Have you ever wondered how queer musicians paved the way to being the influential icons they are today?
The music industry has come a long way in accepting and representing gay artists, but that wasn’t always the case. In the past, gay musicians had to face many barriers and stereotypes. They had to fight hard to advocate for the visibility of the LGBTQ+.
Today, the influence of queer musicians, pioneer or contemporary, has a long-lasting impact not only in the entertainment industry but in the world. Join me as we discover the journey of gay musician pioneers, the struggles they faced, and how contemporary queer musicians continue to advocate for gay pride. Of course, let’s also take a look at some of the most influential gay artists both from the past and present!
Queer Musicians: Their Emergence in the Music Industry
The history of queer artists in music is broad, but here’s a brief overview of their emergence in the industry through the following genres.
When you hear blues, you probably associate it with talented black musicians. But did you know that the genre also held space for plenty of queer folks, specifically gay women?
Popular songs such as “B.D. Woman’s Blues” by Lucille Bogan, “Prove It On Me Blues,” by Ma Rainey (known as the Mother of the Blues), and “Empress of the Blues” by Bessie Smith are just a few that reference the desire for the same sex. Artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sippie Wallace, and Mamie Smith made music that challenged the traditional idea of femininity.
The Blues and Jazz genres continued to provide a safe space for many artists, producers, and composers to express their queerness. Janis Joplin, Francis Faye, Billy Stayhorn, and Jackie Shane are among the big names during this time.
Electronic, House, and Disco Music
It was between the 1970s and the 1980s when queer identities truly emerged in the music scene. Pop and Rock were popular around this time and the Disco Culture was greatly associated with pioneering LGBTQ+ and black musicians.
Artists with ambiguous sexualities also started to emerge such as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Prince, and Grace Jones. They made gender fluidity more visible, making their music a safe space for the gay community.
However, this was only the tip of the iceberg – a large portion of the community was into electronic, house, and disco music. These were the genres often played in NY, LA, and Chicago underground queer clubs. Have you watched Paris is Burning? It’s a 2005 documentary that focuses on the drag ballroom “house” culture that originated in the 80’s. The soundtrack is mostly house, disco, dance, and funk!
The influence of these genres on queer musicians continues to this day. The style is evident in the music of artists such as SOPHIE, Honey Dijon, and Big Freedia.
Punk, which emerged into the music scene between the 1960s and 1970s, is known to question and reject social norms. Because of this, the queer community was able to relate to the music as it allowed LGBTQ+ to safely explore and express their sexualities.
During this time, we were blessed with wonderful songs such as “Man Enough To Be A Woman” by trans rocker Jayne County and “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” by bisexual artist Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks.
When the 1990s and early 2000s rolled in, Queercore bands like Team Dresch, Sleater-Kinney, and Bikini Kill came into the picture.
The Challenges Faced by Queer Musicians
Pioneering gay artists did earn their place in the music industry, but it wasn’t easy. They needed more than the support of the LGBTQ+ community to succeed in their career. Among the biggest challenges they had to face were:
- Discrimination and Social Stigma: In the past, queer artists were often compelled to conceal their true identities because of fear of discrimination and stigmatization from society. This often hindered their artistic freedom and greatly affected their mental health. On top of that, the bias caused them to have limited concert opportunities and airplay, as well as being excluded from mainstream platforms.
- Legal and Institutional Challenges: It wasn’t just the music industry that discriminated LGBTQ+ artists. Anti-LGBTQ+ laws existed on top of institutional biases, which caused many struggles for the artists such as restricted access to employment and various venues, which led to limited career advancement.
- Limited Representation and Visibility: As I just mentioned, gay artists experienced limited representation on music and media platforms. Because they lacked visibility, it denied them equal opportunities that straight artists got to enjoy, further hindering acceptance.
- Fear of Public Disclosure: Many gay musicians couldn’t reveal their real identity and live their true selves because it was a huge risk back then. They were scared of losing support from their record label or their fans. As a result, it negatively impacted both their career and personal life.
- Pressure to Conform: It’s a sad truth that the music industry heavily favored straight musicians, which pressured queer musicians to conform. This meant that they had to hide their true selves just to get the same privileges.
The Most Influential Queer Musicians in History
Despite the many adversities they had to face, pioneer queer musicians fought to live their true, authentic selves through their music, which left a great and long-lasting impact on the music industry until this day.
There are plenty of music industry legends from the LGBTQ+ communities worldwide, but let’s get to know some of the most influential queer musicians that made great contributions to entertainment.
Considered to be one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, Benjamin Britten lived in a time when being gay was illegal and heavily looked down upon. However, he didn’t care and he remained openly gay throughout his career.
He dedicated most of his songs to his partner, Peter Pears and some of his works had themes of social exclusion and persecution which makes him one of the earliest advocates for the visibility of the community.
In 1953, a group of LGBTQ+ individuals wrote an open letter to The Observer, a UK newspaper, and Benjamin was one of the signers. The letter demanded that everyone stop decriminalizing homosexuality, which was at the time punishable by imprisonment.
Akihiro Miwa was a lot of awesome things – apart from being a singer, he was also an actor, a drag queen, a cabaret performer, and a social activist. He rose to popularity in the 1950s and is best known for his androgynous appearance and his English-Japanese mix of music.
He was one of the first openly gay performers in heavily conservative Japan, but his efforts led to better understanding and acceptance of queer folks in the country.
Richard Wayne Penniman, more popularly called Little Richard, began singing in clubs in the early 1950s. He is recognized today as a rock and roll legend, but didn’t earn that recognition until later on because he was “too black and too queer”.
He was also dubbed as “too holy” as he was very religious and his connection to the church was heavily reflected in his music.
You probably know Freddie Mercury, a popular member of the band Queen who blessed us with classic songs like “We Will Rock You”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, and “We Are The Champions”. Many people believe that he is the most powerful rock singer of the 20th century.
Although he never officially came out as queer, his actions and relationships showed otherwise as he was in long-term relationships with both a woman and a man. Today, he is recognized as one of the pioneers in promoting LGBTQ+ visibility.
The song Karma Chameleon is a classic earworm song. It’s a Culture Club hit sung by English singer-songwriter Boy George, who is best known for his androgynous look and a pioneer in the glam rock movement.
In 1983, he came out as bisexual but later on confirmed that he was actually gay, writing Culture Club songs for his partner, Jon Moss.
Even though Boy George pioneered the glam rock movement, David Bowie is considered to be the genre’s face. He is the 21st century’s best-selling vinyl artist and was dubbed as the “greatest rock star ever,” by Rolling Stone.
David is openly gay, and his iconic makeup looks and androgynous style inspired a lot of people to live their true, authentic selves.
Although there were plenty of speculations around the legendary Prince about whether he was queer or not, he is still considered today as one of the top queer icons of the music industry. This is mainly because he had a cool, androgynous appearance that many gay people related to. He also experimented with having a female alter ego named Camille.
The influence of his gender fluidness can be seen on some of today’s musical artists such as Bad Bunny and Harry Styles.
Janis Joplin is known to be a powerhouse vocalist early in the rock ‘n’ roll industry, blessing ys with unforgettable performances of “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball and Chain”. She was notorious for having relationships with both men and women, although she never officially came out as gay.
She served as an inspiration for the hippies in the 1960s as she challenged conservative upbringing both through her music and her personality.
Most popular for his songs “Careless Whisper” and “Faith”, George Micheal is yet another LGBTQ+ music legend. He was also half of the famous duo Wham!, which is considered to be one of MTV generation’s biggest artists.
The talented English singer, songwriter, and producer revealed that he was gay in 1998. Since he came out, he actively campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights and promoted HIV/AIDS charity fundraisers until he passed away in 2016.
Sir Elton John
Sir Elton John is regarded as one of the most influential and successful musicians of all time, having sold more than 300 million records worldwide. The super talented pianist, singer, and songwriter is well-loved, by queer people or not, and is perhaps best known by many through his work on the Disney film “Lion King”, which won him an academy award.
Apart from being a legendary musician, the openly gay legend is also known for his philanthropic efforts and even founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation.
Barry Manilow has one of the most distinct voices in the music industry. With a career spanning over 70 years, he has released six multi-platinum and 13 platinum albums, giving us wonderful tunes such as “Copacabana (At the Copa)”, “Can’t Smile Without You”, and “Mandy”.
He married his partner Garry Kief in 2014, but didn’t come out until 2017 because he was afraid that his fans would be disappointed. Thankfully, his fanbase, which was mostly females, was very supportive.
Rob Halford is known for his very macho image, being the lead vocalist of the British heavy metal band Judas Priest. He was initially scared to reveal that he was gay, but was surprised to receive praise from fans when he did.
Today, his coming out marks an important moment in the acceptance and visibility of the LBGTQ+ musicians in the metal genre.
RuPaul is best known for her widely popular Drag Race show, but she was a successful singer before becoming a TV personality. She pioneered queer representation on television and is considered to be the most commercially successful drag queen in the world.
Today, Present-day LGBTQ+ artists continue what the pioneer queer musicians started. There are plenty of contemporary gay musicians who are making waves in the music industry, including Lady Gaga, Ricky Martin, Janelle Monáe, Sam Smith, Troye Sivan, Big Freedia, and many more.
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