October 1975.
My beloved Dodgers had failed to make it to the Fall Classic, but somehow there I was, a 19-year-old closeted UCLA sophomore, standing on the hallowed centerfield grass of Chavez Ravine. I wasn’t there as a baseball fan but rather, along with 50,000 others in the cheering throng, I was there to welcome rock & roll’s Mighty Casey: Elton John. It’s a scene that’s been immortalized in the film Rocketman, but I can tell you from memory that as exuberant as that moment seems when it’s depicted on the screen, the actual thrill of that experience has lasted me a lifetime.

Cut to: November 2022. I’m neither a sophomore nor in the closet, but once again I find myself in Dodger Stadium’s centerfield, watching Captain Fantastic take the stage. And this time, not only is he also a proud, openly gay man, but by the end of the concert, he is joined on stage by his husband, David Furnish, and their two sons.

When HITS asked me to conduct a Pride interview with David Furnish, I couldn’t help but realize just how far along I had traveled in the circle of my own life. But it’s not really a circle, is it? It’s what Dr. King called “the arc of the moral universe.” It bends slowly, but inexorably, toward justice.

Elton’s final tour is coming to an end soon. How successful has the Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour been?

Well, it is now the highest-grossing tour in history. We surpassed Ed Sheeran just as we wrapped up the stadium leg in America. Elton then went on to do some dates in Australia, and then we’re finishing off in the U.K. and Europe over a three-month period. So, I think the estimate is that we’re going to make in the neighborhood of $900 million, which is beyond our wildest dreams. And that’s great. But my brief from Elton was, “I want to go out on an artistic high. I want to go out and give my fans a great show and a great experience.” Elton is playing and singing better than he ever has, and he’s incredibly happy. That’s the magic sweet spot. It says a lot about Elton and his band and a lot about what our ultimate goals were.

This tour’s had to stop and start. It should have been finished a year ago, last November, when Elton was 74; now he’s 76. The fact is that he and his band have been able to keep up and build this extraordinary momentum, and the fans are just leaning in so enthusiastically and so gratefully. Here we are towards the end of the tour, and as Elton says, “We’re playing and singing even better.” So financial success is great, but sometimes these things go the other way and you’re like, “Oh, this is really dragging on. And everyone is getting tired.” But that’s not the case at all. And that’s the thing that I feel happiest about because this has been the most dominant thing in Elton’s life for more than 60 years as a working musician. He’s having a ball and his fans are, too. That’s the best thing.

At the end of the U.S. tour at Dodger Stadium, coming back to where he had been in 1975, you and your boys came out on stage with him. That was a very public message about your family, which was an important part of this. It wasn’t proselytizing; it was making a statement. Can you talk about that experience?

Well, it’s an important component in the mix of the success of the tour and where Elton is as an artist. The word I used is [that] he’s the happiest he’s ever been. Not only is his voice open, but his whole soul is open, because he’s getting so much love and joy from his family in addition to his craft as a performing artist. We’ve never been big placard-wavers, but we’ve always tried to live our life just being who we are and with visibility.

[Los Angeles] was an important milestone in Elton’s life. It is the city where he broke out and became Elton John. The transformation from [the man born] Reg Dwight to Elton John was solidified and signed at the Troubadour because of the wonderful performance and the Robert Hilburn review.

That city is also where both our sons were born. They were both delivered at Cedars Sinai, and we worked with wonderful doctors. We had had our children via surrogacy. [We had] an amazing surrogate who came with her family to the Dodger shows as well. And it was like a magical fulcrum. [Dodger Stadium was] a confluence of joy and happiness and a celebration of the past, the present and the future. Symbolically, spiritually, L.A. is an important city for our family on every possible level. I also got sober in L.A. And the boys—it was just the right amount of exposure for them. We don’t like raising them too much in the public eye. Then it’s, okay, back to school, back to your friends, back to your community… a little glimmer of being in the sparkle of daddy’s star.

But the meta-message was that this is a gay family. And the Dodger Stadium concert was shown not only to those who were there but around the world on Disney+.

Yes, to a potential audience of 150 million viewers. That’s fabulous visibility. As Elton says, “Nothing brings people together like music and sports.” And to be able to bring his family into his show, where the music’s bringing everyone together, it’s a powerful platform. And we’re very lucky and grateful to be able to do it.

There’s a moment of pride in being able to have that impact…

Oh, gosh. If you go back to the last time Elton was at Dodger Stadium, he was not happy in himself at all. He had all of the fame and all of the success and the first album ever to debut at #1 with Captain Fantastic. But he was deeply unhappy personally. He was starting to slide into drug use. He was not out of the closet. And, as the scene was depicted in Rocketman, he made a major cry for help by swallowing a handful of pills and jumping into the pool and trying to drown himself. That was in the days leading up to the to the first Dodger Stadium shows. He was a very, very unhappy, troubled person. And the thought of being in a happy relationship, that’s recognized legally, where gay marriage is legal and permitted, and then to have children… that was unimaginable in 1975. You couldn’t even remotely imagine the world would go that far. Yet look how far we’ve come. So, it was a very symbolically special and powerful thing.

You and R.J. Cutler are directing a documentary that not only chronicles this tour, but goes back to the beginning at the Troubadour, where Reg Dwight became Elton John—and then fast-forwards to the present and your life today. Tell me about the film project.

It’s a wonderful project to be working on, because Rocketman so creatively and theatrically gave people a fantasy version of Elton’s life. The team working on this documentary is extraordinary, and we have been able to unearth so much interesting [archival footage] that’s never been seen before. There will be some surprises in the film that are part of Elton’s history that have never been revealed; I can’t share those now. But it’s going to chronicle that rise to fame in the first five years, the moment of huge success at the Dodger Stadium but also that deep personal unhappiness. And then [it will] jump to the last American leg of the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour, where his life is changed immeasurably.

We want to give people a window and insight into Elton’s happiness and his connection with his family, in addition to saying goodbye to his fans in a farewell tour. There’s a lot of emotion packed into that journey. Our hope is that we’re going to make a really compelling documentary. And I could not ask for a better partner than R.J. Cutler. He is a wonderful, amazingly talented, incredibly sensitive, intelligent filmmaker.

I know it’s always difficult when you’re doing something that’s a work in progress, but prospectively do you have any idea when we will get to see it?

We’re planning to deliver the film towards the end of this year. So I would think it would be safe to say we’ll see it in 2024.

I want to talk about your activism, both micro and macro. There’s a phrase that you and Elton both use to describe your activism: “It’s about building bridges, not walls.” Via the Elton John AIDS Foundation, you’ve worked with a lot of people, particularly on the issue of AIDS globally, who are not normally thought of as working well with LGBTQ issues. Can you talk about that philosophy and how it’s worked?

Look, there’s that wonderful African proverb: “One person will get there quicker, but many people will go farther.” If we can focus on our common goals and our common humanity and pull together societally, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.

And how interesting that I’m sitting here with you having this chat when literally an hour ago, I was sitting with Elton in another room in the house here, and he was on a live Zoom feed giving testimony to a U.S. Senate committee to extend the incredibly successful PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] program, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, which has been a phenomenal success if you look where we were with HIV/AIDS 20 years ago on a global scale.

When President [George W.] Bush, a Republican, was in power, Elton went and testified to the Senate 20 years ago, and that program has been continued through four presidents, Republicans and Democrats, through many Congresses and many Senates. It’s been a spectacular success, but the job’s not done yet. We have more work to do where we are seeing some alarming rises in new infections in younger people. And there are still key populations and marginalized groups of people that we must keep our focus on, so that no one gets left behind. But the success of that program on Capitol Hill in Washington is living proof of what happens when we pull together. That is a nonpartisan program. It is endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats. And there is nothing that could be more representative of our values as a family. You know, Elton is one of the few artists who has played in all 50 states across America, and he is as warmly received in red states as he is in blue states. He always gets a terrific response. He’s rarely, if ever, protested or picketed or made to feel unwelcome. That is the power of bridge-building. It is the power of culture.

The power of music.

We recognize that as a gay couple, and given Elton’s musical platform, that we [have] an opportunity to use that to positive effect, to shine a light, to enlighten, to educate people who might not have experience looking at marginalized communities, LGBTQ communities. Sir Elton has just come in.

Elton John: Have you mentioned these yet? [He’s asking if David has yet mentioned some of the up-and-coming LGBTQ artists they talked about before the interview began.]

Furnish: Not yet. We’re not there yet. [Elton leaves the room, looking for a pen to jot down more names.]

David, I’ve heard you make the point—and it’s something that I hadn’t fully understood until you connected the dots—that as cases of HIV/AIDS increase globally, the rise in infections is linked to homophobia because people in the closet are more likely to be at risk.

Without question. If you are feeling stigmatized or criminalized because of your sexuality, you are much less likely to seek out information in relation to HIV/AIDS, much less likely to want to go and present yourself for an AIDS test, much less likely to go and pick up your medication and to continue [taking it]. Because you know the way anti-retroviral drugs work: You have to take them every day, and you have to continue on a course of medication. If you’re living in an environment that is hostile to LGBTQ people, [whether you’re] gay
or straight, there’s that association that AIDS is a gay disease.

Well, it’s not. It’s a global disease. It affects our entire world. There have been 75 million infections globally. But the stigma from the original days of the disease always sticks around and is hard to shake off. And where you criminalize and discriminate against LGBTQ people, you invariably see rises in new infections within all communities, not just LGBTQ communities.

It’s something like what’s happened in Uganda, which is horrifying; where you can even be suspected of having had same-sex relations with someone, and it is a criminalized act. How in the hell is anyone going to want to walk into a clinic—[whether they’re] straight or gay—and say, “Yeah, I’ll take an AIDS test?” Because the next question is going to be, “Are you gay?” Or they might think you’re gay. It just sets us back decades from where AIDS started and grew so quickly in the eighties. And it’s toxic.

Let me turn to Russia. Whenever Elton played there, he was incredibly well-received. What’s it like now? Do you ever find a situation where even the music in some of these countries where homophobia is prevalent is resisted because it’s performed by an openly gay artist?

Under Putin, Russia has put in place an “anti-propaganda law” under the guise of protecting children. It’s not dissimilar, unfortunately, to what’s happened in Florida. And it was under the guise of protecting children because 70+ percent of Russians think that homosexuality is influenced, rather than something that you’re innately born with. [It is the opposite of what] we fundamentally believe and know to be true. And laws like that empower homophobia. It’s like putting gas on a fire. It creates a much more hostile environment. It’s all under the umbrella of “Oh, no, no, hang on! We’re protecting children.” Which, of course, we don’t agree with. But the even bigger societal effect is massive.

And when that law was first put in place, a lot of high-profile people from the West said, “Well, I’m never going to go to Russia again. I’m going to boycott.” And Elton has had a long relationship with the Russian people. He was one of the first Western artists to go in the seventies. He went with Watford Football Club. He toured with [musician] Ray Cooper. The Russian audiences are big fans of his music, and that connection gave him an opportunity. He continued to go to Russia until recently, when the war in Ukraine broke out, which is deeply saddening. But [until then] he used his platform on stage to speak out about the law and to ask the Russian people to be compassionate and to be more accepting in the way that they’ve always accepted him.

And we’ve always also used the opportunity to meet with local LGBTQ groups on the ground, many of whom are in hiding out of fear, to talk about the work that they do, to understand the situation from their perspective and to give them as much support as we possibly can. They said to Elton then and to our organization, Please don’t boycott us. They hope this will only get worse if we are pushed farther back into the shadows. The more we’re pushed back into the shadows, the more we’re not allowed to exist, the more we don’t have any visibility”—and that’s what laws like this do—”the worse it’s going to become for us. So please come use your platform, come to our country and speak out to the Russian people directly.

Now, unfortunately, that law has been made worse, because it was initially only about protecting children. Now I think it has been extended to all age groups, which is just…it’s evil. It’s outright homophobia. Has Elton’s music been boycotted? No, but Elton’s music is universally about loving, and the human condition applies to everyone.

[Russian censors] cut Rocketman to ribbons. They took all the love scenes and all of the kissing out of Rocketman, unbeknownst to us. It was something that was out of our control. If we had more control in that situation, we would not have allowed the film to have been released in Russia in its hacked-up version. That was a huge disappointment and a big upset to us. But the more you can go to a part of the world like that, the more you can be an advocate for change, the more you can use your platform to speak out.

It’s Gay Pride in 2023. Growing up, you and I both found it almost impossible to imagine gay marriage in our lifetime. Yet here we are. So, let’s talk about some younger LGBTQ artists. Which ones particularly give you and Elton encouragement?

Well, thankfully, there’s so much more visibility for musical artists to be their whole authentic selves. When I tried to come out to my family in the early eighties, there were no role models other than Boy George. That was the only person I could point to. And then maybe, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and then [Bronski Beat singer] Jimmy Somerville. But now there are so many.

I knew you would ask me this question, so I made a list of artists. There’s a Scottish artist called Joesef, who is wonderful and so visible. Jake Wesley Rogers. Oliver Sim. A group called Gabriels—their singer, Jacob Lusk, is amazing. Look at what Kim Petras just did with Sam Smith. I believe Kim’s the first trans artist to have a #1 single and win a Grammy, which is fantastic. Cat Burns is amazing. The list goes on and on. 30 years ago, you would struggle to come up with a list like that. Artists of so much diversity, from so many different parts of the world. It’s inspiring to see that great art is ultimately about an authentic expression of the artist. And having all of those artists for so many years who had to hide their sexuality… and what art can do, the ability that art and music have to open doors and to enlighten and educate and celebrate. How wonderful now that there are so many artists who can carry the torch and carry the message, because that will only keep the world going forward in a positive direction.

And we need those voices now. Yes, we’re celebrating Pride in 2023, but there are, by last count, more than 400 pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation at the state level in America right now. I can’t believe this is happening. With all the progress that we’ve made, there still seem to be these opposing forces that want to pull us backwards and divide us up rather than let us all pull together and allow people to live happy, healthy, safe, productive lives. I watched my children who come from a same-sex relationship—and we’re the only same-sex family in our in our sons’ school currently—be able to go to school and talk openly and comfortably and safely about having two dads. It was their normal and it’s our normal. And now it’s the normal for everyone at the school, because we’ve had an open, productive and safe environment to talk about it. I can’t even begin to imagine if my sons were going to school in Florida with the “Don’t Say Gay” law. As I understand it, teachers are concerned about breaking the law or getting sued. I mean, our boys are so comfortable in themselves and comfortable in their family because we’ve had the support of our grassroots school community. It is their universe. Everyone has been wonderful and kind and welcoming to us.

And I just can’t imagine…it is just horrible to think of what other children [are going through]. Children questioning, having issues and needing to discuss things and maybe not feeling safe discussing them at home. To be under this cloud of shame and secrecy and forbidden darkness in the school environment is just so horrible. We have much more work to do.

And I look at young artists and their music—their voices—and that’s where I find hope. I look at kids around the world, and Elton is getting so many younger fans coming to our shows now. Sexuality to them is just not an issue at all. Fortunately, they’ve grown up in a world where there have been more role models, more artists, more content on television and media, in films, TV—including a wonderful series that you produced, Visible—so it’s just not an issue to them. I just have to believe that’s going to continue as new generations come along. But if we stop discussion about it in [schools], if we criminalize it in one of the most important and formative environments in a child’s life, then we’re going to go backwards.

We can’t do that, and we won’t. David, thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. And I’m grateful to HITS for recognizing the importance and ongoing need for Pride.

David Bender is an author, broadcaster and producer. He was the creator and, with David Permut, a principal producer of Visible: Out on Television, a five-part docuseries on the history of LGBTQ+ images on television.

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