The month of June has become synonymous with waving pride flags and celebrating love of any kind freely. As we reap the benefits of greater LGBTQ rights, it is essential to remember the activists, such as those at the Stonewall Riots, who made Pride month possible in the first place. Before Pride month became recognized however, queer culture stayed alive through the world of the arts.
Music is often associated with freedom of expression and musicians have been at the forefront of assimilating queer culture into the mainstream, whether it was initially caught by the listener or not. Because of the open ended nature of the art, queer musicians had the ability to take risks in the presentation and life of their work without worrying it would be taken at face value by a world not ready to accept. Here are some folks who were bold in their gender and sexuality in the midst of the public eye before it was deemed acceptable to step outside of the hetereosexual mold. This pride month, adding more LGBTQ artists to our listening libraries is a small, yet important, way to reflect on how far society has come in a collective acceptance and understanding of free love.
Little Richard was no doubt a pioneer of rock and openly bending gender roles both onstage and off. He described his childhood life as a double edged sword, growing up religious with his father as a deacon and being told to deny his “devils” as a young man who liked experimenting with his feminine side. After getting kicked out of the house at 15 and grappling with his sexual identity, he found solace traveling with a group of performing artists called the Chitlin Circuit. Upon the release of his 1956 Billboard hit “Tutti Frutti,” Little Richard had become an icon of early rock and solidified his seat at the table both as a person who identifies as gay and as a Person of Color in a time when neither was socially acceptable, opening the doors up forartistic freedom.
Camp Records was an ultra mysterious queer label in the 1960s based out of Hollywood California. Their first LP released titled “Queen Is In The Closet” featured gay paraody tracks credited to artists with obviously fake names in an effort to not out anyone in such a touchy climate. The label's second long format release called “Mad About a Boy” in 1965 featured classically female cabaret songs sung by males while still keeping the originally intended theme of male lust in the lyrics. A lot of the music that came out on Camp perpetuated gay stereotypes as a sort of sense of community humor for listeners and artists alike who relished in their shared secret.
Dave Davies of The Kinks came out as bisexual through his 90s autobiography entitled “The Kink” and discusses in great detail that the idea of not conforming to male stereotypes felt so natural to him after being surrounded by so many women. The Kinks song “Lola” that came out in 1970 was seen as their most commercially daring at the time due to the fact that it was about a seemingly hetereosexual man falling in love with a transgender woman after meeting her in a bar. From their dress to their music, The Kinks are icons of change and a fantastic band to follow with the highs and lows of their interpersonal relationships.
The birth of glam rock prompted many male artists to explore their feminine sides and tap into them within their music making. Electric Warrior by T.Rex is the album commonly given the kudos for bringing glam rock in with a bang and Marc Bolan didn’t shy away from exploring the full spectrum of playing with gender in the subject matter and performance of the 1971 masterpiece. A year later, David Bowie proved that androgyny wasn’t a dirty word with his stage presence and expert status as such a big name in the industry with “Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars” and his Ziggy persona as a whole. Though Bowie wasn’t keen on labeling himself, his many flamboyant personas both onstage and off brought queer culture and gender bending into the mainstream.
Freddie Mercury of British rock band Queen wasn’t completely outed as gay until his death in 1991. In retrospect, Mercury was an icon who, like Bowie and Bolan, put genderbending and gay culture into the mainstream. From his coded lyrics to his flamboyant dress, Mercury remains a pillar in both rock music and queer culture.
By the 1980s, the taste of androgyny the 70s brought about was in full swing in every pocket of music. Hair metal bands like Cinderella, made up of all straight identifying men, strived to get in touch with a feminine image while female idols like Grace Jones explored the masculine elements of their looks. The 80s also brought into the mainstream openly gay musicans like George Michael of Wham! and Boy George of Culture Club who, despite backlash, owned their identities in the public eye.
The late 1980s moving into the 1990s brought about Queercore, a form of punk subculture in both the US and the UK that focused on a LGBTQ point of view in society in its lyrics and intent. Queercore groups found themselves in every corner of the world such as Anti-Scrunti Faction from Colorado, Big Man from Canada and The Apostles from England.
2000s and Present
In today’s climate, queer art is celebrated and appreciated by both the LBGTQ community and people outside of the community alike. We’ve progressed to the point where music is simply music, independent of the person who made it. Some queer artists in the present to keep an eye on are indie up and comings like girl in red, Mother Mother and Perfum Genius and R&B big names like Frank Ocean.