The LGBTQQI community has continuously struggled for equality and justice. With the rise in popularity of music, much of America is slowly starting to join in solidarity, or at least acknowledge the necessity for equality. Because music plays such an important role in the lives of the listeners, music can be used as a tool; introducing, fostering and reinforcing open minds. I will share with you a basic history of LGBTQQI artists and music that is responsible for the rise of tolerance and acceptance, both socially and legally.
It all started in the mid 1920s, during a period called the Pansy Craze.. A string of underground clubs, called speakeasies, began popping up all around America, many of them being safe houses for gay performers and listeners. Gene Malin, Bert Savoy and Rae Bourbon, three openly gay performers in NY, were known to perform at these types of clubs. Ma Rainey, an out lesbian at the time, wrote a song in 1926 called Prove It On Me. She sings, “I went out last night with a crew of my friends. They must have been women ‘cause I don’t like no men.” In 1926, Merrit Brunies and His Friar’s Inn Orchestra wrote a song called Masculine Women, Feminine Men. This was an important song because it was one of the first instances where heterosexuals sang about androgyny. Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller were two examples of straight people who were known to sing and “hang around” gay people, exemplifying open mindedness in the 30’s.
In 1931, Jean Malin wrote a song called I’d Rather Be Spanish Than Manish. This song was about his obvious flamboyance and the fact that he was not ashamed of it. In 1935, Bessie Jackson, a bisexual woman, performed a song called B.D. Women Blues. The B.D. in this song stands for “bull dykes” which means masculine lesbian. She sings about the beauty of these Bull Dyke women and their heart-breaking ways. During this time, despite the rising popularity of gay artists, homosexual and bisexual relationships were still too underrepresented in popular music to make a dent. Cole Porter, a famous gay composer, wrote many songs about other men, and America interpreted, and even performed, these songs as straight love songs (Starr and Waterman 546)
The 1940s to the 50s showed a dramatic decline in out, gay artists, as society decided being gay was wrong, however, some LGBTQQI artists continued to stand by their sexuality. Billy Strayhorn and Dick Voynow were famous, gay jazz musicians. Voynow was a jazz bandleader in the 1930’s and became a record executive in the 1940’s. Two straight singers, Ruth Wallace and Nan Blackstone, were both outspoken allies who wrote songs in support of gay people. Elvis wrote a song called Jailhouse Rock that hinted towards homoeroticism in the prisons (Corte). In the 50’s, Ray Bourbon, a female impersonator and vaudeville performer, wrote a song called Let Me Tell You About My Operation. Although Ray never actually had gender reassignment surgery, this song was significant as it publicly spoke of trans people. A few other gay musicians of the 50s were Little Richard, who called himself “the king of rock and roll…and the queen too,” James Booker, a gay R&B musician who worked with Fats Dominoe and BB King and Frances Faye, a famous cabaret/show tunes singer and pianist and out lesbian.
During the 1960’s the number of LGBTQQI artists was at its height. Big Mama Thornton, who was an openly gay blues vocalist, made Billboard before Elvis did. Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Gary Glitter were three bisexual artists who were very well known and Dave Davies, of The Kinks was openly gay. Lesley Gore, a self proclaimed lesbian, was at the top of the charts with her song It’s My Party in 1963. This decade came to a head in 1969 when The Stonewall Riots occurred.
Following The Stonewall Riots, queer music of the 70’s was more politically charged. Dusty Springfield, singer of the popular song Wishin’ and a Hopin, came out as bisexual when she said to the Evening Standard, “I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.” In 1960, Jose Sarria wrote a song called A Good Man is Hard to Find. Sarria then ran for board of supervisors in 1961, 12 years before Harvey Milk. LBJ, Don’t Take My Man Away, written by Minette, was the first song by a female impersonator that was not a parody. Lavender Country, America’s first gay country band, wrote a song in 1973 called Back In the Closet Again. They sing, “It’s a bummer being gay when I’m back in the closet again…” Also in 1973, Chris Robison put out the first openly gay rock album. In 1975, Valentino wrote a song called I Was Born This Way, which says, “I’m happy, I’m carefree and I’m gay. Yes I’m gay.” During this decade, Freddie Mercury, Elton John and Long John Baldry came out of the closet.
The 80’s and 90’s continually progressed, in regards to openness for the LGBTQ community. Some of the most mainstream queer artists of these two decades consisted of Grant Hart and Bob Mould of Husker Du, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Derran Hayes of Savage Garden, Ani Difranco, Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes, Fred Schneider of the B52s, and the band The Pet Shop Boys. Although Boy George was not out yet, he popularized the androgynous look, helping normalize homosexuality without even coming out. Jill Sobule came out with a song called I Kissed a Girl, which was #67 on the charts; the first obviously gay song to make the charts. In 1983, Holly Near and Ronnie Gilbert wrote a song called Singing For Our Lives after Harvey Milk was assassinated. This song is still performed at festivals to this day. Elton John was very close with Princess Diana and when she passed away in 1997, he performed Candle in the Wind at her funeral. This represented “a watershed moment in which the straight world acknowledged the cathartic power of a good old-fashioned queer tune.” These were crucial times for queer hip-hop, specifically because gay and tolerant hip-hop artists were extremely scarce, even more so than today.
The 2000’s have been the most revolutionary time for the LGBTQQI community and current popular music is comprised of many gay artists and allies. Jay-Z, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, and Brittany Spears have spoken out against homophobia and Macklemore performed his song, Same Love, with Mary Lambert at the 2013 VMAs as 33 same-sex couples got married on live TV. Laura Jane Grace, of Against Me! came out as transgender, Boy George, Ricky Martin, Chuck Panozzo of Styx, Frank Ocean, and Lance Bass of NSYNC were a few of the most popular artists to come out as gay. Queer-friendly hip-hop is also prevailing, despite the majority of mainstream hip-hop being influenced by homophobic male artists. Some of the top queer hip-hop artists consist of Qboy, Angel Haze, Johnny Dangerous, Big Freedia, and Cakes Da Killa, and the scene continues to grow.
Being gay was, essentially, illegal in America until the slow breakdown of numerous discriminatory, confusing and hate-filled laws. This deconstruction is mostly due to the change in America’s attitude towards the LGBTQQI community. LGBTQQI people have gone from secrecy and shame to out and proud. From the Pansy Craze to 21st century mainstream music, you see a constant breakthrough of gay musicians and allies who speak for equality. Queer music, with all of its power, has played a large role in the societal acceptance of the gay community and everyone’s right to love.