When venerable folk-rockers the Indigo Girls found themselves with a wide-open calendar after tour dates to promote their upcoming 16th album, Look Long, were canceled due to coronavirus concerns, they decided to go back to their scrappy bar-band beginnings and stage their first-ever Facebook Live home concert for fans. What they didn’t expect was that this lo-fi, on-the-fly event would end up being one of their biggest shows ever, with more than 62,000 fans tuning in.
“We had some technical glitches, and that was kind of charming in a way, because it wasn't anything fancy,” the duo’s Emily Saliers tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “Personally, I didn't have any idea that that many people were listening and watching, and I also didn't have any idea of how much it was bringing people together. I had friends who went out in their front yard and sat away from each other in a big circle and played it. … So, I felt the miraculous reality of being able to feel a sense of community, even though we were separate. I thought that was really powerful and cool.”
Community was definitely on the mind of Saliers's bandmate of 35 years, Amy Ray, when she seized the moment to address a sizable segment of the Indigos’ audience that may be especially struggling during the current pandemic. “I'm praying people find their chosen family, and find a safe place to be," she proclaimed.
“It immediately pierced me a lot,” Ray explains, expressing her fears for LBGTQ citizens in potentially dangerous family quarantine situations. “People that are homeless, gay, queer youth — I was thinking about that, because I can't imagine. I know some people through my niece who are still in families where it's very hard for them to be at home, and it’s not necessarily even safe all the time. So I just felt like, if you could find a safe space, that's where you should be. And if you can't, it was a heartbreaker to think about — even just emotionally feeling unsafe in that situation. Because I remember times when before I was out, when it was hard for me to be at home.”
The band’s concerns are understandable. With schools and LGTBQ community centers shuttered across the country and many young queer people already on their streets after being shunned by unsupportive parents, queer youth are uniquely vulnerable right now. LGBTQ people may only comprise 4.5 percent of America’s adult population, but up to 45 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ, and queer teens are two times likely to become homeless than their heterosexual peers, according to the Williams Institute.
“Even prior to the pandemic, LGBTQ youth have been found to be at significant increased risk for depression, anxiety, substance use, and suicidality,” reads a statement on the Trevor Project’s website. “These risks are even more pronounced among youth who are transgender and/or nonbinary. Thus, LGBTQ youth may be particularly vulnerable to negative mental health impacts associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“There's a lot of people to think about during this time. There's LGBT youth, there's homeless people, there's people that are in prison, there’s older folks who are isolated. It’s all the people that were having hard times before this happened, and now it's even harder, you know?” laments Ray. “The people that are less fortunate are hit harder, and the people that are more fortunate have an easier time, and it's just the wrong balance in our country. And that needs to change. So, maybe some of us will wake up to that.”
Saliers and Ray have been queer icons ever since they came out publicly in 1991, a couple years after their commercial breakthrough with the college-rock classic “Closer to Fine.” Saliers confesses that the process was harder for her than it was for Ray, who grew up with lesbian siblings. “I had to get through some fear, some self-homophobia. … I'd go through this fear that Amy didn't have,” Saliers says. “But early on, we discussed it. And then once I got over the fear, I was so grateful to be part of the movement for equality and for recognition.
“Of course, it was a lot easier for me to come out [than for many other people],” Saliers stresses. “There ar many stories I know, people whose lives are actually in danger by coming out or losing their jobs or getting kicked out of their church or their synagogue or their family. So I think coming out was just a really important and natural thing for us to do. And there's no doubt that people have said to us, ‘You helped us in our own journey of coming out.’ Every group that's oppressed or small or marginalized needs representation, needs to see people who are of the same ilk that are going through the same struggles. It's important to be represented in music or the arts, or even in just knowing other gay people or queer people. So immediately for me, there was such a sense of freedom and gratitude to be part of this movement for equality, rather than to be stuck in my own fear.”
“I mean, I was scared too, but I felt like Emily and I were on slightly different trajectories,” adds Ray. “I think I had a girlfriend before her, and so I was just a little ahead in that experience. … I mean, I have two gay sisters, so it was a little bit easier in some ways, because I was already struggling with that dynamic in my family. … But I was scared. I hated myself, my gay self. But I also felt pretty strongly that we were going to be crucified regardless, so we might as well enjoy ourselves!”
Despite their shared trepidation, when Saliers and Ray finally came out to their fans, it was a surprisingly spontaneous decision. “It just felt like a ‘whaddya got to lose?’ kind of feeling,” Ray recalls with a chuckle. “I remember it was this college — it was a press conference up in western Massachusetts, and someone asked us about it at the time. We weren't really answering questions about being gay [back then], and Emily just kind of blurted out everything at once. … I was just shocked! It was like one little question, and then, from then on out, it was fine.
“But I have to say, our audience was part of the motivation to always be honest, and we kind of grew with them,” Ray continues. “It always felt like a community. It never felt like, ‘We're opening these doors up for you.’ It felt like, ‘Wow, we're bashing this door down together.’ … They were like a catalyst for us, and then we learned as we went along. We learned about gender issues, we learned about trans issues, we learned about feminism — we were politicized by our audience in a lot of ways.”
That audience has stuck around ever since, and Saliers and Ray are continuing to entertain those devotees with virtual concerts on Facebook Live and Stageit that include classics, cover songs, and new tracks from their reflective Look Long album. That nostalgic record’s cover art features childhood photos of Saliers and Ray; within, there are tracks reminiscing about their innocent university days (“Where We Were Writers”) and Ray’s childhood amid the “racism and classism and poverty” of rural Georgia, in which she thanks her family for “letting me be who I am” (“S*** Kickin’”), as well as tunes of social commentary, like “Muster,” which was inspired by the Parkland school shooting of 2018.
Ray and Saliers are also staying active politically, both nationally and in their own community. “We both pay very close attention to Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in Georgia and lost that election by very close margin… she's involved in a lot of wonderful projects. She recently put a call out for people to contribute to the food banks,” says Saliers. “There's a particularly hard hit area in Georgia, near Albany, and she put a call out for people to donate to the food bank. I think the food banks everywhere need a lot of help and they're reaching out to the communities, and I think that's an important place to start.”
“I've been a volunteer a few times in my county at the local food make this past week, and I'm hearing every story when I'm there — all the jobs lost, all the people that have a lot of kids that can't feed them. They live in a poor county, and it's getting poorer. So I think Emily's right — food banks are super-important,” says Ray. “But the Fountain House in New York City is also a great place that helps homeless people and people with mental problems to find housing, and they're dealing with this situation; they're super-hard-hit. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is awesome. Southerners on New Ground deals with queer people and also immigrant issues. El Refugio in Georgia is an immigration [advocacy organization] that we work with.
“You know, the same people that needed help before this, need help during it. And that’s the bottom line.”
The above interview is taken from the Indigo Girls’ appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Audio of this conversation is available on demand via the SiriusXM app.
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