Tuesday 23 January 2018

Janis: Why I had to come out

Janis Ian has never been one to walk away from a challenge. When she was 13, she wrote a song about an inter-racial romance, 'Society's Child', which her record company at the time refused to release and which, when it eventually did see the light of day, led to its author receiving death threats. It was actually banned from some radio stations in the US -- and one station in Atlanta, Georgia, that did play it was burned to the ground.

This is just one story that Janis tells in her excellent 2008 memoir, itself titled Society's Child, which she says will be for sale at her upcoming Irish gigs.

The book also details how she came to be one of the first openly gay female singers in the music world -- she has been with her partner Patricia Snyder for 20 years and they tied the knot in Canada in 2003, Janis having previously been married to Portuguese film director Tino Sargo until their divorce in 1983.

Born in New York, raised in New Jersey and now based in Tennessee, the 60-year-old singer/songwriter, author, columnist and philanthropist (she set up a foundation to help older people continue in higher education) was initially reluctant to make a public declaration about her sexuality.

"I'd been out to my family all my life," says Janis, on the phone from her house in Nashville. "And I'd been out to the people that I worked with. Then I think that it confused everybody when I fell in love with my ex-husband because then people said that 'she's not really gay'.

"To me, it's just up to the individual -- it's not a question of gay or straight. But then when I met Pat and we got it together, I knew that I was gonna spend my life with her. . . in a very different way.

"And when I started to finally release an album, the head of the human rights campaign came to me and asked me to come out. At the time, I just said I really don't want the focus to be that. I don't want people saying: 'Oh she's a lesbian singer'. I just wanted to be a singer/songwriter.

"But then she quoted some statistics about teenage suicides to me -- and how many of the suicides and attempted suicides were because the kid thought they might be gay.

"Then she said: 'Did you have any role models?' And I said no. And she said: 'Well, don't you think they could use one?'

"That summed it up. Then it became not just about me. Around the same time, just after I did it, Melissa (Etheridge) and kd (lang) came out. So there was this rash of lesbians! (laughs)."

Janis says that she's glad to be able to use her celebrity to reach out to other people who might be unhappily in the closet.

"It's a peculiar thing. We look at people who are famous or semi-famous so differently than we look at the people around us who are not," she says.

"We look at them as though they've got it right -- which is ridiculous. But for a lot of the kids that I hear from, to be able to say to their parents: 'Well, Janis Ian's been with her partner for more than 20 years, and they're stable and she's normal and she's successful' -- it gives them a bargaining chip, you know?"

So what difference did her coming out make in terms of her audience? Were her fans accepting of it?

"It's funny -- the biggest fallout I had was from one long-time fan in Ireland, who was just outraged," she says.

"She wrote to me and said I'm never going to be able to listen to your records in the same way, and I'm horribly disappointed. I wrote back to her and said: 'You know, if there's anything you should have gotten from my records, it's live and let live and I hope you'll reconsider'.

'And bless her heart, she actually took her time to think about it and she came to the conclusion that I was right and it shouldn't affect the music -- and has remained a staunch fan and in fact a great supporter of my foundation."

(The Pearl Foundation was set up by Janis to enable her mum, Pearl, to fulfil her lifelong dream of going to college after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis).

"It's one of the reasons I answer my own email when I can, because if you give people the chance to stop and think about it, they usually come around.

"The mother of a friend of mine said: 'This [homosexuality] is against God'. I said: 'Have you asked God?' She took the time to get on her knees for a few days, which is not at all my religion. She came back and said: 'You know what God told me? He told me it's none of my business'. I thought there's an honest person. There's a whole lot more interesting things in the world than who I'm sleeping with!"

Janis Ian plays The Black Box, Belfast, January 26; The Venue Theatre, Ratoath, Co. Meath, 28; and Vicar St, Dublin, 29. The Best Of Janis Ian is out on Edsel nkelly@independent.ie

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