Melissa Etheridge has become, she says with a laugh, the "other gay singer." Not quite as famous as her friend and occasional duet partner,

k.d. lang, mind you, but famous enough so that the press can't help asking her about it.

"That's really all that's changed in my life," Etheridge says over the phone from a hotel room in Los Angeles. "I guess I'm more open in public now, but I've always played women's festivals and I was discovered in a women's bar, so it's never really been a big secret. I never said I was anything other than that."

With lang standing beside her, Etheridge announced she was a lesbian during the Clinton inaugural festivities, though she hadn't planned it that way. "It was not premeditated at all," says the 32-year-old rocker, who will perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion Friday night. "I had known that I was going to come out -- sometime, somewhere. I thought it was going to be a nice quiet interview in some magazine. But I was at the gay-lesbian ball, the Triangle Ball, the most fun ball of all ... and k.d. got up and said, 'Coming out was the best thing I ever did.' And then she introduced me and I said, 'I'm glad to say I've been a lesbian all my life.' I thought everyone there knew that I was and that it was no big deal. But a huge roar went up and I thought, gee, I guess I came out."

Life is simpler and more enjoyable now, she says. For one thing, her relations with the press aren't nearly so frustrating. "I remember an interview and this guy asked me about a lot of my audience being lesbians and I said, 'Yeah, right.' He was expecting more and made it seem like I was denying it, which I never did. Other writers would ask me questions and I'd talk about relationships with lovers and they would write 'boyfriend.' And everyone I knew would say, 'Hold on, what's she saying?' "

There were other reasons, however, that motivated Etheridge to speak out, reasons that had nothing to do with her career. "There's been a lot going on in the gay movement and I wanted to contribute more to it," she explains. In addition to attending and supporting gay conferences around the country -- "the Christian right has been hunting us down; it's an an all-out assault" -- she's been active in campaigns promoting abortion rights, AIDS awareness and the environment. "And then," she says with a sigh, "I have no time left" for anything else.

Except for music. In between opening for Sting and the Eagles this year, Etheridge has mapped out her own itinerary as a headliner, playing 2 1/2-hour concerts with a new band. And while she's never been one to emphasize her sexual or political preferences in concert, unless she was performing for a specific cause, that hasn't prevented Etheridge from playfully celebrating her homosexuality on stage. Lately, for example, she's been singing the love song "Maggie May" raucously and rapturously.

"It's a great rock-and-roll song," she says. "When I play it the whole place goes nuts. It's a way of saying something with a wink and a nod, because when people come to my shows I'm there to entertain."

For the most part, though, Etheridge sticks with her own material. She began writing songs when she was just 10 years old, growing up in Leavenworth, Kan., convinced even then that if she could write she'd have a long career. Her latest (and fourth) album, "Yes I Am," contains some of her finest songwriting, along with a strong dose of her now familiar, raspy-voiced heartland rock.

"I'm learning more about myself as a writer," says Etheridge. "The inspiration is always there. I wrote pages and pages for 'Silent Legacy,' " the album's most provocative song, inspired by a story Etheridge heard about a man who kicked his 14-year-old-daughter out of the house for having sex. "My heart went out to her because this was a confused girl coming into her own sexuality and being punished. No one was talking to her. It really hit me hard about how our culture pretty much tells teenagers to just say no. We're not going to tell you anything about it."

Etheridge cut the album, which recently turned gold, with her longtime band members -- bassist Kevin McCormack and drummer Fritz Lewak, who have since joined Jackson Browne's tour -- plus several guest musicians and British producer Hugh Padgham.

Padgham, best known for his work with Police/Sting and Genesis/Phil Collins, didn't want to change her music, Etheridge says. "He just wanted to make it sound great. He was real good at getting the best performance from me. I think he figured out that I was at my best when I was a little bit frustrated, a bit edgy, and just wanted to sing."

Now that she's touring with a new band, consisting of bassist Mark Brown, drummer David Beyer and guitarist-keyboardist John Shanks, Etheridge says she couldn't be happier. "I really love the change and the new energy. It's very fresh and very raw."

Still, she concedes, her enthusiasm hasn't always been shared by others. "I feel like I never got invited to the MTV party. I've done very well without it, but I guess I've just never been the trend of the moment. I finally got a single {"Come to My Window"} being played a lot on the radio and a great video, but now it's like, 'She's been around for a while, she's not new, she's not alternative.' Well then, never mind."

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Richard Harrington's On the Beat column will return.