thenewgay.net: Amy Ray: The New Gay Interview
original publish date: 14 aug 2009
by Sara Giarratana, thenewgay.net
There’s no doubt that the world is a crazy place right now. The Earth is crumbling beneath our destructive feet, the persistence of war seems to take no heed of innocent sacrifice, and our vulnerability increases as the value of money reveals its true vacancy. Now, please don’t let this get you down—I’m happy to sing about the beauty in life, the joy and love that can’t be squandered on anxiety. But let’s be honest. Things are messy; I feel helpless.
Within that slew of problems, there is the ongoing quest in the U.S. for LGBT equal rights. Sometimes I feel like there are bigger fish to fry—poor Obama has to unveil the manipulations of his political advisors and untangle the delicate wires on numerous time bombs, all of which are itching to explode in his face. I remind myself that if our desire for equality is indeed put on the political backburner, at least it’s so Obama can decide what to do with the Guantanamo prisoners. At least it will save his energy to get us out of Iraq. To solve the health care crisis. Yadda yadda yadda. Then I think about how simple our fish is to fry. We have the batter mixed, the fry pan ready to go. He just has to dip us and toss us in hot oil. What we’re asking for is simple, direct and supposedly among the unalienable rights we are granted by existing as American citizens. So what’s the hold up?
Even as the Obama administration doesn’t quite live up to its campaign promises, the LGBT community is making strides. Our activism extends beyond civil law and into our actual realities. The conversations about sexuality and gender encourage self-realization on a deeper level, and as the community expands, knowledge is shared and boundaries of acceptance are expanded. Musician and songwriter Amy Ray has been initiating such discussions since the 80s, both as a solo artist and as one half of the Indigo Girls. She openly shares the stories of her journey, inspiring fans with her honest thoughts and feelings about all of the craziness (and all of the beauty) in the world. I had the chance to talk with Amy, currently on a solo summer tour, about politics, activism, and the evolving queer identity. Be sure to check out one of her remaining shows and continue the dialogue towards progress!
The New Gay: Throughout your career, your music has made some clear political statements about everything from LGBT rights to community-based activism. From your perspective, how do you think the LGBT journey towards equal rights is coming along?
Amy Ray: Hmmm. I mean, I actually think it’s coming along well. Your perspective probably depends on where you live. There are some areas where there is still so much of a struggle, areas that don’t have as much access to programs or resources in schools. But I think generally, across the board, things are getting better and there’s a sense that culturally, anyway, we are starting to talk about things more and have more acceptance. And hopefully legislative things will follow. I also see more open dialogue, I think, between folks within the queer community about trans issues and what it means to be trans, what it means to be butch, what it means to be different towards self-identified genders and personalities and sexual preferences. It’s good to hear the dialogue and it’s good that people have a way to articulate that and talk about it, because I think that only moves all of us forward to have that conversation.
TNG: It’s really interesting how gender issues have always been present in sexuality, but now they are coming so much more to the forefront.
AR: Yeah, and I think they’re helping the movement too.
TNG: Definitely. Also, I feel that the developments we’ve made as a community have shaped the way different generations experience being queer…
TNG: …and what it means to be queer. How have you witnessed that change?
AR: Um, you know I’m 45, so I’m in a generation that if you lived in an area that was more suburban—like me, I lived in the suburban South, so my vocabulary around being queer was really limited. You know, as a senior in high school when I realized I was gay and falling in love with a girl, I really didn’t even know what it meant. You know?
AR: I had no language at all around me. So one thing, you know, that has changed a lot. People that are much younger in areas that are much more, kind of, disenfranchised, I guess, as far as the gay movement goes, they still have a language that they’ve discovered around things. And they have a vocabulary to use, and they have a way to express themselves even when they’re not accepted. At least there’s a language, at least there’s some knowledge of what’s going on inside you and what it might mean. That’s a really huge change. Really huge.
TNG: Yeah, it is.
AR: And then I think for me, the only thing I have going on at a personal level is just the way I knew I was gay and I knew what that meant inside me, but the gender aspect of who I am came later. And it came by virtue of the movement opening up a little bit more and me meeting other people that were either gender fluid or having gender dysphoria, you know, or looking at themselves as a trans-identified person. That really shifted my own ability to embrace my masculinity and what that meant. And sort of where I fell in that, and that was separate from my sexuality. For me, when I look, I see that trajectory has happened for a lot of people and that conversation has happened for a lot of people. And that’s been opening up the queer movement into this much deeper discussion about who we are and how that relates to other people and the heterosexual world. And also how that’s separate from relating on the level of gender. I think it’s almost two different conversations and that’s actually a really positive thing. And I think it’s really great for younger people who are coming out and discovering their sexuality that they have this other analysis, too, of gender and who they are. And it’s good for the straight world, because within the straight world, there’s also gender dynamics. There’s marriages that are outwardly hetero but when you look at them they’re actually queer on some level. Because the husband maybe has more femininity and the wife has more masculinity. Or they’re both more masculine, or whatever. It’s sort of made it easier to embrace that as well, I think. Because before, it’s like the default was you see a married couple and people would automatically be like, “Oh, but that woman’s really gay because she’s masculine, and he’s really gay, he’s feminine, and he just doesn’t know it.” But now there’s a bigger conversation. Maybe our gender is one thing and our sexuality is another. And that’s a cool thing I think.
TNG: And even though it’s being spoken about more, I feel like I don’t have that conversation enough with people that aren’t experiencing it. My friends who are trans, it’s not even anything I think about. It’s just a person. And I think embracing that is also a really positive change that doesn’t only affect the queer community, as you’re saying.
AR: Yeah, I totally agree. And hopefully we’re moving towards, in the distant future, a place where people are just kind of who they are. There’s sort of a deeper continuum. You can spend time self-identifying and figuring out what you are on that, but at some point, you just want to be who you are and not walk around telling people. (Laughs.) And that’ll be nice when that comes up, and you call someone by their name and that’s everything that person is.
TNG: Talking about the Obama administration, how do you feel it has lived up to its campaign promises?
AR: I feel like I’m not even equipped to answer that yet. There are a lot of things going on right now that the administration is working on where I think the agenda of the queer community is included in different aspects. But I feel like it’s early on. One thing I know is that he has completely changed the approach, or the profile, of what the U.S. presidential administration stands for so that the conversation includes queer people, and the conversation includes an agenda that is important to queer people on different levels. You know you are represented there, you know that that’s part of what he’s considering and his administration has a directive to consider in anything they’re working on. Whether its public health issues, or tax issues, or job discrimination issues. So that’s one thing I feel, it’s not like a White House where they sort of threw out the gay people that were in there working and had no communities that included that representation. I think that’s changed a lot. I feel really positive about it, but I don’t think I could make a checklist right now.
TNG: I was reading this article in The Advocate, written by Michael Gross, and he was talking about this—whether or not it’s time to judge Obama, and if the LGBT community is doing our part.
AR: Well, I don’t know if I’m totally qualified to answer that. But I feel like we are. I feel like there are a lot of people doing a lot of hard work. I think it’s too early to judge, and I don’t think the gay community is in any way falling short. I mean, I could change my mind about that later. My personal feeling is that people need to be careful not to start over-analyzing and taking things apart and trying to be critical. I mean, it’s important to hold the president to what he says he’s gonna do, but it’s also important as a whole for us to all kind of keep endeavoring and doing what we do and working on it. And not start criticizing right away.
TNG: Yeah, but working together positively. I think that will definitely bring the most growth all around.
TNG: Your music is a really strong form of activism, with the platform that you have and the things you talk about in such an enjoyable way. I think music is the best way to reach a lot of people at the core. How do you encourage activism for those of us without that platform?
AR: Hmm. Well, yeah. I feel lucky to have that platform, and just to be able to express myself. I think any job you have has a platform in it, and you just need to figure out what that platform is. If you’re a teacher, for instance, there are ways to have positive representation of gay people in the classroom. Making sure that, historically, people are noted and archived, and that kids are getting just positive images of people who are gay. Not only saying, “This person is gay,” but making sure that it is included in the conversation. If kids are shown positive images of anything, they have those associations for the rest of their lives. If you work in a corporate office space, there are ways to forward the queer movement and the conversation in that space, too. I think art is definitely a great thing, and looked at as a way to open people up. But I do think within any job you do, you have a chance to serve the community.
TNG: What is it about the DIY (Do It Yourself) movement that inspires you so much?
AR: I feel like it keeps me in touch. What goes into making something happen and it’s a community thing, a community inspiration for me. It’s not so much do it yourself, it’s do it ourselves. And that’s what inspires me about it. Pretty much, when I do solo stuff, when I do anything involving music, it’s very collaborative. Even if it’s called Amy Ray Solo Project, or whatever, it’s collaborative. And that’s what it needs to be in order to accomplish it. And that’s inspiring to me.
TNG: When you’re writing an album, do you feel like the songs come as a thought-out reaction to what’s going on in the world, or is it a more organic experience?
AR: My song writing is totally organic in that I just write in this lyric book and I just kind of keep notes all the time. And then I sit down and play my guitar and go through the journal and try different melodies out with different things, and all of a sudden something will just come together. And I’m not really thinking about what I’m talking about or what I’m willing to achieve. I’m just kind of letting it come out, recording it. Then I go back and listen to it and then I start the process of thinking about what the song is about and working on it from the angle of trying to tell the story. I typically don’t have, and Emily doesn’t either, a thought, “Oh, this happened in the world, let’s write a song about it.” It never really happens like that with us, because I think we sort of try to be of the world in some way, in any way. As activists or whatever. And things just come out in our language. And I think that’s a better way for us, than to have an idea and say, “I’m going to write about this.” But I’ll find, if some event happens and it seems really important to me and moving to me, I’ll write it down in my lyric book knowing that it will come out in a song. That does happen, you know?