Yes I Am, Melissa Etheridge’s fourth studio album, is arguably her most iconic. This is in part because of the songs themselves: “I’m the Only One,” “If I Wanted To,” and “Come to My Window” were all hit singles in the mid-‘90s and remain classics today. But perhaps more significantly, Yes I Am’s status comes from the album’s place in Etheridge’s personal history. Though there were always subtle hints about her sexuality in her earlier work, Etheridge did not publicly come out as a lesbian until January of 1993. Yes I Am was released nine months later, and it is commonly assumed that the album title itself is a statement about leaving the closet. And when one listens to the album in full, the coming out experience — in all its joy and pain — is on display for all to hear.
Etheridge’s music was the soundtrack to my own coming out process. Long before I understood the concept of queer identity, there was a part of me that felt drawn to the intensity and immediacy of her voice whenever I heard it on the radio. Her 1995 release Your Little Secret was the first CD I ever purchased, leading to a lifelong fandom. Six years later, I came out as bisexual and listened to her albums more regularly than ever. I kept that up throughout high school, past graduation. 2004’s Lucky is the one I listened to on repeat the summer I bonded with an older lesbian mentor. That same summer, my girlfriend and I went to a lesbian bar on a night when a musician was performing covers of Etheridge’s songs; being in a room where everyone knew every word to “Come to My Window” remains one of the most perfectly gay moments of my life. Many queer women of my generation gravitated toward Ani DiFranco or Sleater-Kinney, but Etheridge was always the artist who showed up when I needed her work the most.
And she didn’t just show up for me — Yes I Am arrived at a completely critical moment in the contemporary LGBT movement in the United States. The early ‘90s was a time of legal battles and setbacks for the queer community; specifically, 1993 was the year of debates over the constitutionality of same-sex marriage restrictions in Hawaii and the passage of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But 1993 was also a moment of energized unity for the LGBT population, particularly visible at the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay, and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation where Etheridge, among others, performed. Queer people were becoming more visible while still being legally and socially vulnerable. If there was ever a time for a community to rally beside an icon like Etheridge, it was the early ‘90s. So in 1993, Yes I Am was released and Etheridge became a household name.
The song that audiences connected to most quickly was “Come to My Window.” It was one of the first singles released and it hit #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. While the music video, featuring Juliette Lewis in a psychiatric hospital, is less of a commentary on sexuality than on mental illness, the song itself is a love song that softly and gently hints at the coming out journey. For much of the song, Etheridge could be singing about any type of relationship, but the bridge takes on a particular meaning in the context of her queerness: “I don’t care what they think, I don’t care what they say/What do they know about this love anyway?” Up until that line, it would be easy for some listeners to compartmentalize and forget about Etheridge’s sexual identity. After all, it doesn’t matter who the song is about, does it? The bridge serves as the wake up call that, yes, it matters a great deal. No longer content to keep her identity a secret from the public, Etheridge’s lyrics make clear that she doesn’t need permission from her fans to love as she wishes. She is putting herself into her art, and whether you want to engage with her or understand her love is your choice.
The album then transitions from its most popular song to one that has never received nearly as much attention but is perhaps the song that speaks most directly about the coming out experience. “Silent Legacy” starts as soft acoustic poetry before slowly building to a passionate, rage-filled wail. The lyrics speak to the conflict between the fear that keeps one in the closet and the desire that pushes one to leave. Toward the beginning, Etheridge is singing to someone who is remaining closeted out of necessity: “Deny all that you feel and they will bring you home again” conjures the image of a young queer person who isn’t ready to disconnect from their homophobic relatives, choosing instead to bury their desires.
As the song continues, the words become more visceral. Lines like “You are digging for the answers until your fingers bleed/To satisfy the hunger, to satiate the need” evoke a primal yearning for self-discovery that homophobia and social norms stifle to the point of inflicting violence. By the end of the song, Etheridge is screaming, releasing all of the pain and anger that are trapped behind the closet door. It’s not likely that she’s singing about herself in any immediate sense; she had come out to those in her life and come to terms with her sexuality long before she made a public statement. Instead, she is singing for everyone still in the closet who can look to her as a role model and a promise that life will not always be as difficult as it feels now. That it does, in fact, get better.
Etheridge’s anger is revisited and soothed a few tracks later in the titular “Yes I Am.” “In these days and these hours of fury,” she begins, reaffirming the setting of a harsh and intolerant world, she soon transitions into a profound declaration of desire. “Come lay your body beside me, to dream to sleep with the lamb/To the question your eyes seem to send: am I your passion, your promise, your end?” she continues, inviting her partner into an embrace far away from anyone capable of judging the love they share. It becomes clear in this song that “Yes I Am” is indeed a phrase that refers to Etheridge’s lesbianism, but in deeper ways than meet the eye initially. She is not simply making a statement: “I am gay.” She is sharing what being gay means to her as a woman, as a lover, as a human. It means passion and intensity and a hunger fueled by years of denial. Now that she is out, she won’t waste any time.
Not every song on Yes I Am contains an explicit coming out message. For the most part, it’s a standard rock album like any of Etheridge’s others, and one of her very best at that. But I don’t believe it’s the quality of the music alone that makes it memorable. It is the consistent reassertion of her identity and existence as a queer person, for the first time in her musical career. When examined together, the moments that speak to the coming out journey create one giant coming out anthem, honoring not only Etheridge’s own journey but the journeys of those who have come before her and those still to come. Even if Yes I Am was not part of the literal soundtrack of a queer person’s coming out process as it was for me, it is the ultimate album that speaks to the universality of coming out. Yes she is. Yes we are.