Remember when the masses used to be referring only to heterosexual celebs when they would say, "If those two can't make it, what hope is there for the rest of us?" But a handful of stars have been out of the closet and in public relationships for long enough that the unexpected splits of seemingly rock-solid gay couples can also send shock waves from coast to coast.
That's certainly the case with rocker Melissa Etheridge, 48, and actress Tammy Etheridge (née: Tammy Lynn Michaels), 35, who'd been together for nine years and exchanged vows seven years ago. The couple issued a statement confirming their separation, saying: "We ask for consideration and respect for our family as we go through this difficult period."
This wasn't Etheridge's first highly public partnership, though it was her longest-lasting. The singer-songwriter came out as a lesbian in 1993, five years after the release of her multi-platinum debut album. In 1997 and 1998, then-partner Julie Cypher gave birth to two children who were fathered, it later was revealed, by David Crosby. Etheridge and Cypher's split in 2000 was followed by Etheridge's romance with Michaels, which led to their September 20, 2003 wedding in Malibu. Tammy took on Melissa's last name and gave birth to twins in 2006; the sperm donor in this case was never publicly revealed.
One song that Etheridges won't have to sing is "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," since their marriage took place before California briefly recognized same-sex weddings. But their marriage's lack of legality in the state won't lessen the impact of dissolving what was described as a very traditional (in its fashion) courtship and couplehood.
Tammy Etheridge had talked about the engagement and wedding in an interview with About.com. "She and I had talked about marriage," the former star of TV's Popular recounted. "[Melissa] said, I'm not going to do it until it's legal...She changed her mind. I was just shocked. We cried! Two girls proposing, we sobbed...She had the ring made and everything. She picked out the diamond. She's like one of those romantics that you watch on TV."
Their relationship survived Melissa Etheridge's bout with breast cancer, publicized in 2004, and the birth of twins. It was during their relationship that Etheridge won her Oscar for "I Need to Wake Up," the theme song of the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Tammy Etheridge described her oft-touring wife as the real breadwinner of the family and herself as more of a stay-at-home mom, though the glamorous actress continued to make occasional guest appearances on shows like The L Word.
But anyone who was a fan of Etheridge's music had cause to consider the disparity between her content public image and the romantic desperation that was the theme of the vast majority of her songs. Was the angst that was expressed in songs like "Bring Me Some Water" and "Like I Do" reasserting itself over the highly settled side she showed in public? Will one or the other be singing "Does she know how to shock and electrify and rock you"...or, having been wed since 2003, were they both just experiencing a variation of the seven-year itch? For now, it's "Your["—or Their]—"Little Secret," to cite the singer's 1995 rock-radio hit and album title.
This leaves Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi as the standard-bearers for long-term lesbian relationships. If those two are listening to any Etheridge records, let's hope it's "I Can Sleep While You Drive" and not "Enough of Me."
Or "Fearless Love." That's Etheridge's new single, and while the title sounds optimistic, there may be a clue to the eroding state of her union in the sometimes foreboding lyrics: "I need a fearless love/Don't need to fear the end/If you can't hold me now/You will never hold me again.../Now I'm not here to lay the blame/I understand when you hold a flame/Heads will shake, heads will turn/And sometimes you just get burned."