'We're A Family And We Have Rights'

ROCK STAR MELISSA ETHERIDGE WAS IN AN AMERICA Online chat forum in August promoting her new album, ""Your Little Secret,'' when she let everyone in on her own secret. A not-so-little secret. She and her longtime lover, Julie Cypher, were going to have a baby, due in January.

When Etheridge disclosed she was a lesbian, in January 1993, she and k.d. lang were the best-known female entertainers to have come out of the closet. The next album Etheridge released, eight months after coming out, was aptly titled ""Yes I Am.'' Her muscular musical style led critics to call her a distaff Springsteen, and the album sold 5 million copies, produced three top-10 hits and secured her place in rock and roll's major leagues.

Etheridge and Cypher (a video and film director who was married to actor Lou Diamond Phillips when she met Etheridge) want to raise their child in as much privacy as possible. Accordingly, they have declined to talk about how Cypher's baby was conceived. But they also feel strongly that gay families deserve mainstream acceptance. So they sat down recently for an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK'S Mark Miller to discuss their desire for a family, Cypher's pregnancy--and the rumor that their good friend Brad Pitt is the father.

Newsweek: How long have you been together?

Both: Eight years. Etheridge: Well, you know we don't have an anniversary-type thing.

Cypher: We've got several.

Etheridge: [laughs] It's hard because we don't have traditional [marriage] anniversaries. You try to make your own, so we celebrate the day we met.

Which was...?

Etheridge: Which was August twenty... [looking at Cypher with an embarrassed, quizzical look and giggling]... third.

Cypher: Yeah. She got it right.

Had you talked about having children all along?

Cypher: Yes, yes. We both always wanted kids.

Etheridge: I always wanted children in my life. I knew that with my career it would be difficult. I never thought because I was a lesbian it would be difficult...

Cypher: I also have always been more sure that I wanted to bear children where Melissa has been sure she wanted to have children.

Why is that, Melissa?

I don't know. We have not really discussed that at length. I think because I had been on this roller coaster of a career ride, to think about dedicating nine months--and obviously more--of my body to something would really be a serious stopping of my career.

You've said you don't want to talk about how you conceived, but the father is rumored to be Brad Pitt. Any truth to that? [Both laugh uproariously.]

Etheridge: We called him up and said, ""Congratula- tions, Brad, you're a daddy!'' All you can do is just laugh about it. But it is absolutely not Brad.

Did you find it difficult to arrange the process of getting pregnant?

Etheridge: We are very fortunate and very blessed and we are well aware that there are many couples who want to have children who are not well off... And there's so much legal stuff that we have to do as homo- sexuals to make it safe for our children.

So you, Melissa, will adopt the baby after the birth?

Etheridge: Yes.

Have you talked about what each wants to be called by your child?

Etheridge: Yes, we have. And again, we have to create our own [nomenclature]. And it goes very deep: she's the birthmother, but I am also the mother. We haven't come up with an answer.

Did you find out together that Julie was pregnant?

Both: Yes.

Cypher: One of those little at-home tests was our first indication.

Do you know the sex of the baby?

Cypher: We think it's a girl [based on the ultrasound].

And the name?

Cypher: Austin. Boy or girl it was going to be Austin.

Whose last name will the baby have?

Cypher: We want to change our last names so that all three of us can have the same names. We are going to make a combination of our two. Obviously we would keep our professional names. But this would be something that at least on paper--in airports for example, all our passports would be the same.

Etheridge: Something to say, ""We are a family.''

Is having that sense of being a conventional family important to you?

Cypher: Well, we will do whatever we can to make it seem like what it should be--like a real family--and that's one thing.

Is it important to be able to marry in a conventional sense?

Etheridge: If they don't want me to get ""married,'' if that's bugging ""them''--fine. But I do believe that as an American citizen, a law-abiding, taxpaying--major- taxpaying--citizen, that I should be allowed the same rights, the same pursuit of happiness that every other citizen enjoys.

Cypher: Partnership would be fine.

Etheridge: Whatever they want to call it. As long as we have the same legal benefits and protections for me, and for my family--my family. That's all.

How many children do you see yourselves having?

Cypher: Lots.

Etheridge: We can see three or four or five.

Is it your turn next?

Etheridge: That's up to my body. So it's a maybe.

How did your families react?

Etheridge: Great.

Cypher: Very well. My father is currently building a cradle for us. Mother is crocheting the blanket. They've been really supportive.

Have you had any negative reaction?

Etheridge: Boy, not at all.

Do you worry about discrimination or taunts from other children at school or anything like that?

Etheridge: I have seen children now, and I am very hopeful and very inspired by these children who can totally grasp the concept of love...

Cypher: And gay.

Some people will ask, ""What about the father's role?'' Isn't that an important part of raising a child?

Cypher: We will have male figures. And they will have two round-the-clock coparents. What else could they need?

Etheridge: They will not live in a...

Cypher: [laughing]... girl vacuum?

Etheridge: That's not our life.

Cypher: Besides, we have Daddy, I mean Brad Pitt, around!