High school, my senior year. I didn’t know what the word “gay” meant. At that time, suburban Atlanta was pretty sheltered from gay stuff. I wasn’t really sure what was going on or what to call it and what it meant. I had a few teachers that were very supportive of my special friendship with this girl so it helped me to know that I wasn’t a freak.
When I really figured out what it meant, it was during my sophomore year in college. My freshman year, I didn’t know how to talk about it. I still had the same girlfriend and we were being physical but I didn’t know how to articulate anything. Then, I started understanding the language of it and talking to my mom about it and little by little became more open.
So your mom was pretty cool about it?
I wouldn’t say she was “cool” about it. She was trying to understand it and worried about me and very religious. Faith, and what that meant, was the context for her. My dad — I was scared to talk to him about it. He was very opposed to the idea.
My two older sisters are gay as well and one of them had come out so it was easier for me in some ways.
My parents, because of their faith, weren’t accepting for a long, long time. In the last 12-15 years, they’ve become very accepting and extremely evolved and incorporate it into their faith. I definitely watched my parents go through a big evolution and it took a long time but they never were like, you know, “You can’t come home for Thanksgiving dinner,” which I feel lucky about.
I was in a business where I was around a lot of other people that were different from me, from every walk of life, not just gay people. I was lucky to have all of those different perspectives.
It’s very hard if you’re in a church or in a community setting where you are getting a lot of your needs filled except this one thing and you wonder do you really want to leave all this support for this one thing. Is it worth it to tell them? I can see the struggle. From my perspective, it was a struggle of “If I really admit this with my family, am I going to lose them?”
You mentioned that when you started playing professionally, you were around a more open-minded group of people. Did you ever feel that you had to stay in the closet to advance your career?
We didn’t stay in the closet as long as we did to advance our career. We were just scared. Back in the ‘80s, being gay really put you on the bottom rung.
We didn’t want to be identified, at first, as being gay. What would that do? How would that make us feel? Would we be alienated? There were all kinds of rationalizations for why we didn’t want to come out but the biggest reason was fear — pure fear.
What changed that?
I think it took until about 1991 for us to come out. It was just like “Screw it. We’re just going to be who we are. We’re going to talk about it and not dodge the question. We’re just going to be real.”
When I interviewed (country singer) Chely Wright, she said her coming out was detrimental to her career. Do you think you could have gone further if you had stayed in the closet?
No. I think our queerness has held us back in a big way but I think being women in the folk and rock industry has held us back just as much. We’re a quadruple threat: we’re women, we’re political, we’re gay and we’re older. All of those things are strikes against us in this industry.
When we were younger, we didn’t have an image that was… we were butch, down-home girls that were gay. If we had been glamorous and gay, it would have been different. There were all these ways that we didn’t fit in and being gay was just one of ‘em.
Even if we had been in a closet, I don’t know that we would have gone any further with the political beliefs that we push and the set of activism that we push and our inattentiveness to image — stuff like that. We are what we are and lucky that we got as far as we did.
The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you lived in the mountains up in North Georgia. Things are different up there – are you living in an accepting community?
It’s very conservative. I’ve found a lot of great allies up here that may have some different beliefs than me but we have a unified thread of compassion for each other and I feel like my neighbors and my community all believe in helping each other regardless of political beliefs. They sort of ignore the barriers if they have to.
I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but I’m definitely richer because of the dialogue that I’ve had to have with people. I’m more troubled by the racism up here than I am by the homophobia. The racism and the anti-immigrant rhetoric up here… it’s going to take time and education because it’s just fear.
It seems that whatever group is being hated on usually has fear at the root.
Yeah. If the economy is bad and you feel one down, who do you blame it on? Who is the easy scapegoat? “Well, this guy over here shouldn’t be in the country!” It’s all of these crazy sound bites that help you put your life into place, help you place blame and help you have a reason for why things are the way they are.
Sometimes there is no reason. Sometimes, the reason is because of the rich, white people in power. This has always been going on throughout the history of the world. This is the way people are so we need to keep educating them.
Top photo: Amy Ray, one-half of lesbian folk duo Indigo Girls, brings her edgier solo show to the Atlanta Pride stage at 6:10 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 14. (Publicity photo)