A timeline of LGBTQ+ influence in music

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Emily Burgess

Some of the featured artists include Hayley Kiyoko, Lady Gaga, Little Richard, Freddie Mercury and Janelle Monaé

There’s a long-standing saying that goes “history is told by the victors.” Usually, it’s applied to entire nations and the regrettable atrocities they committed – events that stay uncovered because there’s nobody left to challenge them. For this reason, many stories are never told. However, for the first time in modern history, oppressed populations have been able to openly express themselves and maintain a significant voice in current affairs. 

As far as things have progressed, it goes without saying the removal of bias is still miles away from perfection. Also, it certainly doesn’t erase centuries of inexcusable actions or count as repentance. Human Rights Campaign predicts 2021 to be one of the most significantly damaging years for legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ people. Anti-trans sports bans have already been enacted in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, with more just waiting for a governor’s signature. So to say things are perfect would be a gross denial that ignores the public malice appearing all around the nation. 

Historically, LGBTQ+ people have consistently been disparaged and abused for their sexuality in the United States, which has diminished their participation in politics, sports and arts. As crucial as LGBTQ+ musicians have been to the evolution of contemporary music, their role has been thoroughly repressed. The evolving progress and expression of LGBTQ+ pride in music is a necessary sight into the history of America’s most marginalized communities. 

LGBTQ+ representation in music has a storied history. It dates back to the days of Tony Jackson and Bessie Smith, two preeminent gay jazz musicians in the 1890s New Orleans brothel scene and their success laid a foundation for the golden age of Jazz and Blues, with prominent queer acts like Billie Holliday and Nina Simone. Billy Tipton was another popular act from the 1940s to 1960s. After his death in 1989, the fact he was transgender was revealed by his family.

The post-war era of the 1950s saw the rise of Little Richard. The architect of Rock n’ Roll was known for his incredible showmanship and energetic piano skills. His performances were even early examples of racially integrated audiences in the United States. He also gave conflicting accounts of his sexuality throughout his career, but his inconsistent takes were most likely due to his religious beliefs as a born-again Christian.

 

As much of an influencer as Little Richard was, he also gathered influence from a lesser-known LGBTQ+ talent. Esquerita, born Eskew Reeder, was a black, homosexual pianist from the south. Little Richard has himself credited the talents of Esquerita as the main influence behind his dynamic, howling vocals and ferocious piano pounding. 

 

Another favorite of the ‘50s and ‘60s was the eclectic stylings of Johnny Mathis. Mathis’ music ranged from Brazilian Bossa nova to jolly Christmas tunes and he became one of the standout voices of the time. Though he was of African-American and Native American heritage, Mathis’ ethnicity was not known by most of his predominantly white audience. He received death threats after coming out as gay in a 1982 interview, which caused him to recede from public life. Mathis played an instrumental role in the progression of classic pop and deserves to be regarded among peers like Frank Sinatra and The Beach Boys.

Moving into the 1970s, representation continues to grow during the Me Decade. Superstar pianist Elton John announces he is bisexual in 1976. Disco phenoms Village People, named in reference to Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and the large gay community residing there, reach peak popularity at the end of the decade. The group left an everlasting imprint on American culture with hit songs like “In The Navy” and “Go West”. Their best work remains “Y.M.C.A.”, an absolutely unmistakable song to any American. It is now part of the National Recording Registry in the U.S. Library of Congress.

Throughout the decade, fans began to see a clash with the traditional frontman look. Artists like Freddie Mercury, and David Bowie introduced an era of leading singers with more gender fluidity. They brought out elements of flair and flamboyance found in LGBTQ+ culture and applied it to music, which fans subsequently fell in love with. 

As music became more rebellious and marginalized representation continued to flourish, people began calling into question harmful social norms which developed from the Nixon to Carter eras. Conservatism was back on the rise, the religious right had regained political power and the tide turned towards the 1980s.

With the 1980s came a new ingenious style: voguing. It gained mainstream attention in 1990 with Madonna’s inspired “Vogue” music video and can trace its origins back to pageant competitions held during the Harlem Renaissance. Half a century later, these fashion spectacles evolved into underground dance battles. At its heart, voguing is performance art inspired by the acrobatic body movement of Egyptian hieroglyphs and displayed through a series of model poses used to sway judges and outshine opponents. Extravagance was the expectation and creativity had no limit.

Voguing was the defining piece of Harlem’s late ‘80s ballroom scene among gay and trans-African-Americans and Latinos, with most roles performed by drag queens. Dancers competed as part of various factions or “Houses” and despite the fiery nature of their rivalries, the entire scene existed as a visionary world built by these surrogate families.  

Regardless of the vibrant freedom voguing offered or the brilliant sensations of ‘80s music and the improbable cultural impact it sprouted, this was a disparaging time for the LGBTQ+ community. The AIDS epidemic ravaged with little effort to stop it since the American Populus knew too little to help and the federal government didn’t care enough to try. Those living with AIDS were ostracized and people who were hiding their sexuality to avoid discrimination were incidentally outed if they contracted the virus. It took heterosexuals to contract the virus for most of the general public to pay attention. At its height from 1987 to 1998, over 324,000 men and women died, leaving major cities like San Francisco, New York and Miami without the bulk of an entire generation of gay lives. 

Left devastated by HIV, the 1990s represented a miniature glimmer of hope for LGBTQ+ rights. The first significant batch of laws that outlawed discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ+ community passed and ensured greater public protection. In rap, homophobia was still a favorite intimidation device, and slurs were still a fairly common occurrence on popular records. As more stories of battling in the LGBTQ+ community made their way to the public, along with the impact of hateful public portrayals, the amount of homophobic commentary slowly began receding. 

In the 2010s, it became clear that the documented struggles of the LGBTQ+ community were beginning to break into mainstream pop. Kesha’s “We R Who We R” was inspired by a surge of suicides among gay teens in the U.S, and since then she has opened up about her bisexuality in various interviews. In an interview with EW before the song’s release, Kesha revealed her intentions for the song to be a pride anthem, saying “I wanted to inspire people to be themselves. It’s a celebration of any sort of quirks or eccentricities.”

“Lemonade Mouth” star and synth-pop artist Hayley Kiyoko is one of the most artistic champions of pride, and affectionately referred to as “Lesbian Jesus” by her fans. Kiyoko’s music normalizes her childhood experiences and views of love and relationships in contrast with the very heteronormative tradition of the music industry. 

One of the period’s more powerful displays of pride was “Same Love” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring lesbian spoken word artist Mary Lambert who steals the show on her powerful chorus. Their 2014 Grammy’s performance of the ballad involved Queen Latifah officiating 33 marriages for same-sex and opposite-sex couples onstage. The next year, the monumental Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges ruled that same-sex marriage was a fundamental right, thereby eliminating straights-only marriage laws in the remaining 50 U.S. states. 

Besides “Same Love,” the song most aligned with gay pride from this span is easily “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga. Much of the songs from her monster meat-dress era pushed boundaries when concerning inclusive topics of inner strength, perseverance and acceptance. Pushed to an astronomical level, “Born This Way” encourages listeners to be comfortable in their own skin. 

Outside of mainstream pop, 100 Gecs, a duo consisting of Laura Les and Dylan Brady are leading the current wave of hyper pop. The absurd and boisterous sound on their debut album “1000 Gecs” has made them one of the defining acts of the post-irony, internet-obsessed mini-genre. One of their defining features is Les’ use of “nightcore style” vocals that are high-pitched and speedy. These stylings have been a popular tool for trans and nonbinary artists to experiment with vocal alterations and groups like 100 Gecs have subsequently found loads of social media support.

Dr. Nathian Shae Rodriguez is a journalism and media studies professor who researches LGBTQ+ media representation and pop culture. Dr. Rodriguez says the social media platforms like TikTok and Vine provide an instantaneous reaction and a direct way to connect with fans and provides a certain freedom that allows LGBTQ+ people to openly be themselves. This same freedom has even followed into popular Latinx music as Bad Bunny’s gender-bending music videos contrast with the expected hyper-masculinity of the genre. The progress displayed on social media has provided a platform that previously never existed. 

“We did not have that platform for a lot of LGBTQ artists and the artists that were LGBTQ were not able to be out singing about themselves. So I think some of the positives that have happened is that we start to see these doorways open and social media has done a lot for that,” Rodriguez said.

One of R&B’s most lauded acts, singer Janelle Monáe, is pansexual. Monáe has crafted futuristic pop and R&B albums that exhibit topics old and new (sex, marriage, robots) with Prince-inspired gusto and imagination. She’s never been afraid to paint outside the lines and showcase her ingenuity, which helped her nab an Album of The Year nomination at the Grammys for her masterstroke “Dirty Computer.”

The world of Hip-Hop also grew to be a bit more inclusive in the 2010s. Singer Frank Ocean opened up about his bisexuality in 2012 (something heavily insinuated throughout “Channel Orange”) and was met by support from celebrities like Beyonce and Jay-Z. This was a landmark moment in the rap community and something that arguably opened the door for Tyler, the Creator revealing his bisexuality on “Flower Boy” and Young Thug’s gender-fluid album cover for “Jeffrey.”

Atlanta singer-rapper ILoveMakonnen, known for his unstoppable run of smashes in 2014 (“Tuesday,” and “Look at Wrist”) came out as gay in 2017 on Twitter. This was a monumental moment as the first time a well-known rapper publicly identified himself as a gay man.  In a sit-down with Variety earlier this month, he went in-depth about the importance of his public statement, and how it allowed him to live as his honest self. 

“I feel like if you’re coming out in hip-hop, you have to be very brave. Understand that you’re doing this for so many people who are silent — not just for yourself,” ILoveMakonnen said.

For years, major LGBTQ+ designers have been mentioned in rap songs across many eras, especially recently. Huge songs like “Versace” by Migos and “Dior” by the late Pop Smoke draw inspiration from the European fashion houses founded by LGBTQ+ people. Sadly, many of these same artists have continued the historical discrimination of homophobia in rap. So take that as you will. 

In dance genres like house, avant-garde and electronica where much of the progression can be credited to various LGBTQ+ artists, there is finally a semblance of proper attribution. One of the more recent innovators, the late Scottish electronic pop artist SOPHIE, played an instrumental part in Vince Staples 2017 album “Big Fish Theory” and much of Charli XCX’s discography as well as a trio of uniquely beautiful solo projects. As a trans woman, the amount of tributes given to their transcendent artistry is unparalleled, and SOPHIE’s seismic impact continues to materialize.

To reach a point where media visibility was possible for LGBTQ+ performers, an effort needed to be made by straight musicians to draw attention to important causes and in turn, keep them in the spotlight with their music. Referring to the impact that straight musicians have had on making pride music, Dr. Rodriguez says there are still allies in the industry who advocate for gay rights, promote intersectional identities and social justice campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement. 

“I think for me they’re allies, they’re using the platform in a way to promote pop culture politics … these individuals see some kind of social injustice or humanitarian or human rights issue and they sing on it,” Rodriguez said. 

So is this the golden age of pride music? 

Yes and No. 

Homophobia has yet to be fully eradicated in the music world and it’s no secret that LGBTQ+ musicians are still disparaged, despite being represented in greater numbers. There are still major instances of hatred, like all the vile feedback Lil Nas X received for his “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” video. The threats received by Lil Nas X show how prejudice often ties in with the existence of anti-Blackness in music as Black LGBTQ+ people have the dual experience of battling racism and homophobia. But for once, this formerly unwavering criticism has been matched or exceeded by a larger amount of elation for pride. 

All the years of battling have produced a sweeping generation of musicians openly displaying their sexuality while creating a safe space for their fans. Openly LGBTQ+ artists like the soulfully spiritual Moses Sumney, the seductively sweet Kehlani and boldly brash Rina Sawayama convey motifs of acceptance and fearless visibility of queer stories. Their art has allowed the targeted prototypical gay fanbase to expand from the long-established cis gay white men audience to a more diverse chorus of voices. Representation is insignificant without any meaningful progress attached to it. Nonetheless, these breakthroughs look like they’re just beginning. 

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