The judge said 'Amen'
and when we got home
we were single again"
~ Janis Ian - "Married In London"
It was 2003 when Janis Ian married her longtime partner, Patricia Snyder, in a Toronto wedding chapel. The New York Times reported the nuptials in their Weddings section, but the marriage was not recognized in New York, or anywhere else in America. Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands were the only countries where gay marriage was legal.
Janis had no plans to write a song about it. "I'm so comfortable with it, and I usually write about things that make me uncomfortable," she said at the time.
But as gay marriage became sporadically legalized - by Massachusetts in 2004 and by Spain the next year - the absurdity of it all called for a song.
"I was literally in London when England passed a law saying domestic partnership was now legal and entitled to all the same benefits," she said. "I was absolutely furious that they had done it and America hadn't. I was really angry about it. And I hadn't realized how strongly I felt about the whole issue. I hadn't given it that much thought until that happened. And then it just made me really angry."
Suitably uncomfortable, Janis wrote the song "Married In London," with the first line, "We're married in London but not in New York." She explained: "My tour manager at the time said, 'You're getting really bitter about this and that's not funny. And it's not going to be any fun for an audience. If you want to make a point, then write something about it that moves people or makes them laugh.'"
My passport in Sweden
says I've got a wife
Amsterdam tells me
I'm partnered for life
but back in America,
Land of the free,
I'm a threat to
the national security
Says Janis, "There I was thinking, okay, if I'm married in London, then I have to fill in the customs forms to go home, I have to put that I'm single. But then I'm lying if I'm in England. And then if I go from my home to Canada eventually, I have to put that I'm married. But then I'm lying when I come back to the US. It gets very stupidly confusing."
The song that made Janis a star was one about interracial romance. "Society's Child" tells the story of a young girl who breaks up with her black boyfriend because she's not ready to take a stand. Growing up in an all-black neighborhood in East Orange, New Jersey, Janis saw both sides of this story, and writing the song was her stand.
When "Society's Child" was released in 1966, Janis was 15 years old (she wrote most of the song on the school bus). Leonard Bernstein had her perform it on his primetime TV special, where he chided radio stations for not playing it. Radio stations picked it up and the song climbed to #14 on the Hot 100. Janis got an early introduction to the blowback that can come from controversy in the form of hate mail and derisive boos during performances. She also got her first Grammy nomination.
The second act for Ian came in 1975 with her song "At Seventeen." This time she won a Grammy (Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female - she would win her second Grammy in 2013: Best Spoken Word Album for Society's Child: My Autobiography). The song was written as a universal message on alienation and facing your fears, but many gay youth, including Melissa Etheridge, heard the line, "I learned the truth at seventeen" as Janis coming to terms with being a lesbian.
"Society's Child" brought Janis into the fight for civil rights; "At Seventeen" forced her to battle for women's (or a least women singers') rights. Knowing that radio station program directors (overwhelmingly male) would reject the song, she sent copies of it to their wives, who helped it garner precious airplay.
How do the fights for civil rights, women's rights and gay rights compare? Janis explains: "I think you have to separate all three of them. You can't hide if you're black and you can't hide if you're female. You can hide if you're gay. So that's been a major drawback and a major plus. But it makes the whole gay rights movement very different from women's rights or from civil rights as we know it."
As part of Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration ceremonies, Melissa and Janis joined k.d. lang at the Triangle Ball - the first inaugural ball to honor gays and lesbians - where they very loudly and very publicly announced that they were gay and in relationships.
"I've been out since the '70s to my family and the entire music industry," Janis said. "The press knew, everybody knew. I was living with my co-singer. And then the issue got confused because I married a man. My mother told me not to sleep with anybody I wasn't in love with, but she forgot to specify gender."
The man she married was the Portuguese filmmaker Tino Sargo; they were wed from 1978-1983. Janis says they were truly in love, and she was relieved to be in a traditional union. A few years after their marriage, however, he became abusive. In her autobiography, Janis recounts a harrowing experience where he hit her and pulled a gun on her - she talked him down by reminding him that he would not get into heaven if he killed her (he was Catholic).
When Janis did come out publicly, it was mostly an exercise in press, and she had to be talked into it. Says Janis: "Urvashi Vaid was then the head of what was NGLTS and is now HRC [Human Rights Campaign]. She sat me down and said, 'I know you feel like this is a private issue, but look at these teenage suicide statistics.' I looked at them, and I realized that 3 out of every 10 teenage suicides were because they thought they might be gay - not even were gay; might be gay. And then she said, 'Did you ever have a gay mentor, somebody you could look up to; somebody who was a public figure?' And I said, 'I have nobody.' She said, 'Well, don't you think it would be good for them to see a gay person in a stable relationship, and the writer of 'At Seventeen,' as well?' And when she put it that way, I couldn't really say no."
So what did it mean for the next generation?
"It's difficult to put into words the affect of artists coming out has on any gay person," says Kristen Ellis-Henderson from the band Antigone Rising. "The importance of any public person coming out is immeasurable to gay people all over the world. Janis, k.d. and Melissa coming out made me feel like it was OK to be who I was. I'm just grateful to them for being brave enough."
Janis lives in Nashville, a town that may have been unduly harsh when the Dixie Chicks criticized the President, but has grown to accept gays and lesbians as part of their fabric. Young singers like Brandi Carlisle rarely get a whiff of intolerance, and when Janis performs "Married In London," it is greeted with humor, not scorn. At one show in the city, when Janis sang the line, "when we got home we were single again," a guy in the crowd yelled, "Wish I could do that!"
"When I first started doing it, I would get walkouts," she said. "There would always be a certain element of the audience that just really tensed up. But then when I hit that last line, which in the UK and Europe is, 'bugger the rest,' and in America is 'Fuck all the rest,' and everybody realized that it really was funny and it really was absurd, people really lightened up. Watching the audience morph from being uncomfortable about it or seeing it as divisive, to recognizing the absurdity no matter where they fall politically has been really gratifying."
"Gay rights has taken such a huge turn these last couple of years it's really astonishing to me. I would never have dreamed in my lifetime that I would see gay marriage even become an issue, let alone be codified in places like Spain. I think there's been an undercurrent as people like myself come out, people like David Geffen come out, people who are leaders in industry or in sports or folks that write songs like 'At Seventeen' that relate on a much deeper level than whether you're gay or not. As people like us come out, I think that's first of all giving other people bravery to come out and second of all shown people who actually think they've never 'met one before,' that they have indeed met one, and that we're not so scary.
"And I think AIDS had a tremendous amount to do with it, as well, and Act Up and Larry Kramer and that whole era, because it really brought home the question of, is the God you tout as a merciful God punishing people for being born this way? Or are you going to get with the program and realize that if God is a merciful God, people are just born as they are and God's supposed to be accepting of it, and you have no right to judge. I think the whole issue of judgment was called into question during the AIDS crisis, and a lot of minds were changed."
Gay marriage is being legalized in more and more states on its inexorable march toward national recognition, but Janis has no interest in another ceremony. "We got married in Canada just like anybody else got married in Canada. Why would we need to get married somewhere else," she says. "Just like somebody from New York who got married in England would keep their English marriage. That's the whole issue, isn't it? If you're married in one country, you're married in another. So what is America going to do when a Canadian employee of Levi Strauss moves to America as part of their company and then America says, Well, I'm sorry, you can't have any benefits? It just doesn't work legally."
The April 8, 2013 issue of Time magazine showed two women kissing under the headline, "Gay Marriage Already Won" (an alternate cover featured two men in full smooch). The women on the cover are Kristen Ellis-Henderson and her wife, Sarah. They were married in New York in 2011.
June 7, 2013. We first spoke with Janis back in 2003. Her outstanding website contains remarkable photos, lyrics to her songs, and assorted writings, including some columns Janis penned for The Advocate. You can find it at janisian.com.
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