Holly Near is a singer-songwriter, social activist, and Lesbian icon who helped establish the genre of women’s music.
Near was born in 1949 and grew up in Potter Valley, California, a small town near the Mendocino National Forest. She began singing publicly at the age of eight, and joined the Freedom Singers, a folk group in her high school. She attended UCLA for two years, but could not afford to continue so she worked in Los Angeles and New York, appearing on television, in film, and on stage, most notably in Hair on Broadway (1970) and the film Slaughterhouse-Five (1972).
In 1971, Near joined Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and others in the antiwar show FTA (“Free the Army,” alternative: “Fuck the Army”) on its overseas tour to the Philippines, Okinawa, and Japan. That experience led to the Indochina Peace Campaign in 1972 and 1973 in which Near wrote and performed songs to protest the war’s destructive effects on both Americans and Vietnamese. When the tour ended, Near tried to record her songs, but the major record labels found her lyrics to be too political. As a result, Near founded her own independent label, Redwood Records, and released her first album, Hang in There (1973). Redwood Records was one of the foremost sources for women’s music, featuring Near and other artists such as Ferron (Debby Foisy), Faith Nolan, and Sweet Honey in the Rock, until it folded in 1996.
Coming Out as Lesbian
Near identified herself as Straight until 1975, when she and fellow singer Meg Christian began an intimate relationship that lasted three years. In her autobiography, Near describes the experience: “I was making love to her and to myself and I was essentially and forever changed by the experience. . . . My body was happy. In the years ahead, I would come out to people all over the world. But it was in this moment, as I made love without fear or shame, that I came out to myself.” Near publicly came out as a Lesbian at the first Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in 1976 when she announced, “I have fallen in love with a woman.”
Since that time, Near has also resumed occasional relationships with men, including Gus Newport, the progressive mayor of Berkeley, California. However, when asked if she is Bisexual, Near has always rejected the label. “I didn’t feel like a bisexual,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I felt like a lesbian when I was with a woman and a lesbian making love to a man when I was with a man.”
Music and Activism
Near has said that women’s music represents all expressions of female sexuality, but has an especially strong connection to Lesbians. She has continued to write and perform songs on issues intended to empower Lesbians, build coalitions, and promote political consciousness. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, she observed,
My career hasn’t suffered because I’m gay. My audience has actually increased. More gays come to see me now. It’s one of the few places they can go to hear music about their lives that’s positive and reaffirming. I’m always trying to break down the anti-gay stereotypes and get people to think sensibly.
Her papers are archived in Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
Hunt, Dennis. “Holly Near: Not over the Rainbow.” Los Angeles Times, 14 May 1981: J1, J6.
Love, Nancy S. “‘Singing for Our Lives’: Women’s Music and Democratic Politics.” Hypatia, 17 (no. 4, Fall 2002): 71-94.
Near, Holly, with Derk Richardson. Fire in the Rain . . . Singer in the Storm: An Autobiography. New York: William Morrow, 1990.
Schwartz, Harriet L. “Holly Near’s Heart Song.” Lesbian News, 23 (no. 10, May 1998): 36-37.
Watrous, Susan, and Bob Blanchard. “The Progressive Interview: Holly Near.” Progressive, 54 (no. 3, March 1990): 34-38.