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Celebrating the LGBTQ Pioneers in the Music Industry

The LGBTQ community has come a long way over the years, fighting to be seen, heard, and accepted by society. It all started with The Stonewall Riots in June 1969, where thousands from the gay community came together to fight back against the police, demanding the right to live openly as their sexual orientation. This is where the movement began. On the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the first Pride parade set off from Stonewall. Gay activists in New York organized the Christopher Street Liberation March to cap off the city’s first Pride Week. This led to activists in other cities organizing Pride celebrations of their own over the years before becoming the Pride Month we know today.

Pride Month both commemorates and celebrates LGBTQ activism and culture through the years. It’s a time of celebration and acceptance. As society becomes more accepting of the LGBTQ community, we have seen more people come out and feel free to express their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Musicians throughout the decades represented and been the pride of the LGBTQ community, even if some never officially came out. So, to close out Pride Month, we put together a list of musicians who are/have been part of the community, including some of the biggest gay icons.

Elton John

Initially coming out as bisexual in the 70s, singer Elton John formally came out as gay in 1992 via a Rolling Stone magazine article. He is one of the most famous openly gay musicians of all time. And over the years, he’s used his influence to help advocate for LGBTQ rights. The same year he came out as gay, he founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation to help fight the disease which had affected so many in the community, including his friends Ryan White and the Queen singer, Freddie Mercury. He has always been outspoken about the right to gay marriage. In 2005, Elton John and his long-time partner, David Furnish were one of the first couples to enter a civil partnership in the UK on the day it became legal.

Today, Elton continues to support and fight for the community, often offering advice to the youth of the community. He’s been quoted in a 2019 Variety interview advising, “If you're unhappy at home, leave. Leave. Don't let anybody torture you for being gay or for your sexuality. Leave. Life is full of adventures. Always have hope in your heart, stay away from drugs and just try to be as true to yourself as possible.” (Source) Many in the community praise him for his bravery to come out in a time when it wasn’t as accepted or acknowledged.

Billy Tipton

Billy Tipton, a jazz pianist and saxophonist, is a trans icon that I wish more people knew about. Throughout his whole life, few knew that he was a trans man. He had a wife, adopted children, and had a successful jazz career as a man without any questioning. In fact, he wasn’t even outed as trans until his death. It is of course devastating to know that he was outed, not of his free will, but it is also important to know his story. Tipton’s unwavering choice to be his authentic self in a time when being transgender wasn’t considered “a thing” accepted by society has inspired and invigorated the trans community. Billy Tipton shows that trans people have been in history all along, and that they have always been an important part of it. A recent documentary called No Ordinary Man: The Billy Tipton Documentary is a great watch to learn more about him. Savage Content just released a review of the documentary written by yours truly earlier this month that you can read here.

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga has been open about her bisexuality since the start of her career. In a 2009 interview with Barbara Walters, Lady Gaga came out as bisexual, explaining that her jam “Poker Face” was about another woman. This kind of unapologetic openness of her sexuality was amazing to see from a big artist like her. Throughout her career, Gaga has been a fierce advocate for the LGBTQ community. Her hit, “Born This Way” has become an anthem for the LGBTQ community, a song that encourages acceptance of ourselves as we are. During her performance at the Super Bowl Halftime Show in 2017, she performed “Born This Way” to the millions of viewers, at a time when the current government administration was attempting to take back some of the bills based on helping the LGBTQ community. She has never shied away from her beliefs and love of the community. She even started an anti-bullying nonprofit called the Born This Way Foundation in 2011 which has helped thousands of LGBTQ children and teens. She’s an icon. Plain and simple.

Freddie Mercury

Coming from a Persian family whose religious beliefs were that homosexuality is a form of devil worship, Freddie had to deal with a lot of internalized homophobia when understanding his bisexuality. This is why he never came out to his family and, not technically, to the public either. Despite avoiding his personal business from going to the public, Mercury pushed the boundaries for how he could express his sexuality, from the way he dressed and the lyrical content of Queen’s songs. It was only the day before he died when he announced that he had AIDS. He was worried that, if the public knew his sexuality, his image and legacy would change. Right to the very end, Freddie Mercury never “formally” came out to the public. Still, in the years he played, inspiring the world, to the years after he left this world, Freddie Mercury’s queer identity and performance sparked a revolution for future generations to follow. He stood as an icon for young LGBTQ+ folk trying to survive in a homophobic society. Mercury proved that it is possible to be successful and loved as a queer person with AIDS.

His death brought attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis, with millions being raised for relevant causes in his memory. To commemorate his legacy and to support the funding of AIDS organizations, the Mercury Phoenix Trust was founded in 1991. In the last 21 years, the Trust has given away over 15 million dollars in Mercury’s name and has founded over 700 projects. (Source)

Wendy Carlos

Wendy Carlos was a classically trained pianist who got her start writing commercial jingles and then created Robert Moog-assisted renditions of Bach songs, which comprised her 1968 debut, Switched-On Bach. The record won three Grammys and sat at Number One on the Billboard Classical Albums chart from 1969 to 1972. After the success of the album, she was hired to score two Stanley Kubrick films – 1971’s A Clockwork Orange and 1980’s The Shining. As Carlos was finding this success, however, she was struggling. She was balancing a life was that becoming increasingly more public and a private truth, her transition from male to female. Carlos began hormone replacement therapy and underwent gender-reassignment surgery in 1972, but kept this a secret from the public, performing in the 70s with a masculine appearance such as suits and glued-on sideburns. She changed her legal name on Valentine’s Day 1979, and that same year came out as a transgender woman in Playboy.

Looking back, Carlos has said she wished she hadn’t hidden it for so long, feeling that she lost years of her life hiding it. Her public coming out thankfully didn’t negatively affect her career as she was hired to score the cyberpunk classic Tron in 1982. In 1984, she released Digital Moonscapes, and since then has held a fascination with the cosmos. Now in her 70s, she spends her days photographing solar eclipses and living a quiet life with her cats (Source). Her musical impact is a big one, and so is her bravery to transition in a less accepting time in society.

David Bowie

David Bowie took the world by storm from the moment he stepped into entertainment. He was talented, confident, and unabashedly himself, even if it meant going against societal norms. Throughout his career, Bowie presented himself as androgynous, an alien, and hedonistic. These were all things the gay community could identify with. In the 1970s, David Bowie told the public via an interview, “I’m gay and always have been.” (Bowie later backtracked clarifying that he was bisexual, but whatever the label, his coming out changed the lives of thousands of gay kids). Bowie’s statement resonated with many young people looking to understand or feel affirmed in their own sexual identity. Some fans described it as feeling seen, that someone else like them is out there and beloved. Bowie continued to be unafraid to hide his sexuality, using gay imagery on the Hunky Dory track “Queen Bitch” and being known for performing mock fellatio on stage with guitarist Mick Ronson. Bowie’s stage presence and accessible androgyny appealed to everyone, LGBTQ or not, that fact that he was so beloved all the way up until his devastating passing in 2016 cements him as an LGBTQ icon. (Source)

Janis Ian

Janis Ian is absolutely someone in the community worth calling attention to. It’s 1965. Janis Ian is 14 and just wrote and recorded her first hit single, “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking)”. This is a song that bravely addresses the complexity of interracial dating in a very divided country – and marked the beginning of her lifelong foray into matters of “forbidden love.” After the song peaked at 14 in the Billboard Hot 100, she began receiving death threats. To try to silence her, many in the entertainment industry - including Bill Cosby before he was rightly disgraced by society – tried to blacklist her. One of the main reasons was suspicion that she was in a lesbian relationship. Despite their attempts, Ian recorded with a new record label and continued to thrive in her career, even beating Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy, and Olivia Newton-John for Best Pop Vocal Performance at the 1976 Grammys. What a badass, right? In 1993 she came out as a lesbian with her album Breaking Silence and married her longtime partner, Patricia Snyder, in 2003 (Source). In the 90s, she contributed to the LGBTQ magazine, The Advocate. Janis Ian is a sign of persistence. No matter what anyone said or tried to do, she stuck to her beliefs and who she was. These days, she’s doing less music and more fiction writing. When Ian was asked about being gay and her gay legacy, she’s said, “I don’t think much about being gay. I think about myself as an artist.” She pauses and adds, “Isn’t it great that I don’t have to think about being gay? Now it doesn’t cost me my livelihood and my life” (Source). In a time when being gay could cost you everything, Ian persisted and came out as a lesbian in a time when the community was still working on being accepted. Her story is an important one to celebrate this month. There are so many other amazing LGBTQ musicians to celebrate, but for the sake of brevity, I’m just going to list some more down below.

  • Lou Reed

  • Janelle Monáe

  • Barry Manilow

  • Limp Wrist

  • Bayard Rustin

  • Adam Lambert

  • Lil Nas X

  • Miley Cyrus

  • Morrissey

  • Hayley Kiyoko

  • Big Freedia

  • Tegan and Sara

  • Village People

  • Sylvester

  • Kylie Minogue

  • Demi Lovato

  • Kelc Galluzzo of Jetty Bones

  • Lynn Gunn of PVRIS

  • Orville Peck

  • Trixie Mattel

  • Halsey

  • Kehlani

  • Phoebe Bridgers

  • The Japanese House

  • Brandi Carlile

  • Lavender Country

  • Sammy Rae & the Friends

I can’t list them all, but that’s a good thing. That means there’s too many LGBTQ musicians out there to list! As society becomes more accepting of the community, we will see more artists coming forward about their sexualities, no longer as afraid that it will ruin their career. We still have some ways to go, but today, we celebrate the legacy of all LGBTQ musicians during Pride Month, living or deceased, and the contributions that they have made to the community. Happy Pride 😁🎆 A special thanks to all the sources that helped me craft this post including two very helpful ones listed below.

Written by Kristen Petronio


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