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Happy Birthday, Melissa Etheridge! Here's a Shoutout to Other Great Lesbian Rockers

To see a slideshow from Etheridge's recent appearance at Hard Rock Live, click here. You can also read a review of the show here.

Melissa Etheridge certainly wasn't the first female rocker to display the kind of grit and tenacity usually associated with all-male terrain. Far from it, in fact. Earlier icons like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Pat Benatar, and the Runaways -- its leader, Joan Jett, in particular -- had that covered early on. However, she was among the first to vet her activism along with her no-nonsense delivery, an effect made all the more insightful by the struggles she faced while being wholly exposed to the glaring light of tabloid publicity. 

Born May 29, 1961, Etheridge first became interested in music at age 8, when she acquired her first guitar. She later nurtured her abilities in college and by playing around the local club scene. Although she had initially hoped to be signed by Olivia Records, a lesbian record label, she found a permanent home with Island Records, where she scored her first success via her eponymous debut and an early hit, "Bring Me Some Water." The combination of her raspy vocals and confessional lyrics found instant appeal, and though her sexuality wasn't widely known at first, she hinted at it in an early radio interview. "People think I'm really sad -- or really angry," she conceded. "But my songs are written about the conflicts I have... I have no anger toward anyone else." When she invited the radio producer to attend her concert that evening, he was surprised to find himself one of the few men in attendance.

Not surprisingly, then, Etheridge's confrontational musical approach garnered a string of successful albums, beginning with her sophomore effort, Brave and Crazy, and remaining more or less intact with every effort that's followed. In the process, she's built a devoted following and been accorded more than a dozen Grammy nominations and an ASCAP Songwriter of the Year award. Her mainstream breakthrough, Yes I Am, spent 138 weeks on Billboard's Top 200 and reaped five times platinum status as well as a top ten hit in the song "Come to My Window," which not only became her biggest-selling single but her signature song as well. It provided the vehicle for her mainstream success and placed her firmly in rock's upper echelon. 

As the '90s progressed and eventually gave way to the new millennium, Etheridge's private life came more to the fore. In 1993, she refused to play concerts in Colorado due to her disagreement with an antigay amendment passed by the state Legislature. She also went through a very visible breakup with partner Julie Cypher, an episode documented on her album Skin, a collection of songs that probed that volatile relationship. 

In 2002, she published her revealing autobiography, The Truth Is: My Life in Love and Music, and two years later, she went public with the information that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Now in a new relationship, her album sales began to slip. Still, she bounded back into the public spotlight when she performed a searing take on the Janis Joplin classic "Piece of my Heart" at the Grammy Awards, bald from chemotherapy but obviously reinvigorated. The next year, she won an Academy Award for her song "I Need to Wake Up," included in the soundtrack for the Al Gore environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth. In 2008, she went one step further on Gore's behalf by performing at the Democratic National Convention where the former V.P. launched his presidential bid. 

When Etheridge and Cypher announced that they were giving birth to two children via a sperm donation from aging rocker David Crosby, it raised a number of eyebrows, perhaps no more than with Cypher herself, who began to reconsider her sexuality. Despite the fact that the two women severed their relationship, Etheridge's advocacy for gay rights remained an ongoing concern. After California passed Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage, Etheridge refused to pay her state taxes as an act of civil disobedience. In October 2008, five months after the Supreme Court of California overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage, Etheridge announced that she and her new significant other, Tammy Lynn Michaels, were planning to marry once they found the right time "to go down and do it." As it turned out, Etheridge and Michaels decided to split up in 2010, leading to a nasty schism that's still making headlines. 

Still, Etheridge is committed to the cause and plans to play her first Pride event in a couple of weeks at Pittsburgh Pride's -- Pride in the Street -- a block party that takes place on the street made famous by the Queer as Folk cable series.

Etheridge also supported President Obama's decision to have controversial pastor Rick Warren speak at his 2009 presidential inauguration, believing that his presence could help foster a dialogue that would bridge the gap between gay and straight Christians. "Sure, there are plenty of hateful people who will always hold on to their bigotry like a child to a blanket," she stated in her column in the Huffington Post. "But there are also good people out there, Christian and otherwise, that are beginning to listen." 

In 2006, Etheridge received GLAAD's Stephen F. Kolzak Award, an honor reserved for openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender media professionals who have made a significant difference in promoting equal rights. She was later named the celebrity marshall for Boston's 2009 Pride Parade, although as it turned out, she actually didn't attend. The committee bestowed this honor without checking to see if she was available. 


Etheridge is part of a distinguished list of other women who are proud members of the lesbian rock community. Including...

The Indigo Girls
Folk rockers Amy Ray and Emily Salier are perhaps the most successful lesbian duo of all time; they took part in the multi-artist True Colors Tour 2007 and 2008. Showing their ongoing commitment to organizations that provide support to the LGBT community.

Brandi Carlile
The Seattle-based musician is a good friend of the Indigo Girls, and that connection gave her exposure to gay women and fans of the band who caught her in concert while playing in their company. Most knew that she was a lesbian, courtesy of her on-stage jokes and occasional wink-wink, hint-hint asides, but she didn't speak about her orientation with the media and came out only when she gave a speech to the Looking Out foundation.
Ani DiFranco
DiFranco identifies herself as bisexual, and her songs have frequently dealt with issues about love and sex with both women and men. Many of her fans believed she was entirely gay, an issue she addressed with the song "In or Out." Still, both her marriages have been to men, beginning in1998, when she married sound engineer Andrew Gilchrist, and later when she wed her producer, Mike Napolitano, the father of her daughter, Petah Lucia DiFranco Napolitano.

k.d. lang
Lang was one of the first artists to declare her sexuality, which she discussed in a 1992 article published by the LGBT news magazine the Advocate. She has actively championed many gay-rights causes over the years, including those involving HIV/AIDS care and research. 

Tracy Chapman
Although she's never discussed her sexuality, many assume Chapman's a closet lesbian. She's certainly not shy about speaking up for a cause, however. In 1988's "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution," the lyrics discuss the need to rally against injustice. "Don't you know, talking 'bout a revolution sounds like a whisper/When they're standing in the welfare lines." 

Janis Ian
The woman who wrote "At Seventeen," a tale about her being a jilted high school student rejected for her looks, is a rampant defender of both sexes regardless of persuasion. "I spent a good part of the '80s trying to get a record deal, because no record company would take a chance on a gay 40-year-old female," Ian said on her website. "My partner and I mortgaged our home so I could make the album Breaking Silence. Howard Stern and singer/songwriter John Mellencamp were the only performers to back me with air-time and money before my record broke and got its Grammy nomination. What does this say about our assumptions? That we deceive ourselves into thinking we're open-minded, while projecting our own bigotry onto that last safe target, the Straight White Male?" 

Janis Joplin
Joplin wasn't an avowed lesbian, but she was known to have a female companion and to carry on wild flings with people of bother genders. 

Cris Williamson
Williamson's role in the evolution of lesbian involvement in the musical mainstream is summed up by this passage from her Wikipedia page: "An American feminist singer-songwriter, who achieved fame as a recording artist, and who was a pioneer as a visible lesbian political activist, during a time when few who were not connected to the Lesbian community were aware of Gay and Lesbian issues. Williamson's music and insight has served as a catalyst for change in the creation of women-owned record companies in the 1970s. Using her musical talents, networking with other lesbian artists of musical quality, and her willingness to represent those who did not yet feel safe in speaking for themselves, Williamson is remembered by many in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) community for her contributions, both artistically, and politically, and continues to be a role model for a younger generation hoping to address concerns and obtain recognition for achievements specific to people who have historically been ignored."

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