Entertainment » Music

Michelle Shocked believes being gay is a sin

by Daniel A. Kusner
Saturday Apr 19, 2008
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Michelle Shocked already knows how horrible the headline for this article sounds. And she’s concerned about how it will impact her LGBT fans in Dallas - her hometown.

Two weeks ago, Shocked called Dallas Voice, not realizing it was a gay publication.

"I’ve been avoiding interviews with gay press," she says from her home in Los Angeles. "I’m going to kill my publicist."

For those of you who have lost track of Michelle Shocked, she became an international sensation in 1986, when her first album, "The Texas Campfire Tapes" - a field recording of Shocked as the American vagabond - became a hit in England.

In 1988, she scored big with her first studio disc, "Short Sharp Shocked," which contained "Anchorage," her biggest hit. At the 1990 MTV Video Music Awards, Shocked’s video for "On the Greener Side" was up for Best Female Video against Madonna’s "Vogue" and Sinead O’Connor, who took home the statue for "Nothing Compares 2 U."

It’s easy to place Shocked in the same category with Sinead - because Shocked’s career has never solely been about music. From racism to politics, Shocked has always been a fiercely outspoken activist. And in the mid-’90s, Shocked bucked the system: Claiming that her record contract was breached, Shocked filed a $1 million suit against PolyGram-Mercury, citing the 13th Amendment, which forbids slavery. (PolyGram settled before the case went to trial.)

Without the Big Music machine behind her, Shocked’s career has oftentimes fallen into the What Happened To Her file? But she never disappeared: Shocked started her own label, Mighty Sound. In 2005, she released three albums simultaneously. And over the years, she’s explored a wide range of sounds: reggae, Disney covers, big-band swing - and now gospel.

About 15 years ago, Shocked was lured by the incredible musicianship of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ choir, located in South Central Los Angeles. Her plan was to explore the roots of the gospel tradition at a predominately African-American church.

"Not to become a born-again Christian," she says. "But as they say, I went to church one Sunday too often."

Born in Dallas at Baylor University Medical Center, Shocked was raised as an "extreme Mormon." Her dad, bluegrass musician "Dollar" Bill Johnston, still lives in Dallas and plays in a band called Dollars Taxes. While Shocked has fond girlhood memories of White Rock Lake and the Lower Greenville area, "I turned my back on Dallas," she says. "I had always associated Texas with populist, democratic, L.B.J. kind of values. But during the ’80s and ’90s, there was that ascendancy of those right wing Republicans - Bush, Cheney, Halliburton kind of values. And I just washed my hands of it, sort of like Pontius Pilate."

Her extreme liberalism might be why Shocked was inappropriately identified as lesbian. During our interview, Shocked’s passionate opinions exploded into near-rage countless times. When questions about her sexuality surfaced, she demanded that I find a copy of the early-’90s article that appeared in Chicago’s OutLines magazine. The OutLines piece has repeatedly been referenced as Shocked’s "coming out" interview.

What did the Chicago paper get wrong?

"Oh, no. You’re the journalist. You tell me the quote," Shocked says. "You go back and read what it says. Then ask me that question."

At this point, Shocked hung up the phone to e-mail me a June 2007 Boston Globe article that claimed Shocked came out as lesbian: The article also contained a postscript correction, which stated that Shocked is not a lesbian.

Almost every biography about Shocked mentions that she was in a co-dependent alcoholic marriage for 11 years with writer Bart Bull. So is the clarification that Shocked is currently not a lesbian?

"You know about the politics of identity - of outing people. If I’m guilty of one thing it’s a type of sexual McCarthyism. We’re going to forget what identity politics were like in the mid-’80s - how heavy and intense it was. I felt like it was not a shameful thing to be a homosexual. So I would never sit in front of that congressional committee and say, ’I am not, nor have I ever been a homosexual.’ I refused to do it. It would have been advantageous to say I am. It would have been advantageous to say I am not. But I didn’t feel that anyone had the right to put me on that stand!" she yells.

Wait, didn’t she also win a 1989 New Music Award, beating out Phranc, Tracy Chapman and Indigo Girls. And didn’t she make a sapphic-sounding acceptance speech? Apparently, that remark has frequently been misquoted.

"I said, ’This award could have been called They Might Be Lesbians,’ which was a play on a band at the time called They Might Be Giants. And nobody is interviewing that band to find out if they have ever been giants!" she yells.

If Michelle Shocked screams at you, never take it personally. That’s how she rolls. She often boils over, but she also apologizes and easily shifts her demeanor to kindness and laughter.

Tracing the roots of why she may have identified as a lesbian goes back to a painful episode in the 1980s. While in Sicily, Shocked was raped by a member of the local Green Party. Afterwards, she sought refuge at a women’s separatist commune, and during her emotional distress Shocked says her vulnerability was taken advantage of.

Okay, what if we called you an "honorary lesbian?"

"I would be honored," Shocked says.

While her "lesbianism" may have been a politically correct stunt, Shocked says her Christianity is no Bob Dylan phase.

"I am a believer. I am a devout practicing Christian. I don’t like the ring of that because I know so many people who profess the faith, and I look at their social conscious, and I can’t see how they reconcile their faith with their politics," she says.

For years, Shocked says she’s been a "stealth Christian." But her new album "ToHEAVENuRIDE" is a bootleg recorded at the 2003 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Shocked was performing a gospel set with some of the singers from her church. The album captures Shocked awesome talent as a live performer. And by releasing the disc, she has outed herself as an evangelical.

If Michelle Shocked screams at you, never take it personally. That’s how she rolls. She often boils over, but she also apologizes and easily shifts her demeanor to kindness and laughter.

Dallas Voice isn’t the first publication to ask Shocked how reconciles her faith with her former status as a lesbian. An extensive interview with Canadian Christianity has already connected the dots. About a year ago, Shocked listened to a damning "Adam and Steve" sermon delivered by a visiting minister.

"These were African-Americans who had sat in the back of white Southern churches and read from a Bible that says, ’Slaves obey your masters.’ Knowing that the Bible could be used as a tool of oppression, I couldn’t understand how these people would quote that Bible with same bigoted ignorance and abuse of God’s love for his children," Shocked says.

Later, she spoke to her pastor about it.

"At the time I wasn’t satisfied with the way he parsed it. He said he preaches the word of God - not his word - the word of God. And the word of God says that homosexuality is a sin," Shocked says.

"So I went away, and I made a decision. I could be turned off - driven away once again by narrow-minded bigots from the one hope that I have in my life for salvation. Or I could take what’s good - what I can use - and leave the rest. And that was a decision I made," she says.

Michelle Shocked has changed her tune in more ways than one. After 9/11, she spoke out against the Bush administration’s unprovoked attack against a sovereign nation.

"You think The Dixie Chicks got their asses kicked? At least people knew who they were. Natalie Maines got to be Princess Leia leading the rebel charge against the storm troopers. I was like that guy on the ’Star Trek’ - the crewmember you’ve never seen before who at the end of that episode gets ray-gunned to death."

In 2003, at a gig in Colorado Springs, Shocked told her audience, "Bush should have pulled out of Iraq like his father should have."

Shocked says about 50 people stood up in defiance and walked out.

"When I experienced from my own audience, a reactionary and fairly negative response to being outspoken - just speaking my own opinion - I felt so betrayed," she says. "In the Barack Obama age we’re going to forget that we were good Germans. Back then, everybody was scared. It wasn’t like WWII during the opposition of the Nazis and there was a resistance. Sure, there were other people who felt like I did. But they stayed home, pulled down the shade, turned out the lights and hoped that no one came knocking."

Shocked says the experience modified her outspokenness and contributed to "the ever-shrinking audience of Michelle Shocked."

But is there any chance she’ll get fired up to speak about homophobia to her fellow evangelicals?

"If I was gay, I might. Listen, I hate Christian music. But I am completely devoted to the gospel tradition. And I’m speaking in the context of African-American Christianity. And I hope that will lead us to the pariah of the hour, which is not Michelle Shocked. It’s Jeremiah Wright. Get me to apologize or defend his statements. But don’t ask me in the context of this interview how I stand up to white right-wing bigots in the name of Jesus Christ," Shocked says.

No one should make her the apologist for bigotry in contemporary Christianity. But does Shocked really believe that being gay is sin?

"There are some inconvenient truths that I’m now a born again, sanctified, saved-in-the-blood Christian. So much of what’s said and done in the name of that Christianity is appalling," she says. "According to my Bible, which I didn’t write, homosexuality is immoral. But homosexuality is no more less a sin than fornication. And I’m a fornicator with a capital F."

Shocked is experiencing the typical "diva’s dilemma." Any devout Baptist black disco queen is a "hate the sin" singer who adores her gay fans. And since everyone is a sinner, no one has the right to cast any stones.

After her "miserable" marriage, the last thing Shocked wanted to do was waltz down the aisle again. Neither did her soul mate. After studying adultery in the Book of John, Shocked believed that her unmarried relationship was sinful. So her boyfriend broke up with Shocked, which crushed her. "After four weeks of hell," they got back together.

To Shocked, overcoming the separation was a heaven-sent miracle brought to her by the spirit of reconciliation.

"Right now, the evangelicals are staking out a ground. And they are saying there is reconciliation between God and man for every human being on this earth - except for gays. And I don’t know who gave them that right!

"I’m here to say, not that homosexuality is wrong. I’m here to say that there is reconciliation through the blood of Jesus Christ for every human being on the face of this earth. And no one is entitled to speak on God’s behalf and say who does and who doesn’t have that right. Because that price was paid - purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ."

To her credit, Shocked hashed out this topic with Dallas Voice for almost three hours. She was angry, frustrated, funny, brilliant and deeply concerned over how her beliefs about sin would sound to her gay fans.

"I like the sound of being called an honorary lesbian and the comparisons to black disco divas," she laughs. "But right now, I’m a dug-in-the-heels fundamentalist who’s not too happy about it."

Any chance she would ever become a minister who’ll develop a following and bless same-sex marriage?

"Now I’m about to accuse you of becoming a fundamentalist," she jokes. "Listen, I don’t have the answer for how gay marriage or the homosexual question relates to Christianity. God’s power can reconcile those whom he loves. I don’t know how, but he can do it. It’s a mystery. And I don’t have the answer, but I will point you in the right direction."

GOSPEL GIG
On tour to promote her current album, "ToHEAVENuRIDE,"

Michelle Shocked performs at House of Blues Cambridge Room, 2200 N Lamar. April 24 at 9 p.m. $25-$35. 214-978-2583. LiveNation.com

Copyright The Dallas Voice. For more articles from the community newspaper for Gay and Lesbian Dallas, visit www.dallasvoice.com

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