Cyndi Lauper rose to fame in the 1980s thanks to a distinctive punk-inspired fashion sense and a hit song about how “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Contrary to that refrain’s message, though, Lauper has used her fame to do much more than enjoy herself. Continuing her longtime advocacy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, in 2008 she established the True Colors Fund, named after another of her popular tunes. This summer, the True Colors Residence, a permanent haven for homeless LGBT youth in Harlem that Lauper co-founded, is set to open. In honor of Pride Week, Lauper took the time to answer some questions about the residence, LGBT rights in general and, of course, what to expect on her current tour, which includes NYC-area shows on October 14, 15 and 19.
What first attracted you to the cause of LGBT rights?
Cyndi Lauper: The issue of equality for all has always mattered a great deal to me. Growing up in the 1960s, I was inspired as I watched the African-American community stand up against hatred and discrimination. At the same time, I was being raised by a single mother when that was not very accepted. My family was looked down upon and treated differently. So when I saw my family and friends being discriminated against and hated simply because they love a person—simply for being gay—I knew I had to stand up, and I have never sat down since.
One of the goals of the True Colors Fund—particularly the Give a Damn campaign that you launched last year—is to encourage straight people to advocate for LGBT rights. In New York, one of the biggest recent stories on that front has been New York Ranger Sean Avery’s participation in a pro–gay marriage campaign. How do you feel about the ad?
CL: I think it’s great when a sports figure stands up and says “I give a damn” about the LGBT community. It’s awe-inspiring. On a personal note, my family loves hockey; I am a hockey mom. So to see a well-known hockey player like Sean Avery say that discrimination is wrong is wonderful to see. There have been other athletes speaking out in support of the LGBT community, specifically against antigay bullying in schools and sports. I hope the trend keeps growing. Athletes have a unique and powerful voice in this country. They have a real chance to change people’s minds about treating LGBT people with dignity and respect.
The theme of this year’s Pride Week is “Proud and Powerful.” What recent developments on the LGBT front do you feel are most important in showing that the community is powerful as well as proud?
CL: Certainly, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is a huge moment for the community. Marriage equality laws have passed in five states and Washington, DC, and a strong majority of New Yorkers support same-sex marriage, too. I also think the way the community—from organizations like The Trevor Project and GLSEN, to individuals—responded last year to the rash of suicides by LGBT youth was inspiring. The epidemic of bullying and suicide has been building for a very long time, and the community stood up and said “enough is enough.” Real change is happening through things like the It Gets Better Project, through states and cities adopting anti-bullying laws and through parents finally having conversations with their kids about respecting people different from themselves. Throughout the LGBT movement’s history, the community time and time again has shown its pride and power when tragedy hits or discrimination rears its ugly head. It is because of this power and pride that equality is within our reach. We just need to stay strong together and make sure we include our allies in our work.
Through your organization, you’ll be helping to open a permanent residence for homeless LGBT youth in Harlem. What else would you like to see done to alleviate homelessness in this community, and what can an ordinary person do to help?
CL: The True Colors Residence is almost completed; it is amazing. The True Colors Fund and I are honored to support this important project that the West End Intergenerational Residence has worked so hard to make happen. So many young LGBT people will have a chance to fulfill their dreams, knowing they have a permanent roof over their heads.
Fighting LGBT youth homelessness is one of the two core missions of the True Colors Fund. Later this year, in partnership with The Palette Fund, we will launch the first national organization focused solely on that issue. I look forward to sharing more about what we’ll be doing soon. Most people, LGBT and straight, do not know that 20 to 40 percent of all homeless youth are gay or transgendered, yet only make up 3 to 5 percent of the general youth population.
As a mom, to think of kids being thrown out of their homes by their parents or running away out of fear and despair breaks my heart. First and foremost, we need to work with families to help them understand and accept their kids. Of course, there needs to be more beds in every city and state in this country for homeless youth—but if we really want a long-term solution, we need to make sure kids can stay in their homes and feel safe and welcome there.
I would tell everyone who is looking for a way to help these young people to donate to an LGBT-specific or -inclusive shelter, drop-in center or other service provider, or volunteer there. Here in NYC there are so many—including The Door, the LGBT Community Center’s YES project, Green Chimneys, Safe Horizon, The Ali Forney Center, Sylvia’s Place and Safe Space.
What do you think makes New York City particularly welcoming to LGBT visitors and residents? Where would you recommend LGBT visitors go during their stay?
CL: NYC is the greatest and most diverse city in the world, with a strong LGBT community—a community that has worked hard along with Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council to ensure that the City is very welcoming. We are fortunate to have leaders who not only work for the LGBT community in the City, but on the state level, most recently lobbying for marriage equality in Albany.
LGBT visitors should definitely start their visit in NYC where the equality movement began: The Stonewall Inn. If not for what happened there, the progress we’ve seen up until today would not have been possible [Editor’s note: The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 is often cited as the start of the modern LGBT rights movement]. Next, go to the LGBT Community Center; they do incredible work and have so much to offer. Then there are all of the other big NYC attractions, like Broadway, the Empire State Building and Central Park.
What do you like to do when you’re in New York City? Any favorite places to shop, eat and hang out?
CL: I love NYC. I have lived here for so many years that it’s hard to name just a few places. Right now, my favorite restaurant is Bouley, my favorite store is still Screaming Mimi’s [Editor’s note: Lauper worked at Screaming Mimi’s in the 1980s], and my favorite place to hang is at home.
Your new cover album Memphis Blues hit number one on the Billboard blues chart. With such a diverse discography—starting with those classic ’80s pop albums and including collections of acoustic and dance songs—what should fans expect at your upcoming live shows?
CL: I know the fans want to hear the hits, and I would never disappoint them; but I am also doing a lot of Memphis Blues. For the last 10 years on the road I have been mainly doing greatest-hits sets and just throwing in a few songs off of my most recent CD. This time I’m doing more of a balance. The musicians I have on the road are some of the greatest blues players ever—these guys have played with everyone from B.B. King and Willie Mitchell to Booker T. and the MG’s and Isaac Hayes. I wanted to have the tour be as focused on real blues as I could, so that meant bringing the right band on the road with me. We also came up with arrangements for some of my hits, because I know the folks coming to the shows want to hear those songs, too. The reception has been really good. My manager tells me I have been getting some of the best live reviews of my career (though I never read them). And all of the shows have been selling out, so I guess folks like it.