Janis Joplin took each day as it arrived. She didn’t care for labels when it came to both her professional and personal life. Joplin wasn’t a musician that you could throw in a box, and she was unapologetically true to herself. With difficult relationships with both men and women throughout her short but jam-packed life, Joplin offers a wonderfully sincere reflection of an open-minded artist.
She embraced her sexuality when women in her position were condemned for doing so. Her behaviour made Joplin a hero to many, followers who saw her as a breath of fresh air in an otherwise strangled period of restriction. Joplin took everything in her stride, and she didn’t let the criticism from certain quarters get to her.
It’s well known that she dated men like Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen, and Country Joe Macdonald, but her liaisons with women have been less covered. There’s even been the 2015 documentary, Little Girl Blue, which skirts over this part of her life. Although there is a brief acknowledgement of her lesbian relationships, it’s not touched on in any depth.
It’s generally understood that she began an on-and-off relationship with Peggy Caserta beginning in 1966 after Big Brother performed at a San Francisco venue, The Matrix. The relationship was never public knowledge at the time, but the official Woodstock film shows 37-seconds of the two walking together before the singer arrives on stage to perform.
Caserta published a salacious book in 1973 about their relationship, which she later said was to feed her drug addiction, and she didn’t pen a lot of what was published in the memoir. In 2018, Caserta published the genuine version of events in a new book and spoke honestly about their relationship.
“I adored her. So I just stayed hidden for, God, 25 years or more because I just couldn’t take the criticism. It’s just too much,” she told Vulture. “I never saw Janis as a gay girl. She was straight. She was wild. I’m gay, and lived a gay lifestyle even then. It was obvious. I had a girlfriend, Kim, there on the scene all the time, but Janis was never going to do anything that her parents didn’t approve of, other than sing.”
Adding: “She always said she was going to get married and settle down and have the white picket fence and the two kids and 2.2 cars, or however that saying goes.”
Her dysfunctional relationship with Caserta wasn’t the only partnership of this nature with a woman that Joplin enjoyed. Jae Whitaker moved to San Francisco to chase her dreams to be a musician in 1963 and soon ended up living with Joplin after a chance meeting at a gay bar, but it was never straightforward between the two.
Whitaker didn’t come forward to speak about her memories of Joplin until later in her life when she realised that these stories deserved to be told. Alice Echols’ biography Scars of Sweet Paradise was published in 1999 and revealed this part of Joplin’s life that previously wasn’t known to the public.
“I was too settled for Janis, even then,” Whitaker later said. “For her to go off to New York or wherever and expect that she could come back and be with me – I couldn’t handle it,” she admitted. “I didn’t think she was ugly. I thought she was very attractive. But I told her, ‘You just do some fucking ugly things.'”
“Janis was a walking contradiction,” Whitaker said. “I think she wanted kids, but I also think she really felt very good with a woman, yet she punished herself for that feeling. She didn’t think it was right.
“I’d ask her, ‘How are you going to get this white picket fence and a child and everything when you pick up the most chickenshit assholes on the street?’ She’d say, ‘Well, I will when I’m ready.'”
Even someone as liberated as Joplin still struggled with her sexuality, which shows just how different things were in the 1960s. In one sense, she was ashamed of feeling the way she felt towards women because of her upbringing, and Joplin was afraid of bringing shame to her family. Joplin’s guilt led to her being destructive in every relationship she had and ultimately tearing anything good that came her way into tatters.