June marks Pride Month, where members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community celebrate all the different shades of sexual and gender identity.
Since music has always been about expression, it proved to be a pioneering space where representation could be found in the mainstream. Artists like Dusty Springfield, David Bowie and Elton John spoke about their bisexuality in interviews in the ’70s.
Grace Jones and Madonna’s careers were bolstered by connections they made at gay-friendly clubs in New York City, while glam brought flamboyance to the forefront with bands like Queen and Culture Club.
As gay culture became more prominent, its rise was punctured by the loss of LGBTQ+ icons like Jobriath and Freddie Mercury from complications with HIV/AIDS. The number of artists coming out slowly started to creep up, including prominent lesbian musicians like k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge in the early ’90s.
Today, many young artists (and older artists now feeling empowered to do so) publicly identify somewhere on the spectrum. But to get to this point of acceptance, pioneers had to knock down walls first. While by no means a definitive list, we’re looking at 13 LGBTQ+ artists and powerful allies that refused to accept straight as the only sexuality.
David Bowie’s sexuality was always a constant source of conversation throughout his career. After he draped his arms around Mick Ronson on the Top of the Pops in 1972, UK audiences were angered. But younger audiences who saw themselves in Bowie appreciated the bold move. It’s hard to imagine what the campiness of the ’80s would’ve looked like without Bowie’s influence. He also professed “I’m gay, and always have been” before retracting the statement, later mentioning he was bisexual before looking back on the time as experimentation. Regardless of the label, Bowie inspired future generations to be the truest version of themselves.
Elton John admitted to being bisexual during a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone. He was married to Renate Blauel from 1984 to 1988, but stated in 1992 he was “quite comfortable with being gay.” He began a long-term relationship with David Furnish in 1993, and established the Elton John AIDS Foundation after the death of his friends Ryan White and Freddie Mercury, using his platform to raise awareness about the disease.
Jobriath is noted as the first openly gay rock musician to be signed to a major record label, joining the Elektra Records roster in 1973. He released two albums with the label and died from AIDS ten years later. Superfan Morrissey would later orchestrate a reissue of his first CD in 2004.
Grace Jones spoke to everyone: as someone who defied feminine and masculine norms, she provided anthems for isolated queer communities to accept their own fluidity. As a teen, she would rebel against her parents and join her brother in discovering New York’s gay bars. It was there she honed her skills that would shape her into the LGTBQ+ ally she is today.
Boy George (Culture Club)
“Thank you, America. You’ve got good taste, style, and you know a good drag queen when you see one.”
This was Boy George to the Grammy audience in 1984 after Culture Club won the Best New Artist award in 1984. When pressed on his sexuality by Barbara Walters in 1985, Boy George said he was bisexual, but later described himself as “militantly gay.” His signature make-up and flamboyant outfits alongside his androgynous appearance and effeminate characteristics gave disenfranchised youth a figure to look up to.
Queen / Freddie Mercury
Freddie Mercury’s theatrical ways, costumes, and even the way he shimmied on stage had audiences wondering his sexuality. Mercury was unabashedly himself: comfortable enough to wear women’s clothes and wear make-up in a time when rock and roll was still hyper-masculine. He carried on a long-term relationship with Mary Austin in the ‘70s before having an affair with a male record label executive. He was with on with Jim Hutton for six years before Mercury died of AIDS in 1991. While he never placed a label on his sexuality, Freddie’s expression of gender and queerness spoke across spectrums.
As a teenager, Madonna frequented the gay scene in Detroit thanks to her ballet teacher Christopher Flynn. She has stated she wouldn’t “have a career without the gay community.” She’s been an AIDS activist since the ‘80s, brought “Vogue” to the mainstream, denounced homophobia (even in regions where it is outlawed), and has constantly presented gay culture in her tours and music videos. When it comes to allies, Madonna’s fearlessness and support has been unprecedented from a superstar.
George Michael’s sexuality was confirmed publicly later in his career, but songs like “Freedom! 90” served as LGTBQ+ anthems before the news broke. In the latter portions of Michael’s life, he became an unabashedly queer icon, championing gay rights and HIV/AIDS charity fundraiser.
Pet Shop Boys
One-half of synthpop duo Pet Shop Boys, Neil Francis Tennant, identifies as gay. He revealed his sexuality in Attitude Magazine in 1994. The band’s 1986 album, Please, was released in the midst of America’s AIDS crisis, and the lyrics avoid pronouns and hint at a not-so-narrow stance: “Which do you choose, a hard or soft option?” Tennant has also stated “Later Tonight” is “the most gay song we’ve ever written.” They topped the charts with “West End Girls”, and while there wasn’t anything ostensibly gay about the song, it proved that songs that queer underlyings could find commercial success.
Lang came out as a lesbian in a 1992 issue of The Advocate, right around the time her hit single “Constant Craving” was peaking in Canada and gaining traction in the United States and United Kingdom. Lang has stated her record label didn’t want her to come out, but she has stated she isn’t sure if her album Ingenue “would have been a hit without me coming out.” The Canadian singer-songwriter has championed gay rights ever since, including a passionate call for more AIDS/HIV care and research.
Etheridge came out in January 1993 around the time her Grammy-winning soft rock single in 1992. Her song, “Come To My Window” has often been cited as a lesbian love anthem: “I don’t care what they think/ I don’t care what they say/ What do they know about this love.”
RuPaul brought drag queens to the forefront with “Supermodel (You Better Work)” in 1992, hitting the Billboard Hot 100 and charting high in Canada and the United States. The music video served as a tribute to the gay community, and in the sea of grunge and hip-hop success, proved to be a shining beacon for queer culture. RuPaul has since established RuPaul’s Drag Race, a television series that has accumulated multiple Emmys and millions of fans worldwide.
Lead singer Michael Stipe came out as “queer” in 1994, shortly after the commercial success of Out of Time in 1991 and Automatic for the People. He’s professed to carrying on relationships with both men and women. Following his coming out, R.E.M. released Monster, which alluded to “secret love” and “indiscreet discretions.” While the rock edge of the album didn’t repeat the same success, queer audiences still hold a special place in their hearts for Monster.