A cancer survivor with multiple top 40 hits, a Grammy-winning classical guitarist, an androgynous exponent of 1990s downtown New York City club culture, the punk-rock solo outing from an Adult Contemporary fave and a multiracial folk ensemble. One glance at the 17th annual GLAAD Media Awards nominees for musical artist — Melissa Etheridge, Sharon Isbin, Antony and the Johnsons, Amy Ray (of the Indigo Girls) and Girlyman, respectively — reveals how the GLBT music community has diversified in recent years. But is the rest of the world keeping pace?
“There has been great progress in terms of the popular perception of gay people,” opines Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. “I don’t think there would have been a window to pop culture for me to squeak through when I started out.” This year, “I Am a Bird Now,” Hegarty’s sophomore album, won the U.K. Mercury Music Prize.
“The source, and perspective, of the material on my album has often felt quite marginal,” says Hegarty, apropos of his lyrical fascination with queer, and specifically transgender, points of view. “It has been great to see it embraced by a much wider demographic than I ever imagined.”
Things have come a long way since an adolescent Antony admired pictures of a then-closeted Boy George. Today, he delights at how GLBT individuals feature in even “mundane” media outlets like MTV’s dating-elimination game, “You Are Dismissed.”
But the assimilation of gays and lesbians into society at large doesn’t seem so complete — or cozy — to others. “Even if we are seeing that trend, it doesn’t mean that the outside world is psyched about it,” counters Genevieve Barber, manager for alt-folk trio Girlyman. Gay marriage and adoption and equal rights for same-sex couples remain political hot potatoes. “You can’t argue that this country has an inclusive perception of the GLBT community.”
Regardless, prospects for out musicians are improving. Last year’s GLAAD music honorees, Scissor Sisters, sold 2.5 million copies of their eponymous debut in the U.K., making it Britain’s bestselling album of 2004. Tommy Boy lifestyle imprint the Silver Label has parlayed its hit TV soundtracks (“The L Word,” “Queer as Folk”) into myriad ventures, including a forthcoming compilation of GLBT rap artists. Partnering with Sony Music Label Group, Logo founder Matt Farber’s Wilderness Music & Entertainment just launched Music With a Twist, a label devoted to developing queer artists with broad appeal.
In the music world, staying in the closet is increasingly viewed as a liability, not an asset. When guitarist Isbin was first approached by a magazine about discussing her sexuality, in the early 1990s, her management balked. “They said, ‘No, that might affect our ability to book you between California and New York, and we don’t know if we could take the heat,’ ” she recalls.
But after Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang made full disclosures, and continued to enjoy top 40 chart placement, platinum sales and Grammy wins, Isbin got the greenlight. “It just goes to show that, when people at the helm have the courage to be open in their lives, it can have an enormous impact on many others,” she opines.
Etheridge — who was named outstanding music artist, for “Greatest Hits: The Road Less Traveled,” in a press release issued March 27 — will be singled out at the April 8 Los Angeles GLAAD ceremony for special distinction: the Stephen F. Kolzak Award, “presented to an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender media professional who has made a significant difference in promoting equal rights for our community.”
“I’m glad to see her win that award,” says Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. “There was a point where she just decided to make a concerted effort to put her energy towards the queer movement. And it worked, because she is so big and so famous.” (Etheridge has sold over 25 million albums worldwide.)
“Melissa is definitely more mainstream than we are (musically), and politically, in some ways, too,” continues Ray. “But I’ve seen a little more edge to her politics over the years, and I’m glad, because she is someone who can get away with it.”
But Ray voices concerns about artists in other disciplines, as well as big entertainment companies and mainstream media outlets. “When you start talking about actors and actresses, Hollywood has a long way to go,” she notes. “They can pat themselves on the back at the Oscars about being progressive, but everybody is still in the closet.”
Why the double standard? “Gay musicians get away with a lot more, because it’s quite rock-and-roll to have a bit of a reputation, and they are only ever playing themselves,” says Andy Bell of Erasure (who performed at GLAAD’s March 27 New York ceremony.) “Whereas when you ask a gay actor to play a straight roll, it is quite difficult for the public to take that leap of faith in truly believing in the character.”
Isbin doesn’t buy that argument. “An actor’s essential craft is to portray a multitude of characters…from nuns to murderers. The success of many actors in playing both straight and gay roles, like Tom Hanks and Heath Ledger, and of openly gay actors like Cynthia Nixon and Cherry Jones in portraying straight characters, should dispel this fear.”
“Actors have a much more difficult job as far as tabloid media goes in reporting on aspects of their private lives,” adds Bell. “I look forward to the day when I’m proven wrong, and none of this matters any longer.”