Linda Ronstadt's Gay Mission

By: Jenny Stewart

You’ve had the fantasy as a teen: You’re in a room with your favorite rock star — someone whose every hit you know by heart, whose voice made you close your bedroom door and turn the music up as you hold a hairbrush up to your mouth as a microphone and sing along with them. In the dream they’ll share their most intimate thoughts with you.

For me, that singer was Linda Ronstadt, who cut me to the quick with her heartbreaking “Different Drum,” roused me with her sexy, soulful “You’re No Good,” and, at 14, made me dread the heartbreak I would eventually experience with “Blue Bayou.”

This isn’t a dream, though it’s utterly surreal — 25 years later, Ronstadt and I are actually sitting in beach chairs in the otherwise empty master bedroom of her newly-purchased, still-unfurnished San Francisco home. We’re surrounded only by her freshly painted swatch samples on the walls, as the rest of the house is being renovated. 

Although I’m there to chat with her about her position as Artistic Director of the upcoming San Jose Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival, along the way we discuss her status as a rock goddess and Latin American icon, her YouTube obsessions, and her commitment to equality for gays and lesbians. As I discovered over the course of our interview, unlike many big-time straight celebrities whose support for the gays seems insincere, Ronstadt’s commitment to our community is no mere lip service. In fact, the legendary singer may be doing more for gay rights than anyone in Hollywood — and nobody knows it. So, Linda, do you have any gay neighbors, and if so — do they know Linda Ronstadt just moved in?
Linda Ronstadt: I haven’t met my neighbors yet. But I hope so. I really do think that gays are the best urban pioneers, and they’re the best neighbors you can have. People don’t seem to understand how good it is that if a gay couple moves into your neighborhood and starts restoring a house? Hey — your property values are going up — and in the best way. Some of the strongest community that we know in this country is in the gay community, because they’ve had to band together to survive emotionally. I’m not so sure this country understands or values that.  

Speaking of community, in tribute to your Mexican heritage, you have grown closer to the Hispanic community over the last couple of decades. You are currently serving as Artistic Director of the Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival, where you are responsible for entertainment for the seven-day event. Since marriage equality is such a major issue in California right now, will any of your offerings deal with this hot-button issue?
Yes, but it’s something you have to take small steps with. For instance, one of the most well-known Hispanic singers ever, Lucha Reyes was a lesbian — but no one knew it. As we were doing her bio for the festival, we wanted to include the fact that Lucha was a lesbian. We didn’t make a big deal about it, but we didn’t want it to be buried, either. Being a lesbian was an important part of Lucha’s life, and there was no reason why it should have been kept silent. It was something she had to struggle with.

And this year I notice that you’re screening the gay-themed La Mission as the centerpiece film.
La Mission is a really interesting movie. It’s about a kid who’s coming of age who’s about to graduate high school. His father is an ex-con who’s really trying hard to make it — the mother has died — and he’s a good guy who’s trying to raise his son on his own. He’s had a problem with violence his whole life and he’s trying to get a handle on it and be a good person. Then he finds out his son is gay and he becomes totally unglued and just beats the crap out of him. It examines how the father is struggling with his violence, and his grief — because he really loves his kid. It’s a really good film.

That movie seems really timely right now given the recent Prop 8 result.  Something needs to be done to bridge the gay gap in the Hispanic community.
It’s an important bridge to gap. I was a witness at the same-sex marriage of my good friend Marcela Davison Aviles [CEO of the Mexican Heritage Corporation] and I’ll never forget the hurt in her voice when Prop 8 [California’s anti-gay-marriage initiative] passed. It makes you feel bad when you’re disliked, it hurts your feelings in a terrible, terrible way. I know that one of the reasons it turned out the way it did was because a lot more Hispanics came out to vote that year, because they wanted to vote for Obama. But how can you have a full and authentic expression of who you are if you have to live that way and hide it? As long as you have to pretend, it’s like ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' — and who wants to live that way?

We've been asking our LGBT Hispanic readers to share their own experiences within their community.
That sounds like it could be really interesting, and it will provide an insight into their culture. There are singing Mexicans, dancing Mexicans, working Mexicans, and gay Mexicans — you know, they are all kinds of people.  Just like how all gays and lesbians aren’t defined just by their sexuality — we are all just people and we all need more acceptance. I’d work with the African-American community on this, too, but [laughs] I’m not black! Gays need to know that they have a place to go and that there’s nothing wrong with them.

Do you see things changing?
My son’s 15, and I think when he and his generation are in their 20s and voting, we’re going to see that issue turn around, and I think it’s going to be a non-issue by then. I want to make sure it is.  

Your kids are now teenagers. Have you talked to them about gay issues yet?
I had moved back to Tucson with my kids because I just thought it was quieter, and my family was there.  But Tucson has turned out to be a very conservative place, and I didn’t want my kids coming home from school saying things like ‘That’s so gay.’ So we moved back to San Francisco, and I sent my kids to a school that actively taught that homophobic remarks are just… not OK, and my kids’ attitudes have changed as a result of it. Look, my kids are going to be able to form their own ideas, but at least I wanted them to be able to question things. My son is super pro-gay rights, and even though he has a girlfriend, I wanted him to know that as he emerged sexually, he’d be able to do whatever he wanted to do. You know, that it’s not something you have a choice over.

That’s pretty amazing what you said about your son. I’m curious. What about you, growing up – when did you first learn about gays?
The '50s and '60s were extremely homophobic periods, even among the so-called "enlightened" cultures. I remember in the '60s, we were all just discovering that there was racial discrimination, and trying to figure out what we could do about it, but the gay issues were just utterly left out of the conversation. Then in the '70s, the gay issues started to emerge at some of those early rallies that I attended or participated in — like “No Nukes” — and I remember thinking, "Well, what does this have to do with it?" The labor issues would come up, civil rights issues would come up, and then the gay issue would come up, and I was like, “huh?" So it took me a little while to get it, and then I was like, "Duh" — and I got it. I mean I really got it.  That was just before I started working on Broadway [for Pirates of Penzance] and then once I got there, I really got it. 

Ronstadt breaks from discussing gay rights to check the status of the drying paint on the walls. As she turns her head and I catch her in profile, I realize that she still bears an uncanny resemblance to the Linda on the album cover of “Hasten Down the Wind,” which sends my mind back to music.

So where will you listen to music in your new house?
I almost never listen to recorded music. But I listen to YouTube all the time. And I’m sorry for myself that I’m listening on that shitty little computer speaker because that’s not really music!

Oh, you watch YouTube?! What do you watch?
So I started listening to Amy Winehouse on YouTube and now I’m like an Amy Winehouse fanatic!

Wait, have you seen the Amy Winehouse/Linda Ronstadt mashup on YouTube of “You Know I’m No Good”/”You’re No Good?”
Yes! It makes no sense musically, but it’s interesting, and I thought it was funny. I’m just completely flattered to be in anything with Amy Winehouse. If I believed in reincarnation, I would firmly believe that Amy Winehouse is the reincarnation of Maria Callas. Maria Callas is such the "grand lady," and Amy is such a guttersnipe, and they both are so demonically talented.

Are you aware of how much of your stuff is on YouTube, and do you watch it?
No, and I would never look.

Well there is a lot. It’s all there, even every single one of your TV appearances. It’s great.
[Ronstadt screams in mock horror and laughs.] No! That’s not great!

Yes it is great! Oh my God, the duet you did with Andy Williams?
Andy Williams? I never sang with Andy Williams in my life!

You did. He’s singing “Long Long Time” and then he walks over to you and you start singing “Ticket to Ride,” and you both duet.
[Laughs] That could not have happened! Oh my god, I don’t ever remember even meeting him!

You met him and you sang with him! I’ll even bet you $500. He’s wearing a bright blue suit, and the funniest part is that he walks towards you and you have this really terrified look on your face.
Oh my God, I can’t believe that! Oh my God! I hated doing television so much and I remembered I’d do everything I could to get out of it. And I remember thinking that every time I ever played on television, I’d walk away thinking that it was probably the worst performance I ever did. So it’s just ironic that that’s the stuff that lives on and survives. Anyway, it wouldn’t be a healthy thing for me to do and I don’t really want to know what people say in the comments. It just isn’t natural to go back and watch that because I’ve gotten past that part of my life now.

Aside from YouTube, do you watch much TV? 
No, I read, mostly. Wait, before I forget, I have to tell you this really funny story about this really interesting book. We were at a bookstore once when my kids were little. My son made it very clear that he wanted to get a book on animals. He picked one out and when we got home, I read it and it’s about homosexuality [laughing] across every species! Walrus homosexuality, zebra homosexuality, whales, whatever, it’s all there. It’s called Animal Exuberance.

I’ve never heard of it.
The basic premise of the book is that homosexuality really helps family. And you know, people say, "Well gays are anti-family, so I’m anti-gay," which is just bullshit. Because what homosexuality gives you is an unpaired female, or an unpaired male — who’s there with two extra hands to help you take care of the kids, which ensures the survival of the young ones. That’s what it’s for. And it is in every animal all through the biological world. You really should read Animal Exuberance, because it has careful science under it. And you’ll see that homophobia is anti-family values. Period, end of story.