“Nothing could stand in my way. Nothing except: boom – I’m a lesbian”
BY DEBRA BARSHA
The only label that I feel I was born with is MUSICIAN. I knew exactly what I wanted to do from the time I was five years old. It was a blessing and a curse. The blessing: I had a purpose. The curse: I could never stay present. I always had to move forward no matter what, disregarding everything around me. Blind ambition ruled my existence; I graduated from high school in three years, got accepted into a prestigious music conservatory, left after one year because my songs were getting published and I wanted to work. Nothing could stand in my way.
Nothing except: boom – I’m a lesbian. It was the 80s. No one was out in entertainment. Especially in the music business. No one – except those who had died. Most of those people were forced out. I was scared shitless.
Now it’s years after the 80s… years of losing a lot of loved ones, and years of going through partners until I met my current one. We have been together 18 years and are blissfully and legally married.
I work on Broadway now. I have been the Associate Conductor of Jersey Boys and Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. Currently, before the pandemic, I was the rehearsal pianist/keyboard 1 sub for TINA: The Tina Turner Musical and we are coming back in October. I am happily out and proud at work as a dyke, because that’s the label I feel most aligned with. For me, dyke encompasses strength, reclamation and a no-holds-barred approach to who I am. I love co-opting what had previously been a derogatory term and flying it like a banner of truth. That’s just me.
After these 18 years together, my lovely butch dyke partner came out to me at the age of 50 as transmasculine non-binary. This is my person, so of course, I delighted in this revelation, supported it and came up with a name that my partner loves: huswife. I use this term when referring to my huswife at work as in every area of my life: on my social media, to my family, everywhere. My huswife likes this term because (s)he likes me to alternate pronouns instead of using they/them. (S)he is my husband and wife. Huswife.
One would think that in the theatre business, being LGBTQIA would be totally accepted because there are so many of us. Not always so. I remember when I was not only the only woman conducting a bunch of men in the orchestra pit, but the only dyke in the building as well. Many of the men thought they were well-intentioned when they tried to buddy-buddy with me by informing me how alike we were because we both like to do the same things in bed. Oy. So wrong on so many levels. Teaching moments of opportunity abound. I’m 62, so I am doing this for all the queer Broadway musicians who come after me.
I am also a composer and my musical Radiant Baby about the life of graffiti artist Keith Haring was produced in New York and is getting a revival soon. Keith was so amazing because he used his AIDS diagnosis as an activist through his art. That story resonated with me because I firmly believe the personal is the universal. Tell your stories. Tell them out loud and proud. It may be uncomfortable at first, but the payoff is so freeing and worth it. You will grow into yourself in ways you never thought possible.
Find out more about Debra’s work at debrabarsha.com
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