The direct message came via Twitter.
“Did you see this?” my friend asked, “Maybe the truth will finally come out.”
The LGBT blogosphere had exploded with news that folksinger-songwriter-former-lesbian Michelle Shocked, who has a 99.9 percent lesbian following, had gone on a homophobic rant at a show in San Francisco that culminated with, “You can go on Twitter and tell people that Michelle Shocked says 'God hates fags'.”
This wasn’t new news. I wrote a bit about my encounter with her in 2011, back when she proudly announced to a North Carolina audience that she was “the world’s biggest homophobe.” And even though the LGBT press hadn’t picked up on it, she’d been sayinghomophobic things for years by then.
But due to word count limits, a sense of propriety and my consultations with editors, I chose to report only on the things she said before an audience, not our one-on-one conversations.
But now that she’s gleefully channeling Fred Phelps, I’m over all that propriety crap. Good thing I kept all my notes. Here’s the dirt on our bizarre one-on-one interactions over the course of two-days at the Wild Goose Festival, an outdoor Christian music festival claiming to be LGBT-inclusive. My job was to assess just how LGBT-inclusive things really were.
I approached her sitting in the audience of a lawn concert just before fellow folkie David Wilcox started his set. We were at Shakori Hills, one of North Carolina’s pristine natural parks set within a beautiful forest. I noted that I’d found earlier interviews quoting her on the “sin” of homosexuality –- and that I’d found them jarring and upsetting.
Without pausing, she shot back, “Good. They should be upsetting.”
I stared at her in confusion. “Um, what?”
Again, no pause: “The truth is upsetting.”
We went back and forth on her cryptic statement about truth for a few minutes, and then I managed to ask her about gay marriage. She may have told a San Francisco crowd that gay marriage was a harbinger of Armageddon this week, but at that time she seemed okay with it. Or, looking back, maybe she was dancing around the issue.
She asked me, “Have you ever been in love?”
“Uh…” I was confused. Hadn’t we just met? I’m not big on sharing personal things with strangers.
“I’m in love right now, and it is such a wonderful thing. He makes me so happy! I would never want to deny any gay person the right to experience what I’m experiencing.”
Oh god, she was gushing. This felt so invasive.
I couldn’t get a word or question in edgewise. I’d lost control of the interview –- it was the first time I ever became visibly upset with an interview subject. That’s when she decided to invade my personal space.
She hugged me. Hard. And I flinched pretty hard in response because I’m every bit as averse to hugging strangers as I am to personal sharing.
Then she said she loved me -– it was something to do with the love of Jesus, you see. Did I mention that we’d just met?
Then she said something I’ll never forget: “Am I not the most sincere person you’ve ever met in your entire life?”
She looked me straight in the eye to impress me with her honesty. Just before it turned into a staring contest, she released her death grip on me and said, “David’s a friend, and I want to see his show. Can we continue this conversation tomorrow?”
I was following her from a tiny stage where she was leading a seminar over to the main amphitheater where she would be participating in the next performance.
She was still talking about how truthful and sincere she is, and I followed silently. I was getting used to silence around her, and frankly it was better than being asked pointed, invasive questions. But that too got tiresome, so I finally interrupted, “I think you should stop profiting off the LGBT community. Write an open letter. Have your music removed from gay music stores. I first saw your music at a gay music store when I was in high school, and they’re still selling it.”
I was calm, collected and sort of businesslike when I said it, so I really wasn’t prepared for what happened next. At all. Not even after yesterday. By now, we were halfway to the stage, standing in the children’s play area where small kids and parents milled around activity booths.
She looked at me with resignation, sighed, and said, “All right, then, I guess this means we’re going to be enemies.”
I blinked a couple times and said something like, “But I don’t feel like you’re my enemy, Michelle.”
You know, because I’m not used to interview subjects -– or anyone, actually -– declaring that we’re mortal enemies. I didn’t have a script for that!
So then she doubled down and compulsively uttered, “No, you’re my enemy, you’re my enemy, you’re my enemy…”
I swear to god, she said this approximately 10 times as I struggled to get a word in at all. Even after her bizarre behavior the day before, I hadn’t seen this one coming.
Then we arrived at the amphitheater. She climbed up onto the stage, and I remained standing on the ground, looking up at her. I’m not sure why, but this visual image feels like an important piece of what came next –- maybe because she was sitting up high on the stage and dominant above me, and I was standing below on the ground.
Again with businesslike composure, I asked, “So, what would you say about writing an open letter like I mentioned?”
She totally ignored this. Instead, she offered, “I just want you to know that I love you because Jesus loves you. I love you because I am you. I know you.”
By now, super-bright red flags about boundaries were beaming at me, and I finally had to be stern. “Actually, no, you don’t know me at all. We just met.”
Eyes boring into me, she insisted, “I know everything I need to know about you. I used to be angry and trapped in sin exactly like you.”
I stood there in shock when her defensive posture shifted, and then she brushed me off. “Hey, can you hold on a second? I need to talk to the sound guys.” Such sincerity.
I stared at her in disbelief for a few seconds, and then I turned around and walked away. I didn’t bother approaching her again.
Then I went home, threw away my Michelle Shocked albums and deleted them from my Spotify account.
This was actually a hurtful experience for me at the time. I lived – and I continue to live -– in North Carolina, which was gearing up to pass Amendment One, the most restrictive anti-gay legislation in the country. It felt like something important was at stake.
As I retell the story, it’s cloaked in snark because, well, that’s how I feel about it now. But I loved Michelle Shocked in high school in the mid- to late-nineties. Queer kids didn’t have that many interesting people to look up to back then, and that’s when she was claiming to be one of us. Or, well, she now claims that she never claimed that at all, but really… It’s complicated, OK? And there may be an ex-gay story in there somewhere.
Anyway, the point is, I was emotionally invested in this back then. Fortunately, I got past that.
These days, I know I’m supposed to be her enemy, but I don’t feel like one. Yeah, I’ll boycott her and encourage others to do the same. And this time I’ll urge gay and allied retailers to stop peddling her music. But that’s about being an ethical consumer.
As a person? I’m not so good at being a nemesis. Whatever is going on with her strikes me as profoundly sad, and I hope she finds her way. ***Since the news of her antigay rant went viral, Shocked has issued a public mea culpa of sorts. It’s probably significant to note that 10 of 11 of the shows on her tour have been cancelled since. I read it as an unprincipled attempt to placate LGBT people -– note that she says she supports tolerance, not acceptance, and that she’s calling for LGBT people to tolerate the people who trample on our rights. Anyone acquainted with post-evangelical faux-progressive Christianityhas heard it all before.I was there when Michelle called herself the “world’s worst homophobe,” and based on that, I think I have some insight about the context in which she said “God hates fags.” I never thought it meant she’d be out protesting with the Phelps clan any time soon. I read it as an over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek crystallization of what she really believes –- and the way she feels her position has been misrepresented in the press. This is a woman who, after all, wanted the cover art on her 1992 album, Arkansas Traveler, to feature her in blackface. I urge LGBT people not to make the mistake of welcoming her as an ally again.I predict her next move will involve complaining to the evangelical press about being a “persecuted Christian” due to all that sincere truth-telling.