Behind the scenes at Equality Rocks--Gay rights hit center stage at a music festival featuring Melissa Etheridge, the Pet Shop Boys, Garth Brooks and more

By Chris Willman
April 14, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

There was a time when anyone lining up a major gay-themed concert would’ve had to settle for a bill consisting of the Tom Robinson Band, Holly Near, and well, maybe a second set by the Tom Robinson Band. What a difference a few years and a few slamming doors makes. On April 29, the night before a huge gay rights march converges on the capital, Melissa Etheridge, the Pet Shop Boys, George Michael, k.d. lang, Nathan Lane, and Ellen DeGeneres will share the stage at Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium for Equality Rocks, a concert benefiting the Human Rights Campaign Foundation that’s as close as the community has come to having its own Gaystock.

Some performers may tailor their sets for the occasion. ”I have a large gay following but try not to ever make my concerts be gay-themed,” says Etheridge, who came out in 1993 and was the first to sign up for the event. ”I try to be universal in my shows and my work. And maybe this is a chance for me to kind of let it down and be specific and for the community…. Though I can’t assume they’re all gonna be queer. They may be Garth Brooks fans, going, ‘What are we doin’ here?”’

That’s no typo: Brooks will be on the bill too, singing a duet with George Michael on ”Freedom,” though no one’s suggesting the country superstar-cum-minor league ballplayer bats both ways. If he’s the odd man — or straight man — out here, Brooks does have some history with the movement: He acknowledged having a lesbian half-sister in 1993, the year after he released a controversial single, ”We Shall Be Free,” that many took as implicitly condoning gay relationships. But Lisa Sanderson, Equality Rocks’ coexecutive producer as well as a partner in Brooks’ film production company, says he isn’t coming to make a statement about homosexuality. ”Garth will always step up for children,” she says, alluding to Equality Rocks’ overriding hate-crimes-awareness agenda. ”Garth’s gonna stand on that stage to try to make people hear that the violence with our children in all communities has gone way too far.”

Not every straight star felt so bold. A few others, like Queen Latifah and actor Kristen Johnson, have joined up, but the bill is largely made up of gay talent, which wasn’t the intent. When she was booking stars, Sanderson admits ”there was resistance felt even in the entertainment business, which is the most liberal of all.” Other producers downplay the difficulty of getting nongays to commit. ”We’ve gotten great support from the creative community. I don’t think people turned it down because it was a gay event,” says coexec producer Hilary Rosen, head of the Recording Industry Association of America. In fact, organizers positioned it more as an anti-hate event: Etheridge plans to sing ”Scarecrow” while families of hate-crime victims, including the kin of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr., unite on stage.

One celebrity who wasn’t approached to share the love is Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Might she turn up anyway, as a highly flammable effigy? Possibly, says HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch, ”although we’re a pretty gentle people. So it’ll probably be something more creative, like putting her in a bad dress or something.”