artist, how does it feel now to see these artists thriving?

It makes me so happy! These people can just get on with the business of making their art, of making their music and celebrating who they are, the crazy, different, queer parts of them that makes them an artist. And then they inspire that in the people who listen to the music, whether they're queer themselves, or whatever. Any time we can strengthen youth to be confident in who they are, it helps our whole society. So I love seeing these artists, I just get all giddy inside every time I see, "Hey, it’s a big LGBT artist that's on the top of the charts!" I just love it. 

Are you able to acknowledge that those artists are able to be out and proud today because of people like you who helped blaze that trail for them?

Well, I certainly hope so. I hope that I was able to inspire, and show these people that you are, and be successful. I went from selling a million to six million records. It did not hurt me, it just added to it. So I'm happy to just let that be an inspiration.

Your latest project, The Medicine Show, deals with modern politics -- what inspired you to take those topics on?

Well, when I had finished the cycle of my last one, which was my Memphis Rock and Soul cover album, I knew that we were going into the elections of 2016. The day after that happened, I said, "Oh, I got me some writing to do." I knew that the next project would be a mirror to what we were going through in 2017 and 2018. I believe these are going to be -- I mean, they already are -- historic times, where people are going to look back and say, "Wow, what were you doing then? What were you adding to this international conversation?" So I really wanted to provide a snapshot of what we're going through, what were the issues, what was happening personally. And then I wanted to make songs that were comforting, or arousing, or bringing strength to people, and to be able to have songs I could put in my show and tell my story with when I'm on stage. 

What can fans expect from you in the coming years?

You know, you can expect me to be true to myself, and you can expect the work and production that comes from me is going to be of the heart, whether it's music or cannabis or whatever it may be. I hope that when you think of me, you think of being moved.