Music is aesthetic sound. It includes melodies, lyrics, genres, instruments, and rhythms. Because LGBTQ people listen to and perform any number of musical genres, it is difficult to identify distinctly Gay genres in terms of meter and melody. Nevertheless, there is Gay-related music in terms of musicians generating music for the LGBTQ collective, songs with lyrics tailored to a Gay audience, and songs that are considered iconic by the Gay community.
Strict rules outlawing lyrical expression of same-sex romance and gender variation in Christian, Muslim, and secular societies since the Late Roman Empire made non-heteronormal music (except for the occasional comedic song) almost completely invisible outside of local cultural contexts until the last century. But the rise of LGBTQ consciousness has led some scholars to rediscover what would now be considered Gay-themed songs in various genres of music found in many cultures (see article, “Ballad” by Pauline Greenhill). Examples of popular songs with Gay-related lyrics have also been preserved in audio recordings made in the early 1900s to the present.
As a musical classification based primarily on lyrical content, Gay folk’s music emerged with the rise of recording technology, the popularity of clubs featuring transgressive performance of drag, and songs with suggestive same-sex lyrics.
Prior to the emergence of visible LGBTQ communities, some performers in the 1920s-1940s would cover songs not written for their gender without changing the lyrics due to copyright restrictions forbidding the slightest modification of lyrical content. This type of same-sex romantic lyrical performance did not mark a performer as homosexual. Even so, it is possible that some performers deliberately selected cover songs in order to perform same-sex romantic lyrics without the social stigma of publicly declaring themselves as Gay. Other performers subverted the heteronormal rules for romantic engagement and gender expression in music during the first half of the twentieth century, often through double entendre or lyrics coded for Gay audiences.
Jazz and Blues
African American blues and jazz in the early to mid-twentieth century featured some cross-dressing performers, such as openly-Lesbian Gladys Bentley (who wore a man’s tuxedo and top hat, and claimed to have married a White woman in Georgia) and Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, so nicknamed because he was 5’2”, possessed a voice that was considered feminine, and would often perform in drag. Other artists did songs with lyrics suggesting same-sex romance, such as Josh White (also known as Pinewood Tom/The Singing Christian, and who performed with Bayard Rustin), and Ma Rainey. White sang “Sissy Man Blues” (also entitled “Sissy Man” and “Sissy Blues”), which was also performed by Komono Arnold (1935), George Noble (1935), and Connie McLean (1936). The song contains the line, “Lord, if you can’t bring me no woman, bring me a sissy man.” Ma Rainey is remembered for her rendition of “Prove It on Me Blues” (1928):
Went out last night
With a crowd of my friends
It must’ve been women
‘Cause I don’t like no men
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man
[chorus] Don’t say I do it
Ain’t nobody caught me
You sure got to prove it on me
Two British songs that arose during the age of the “pansy craze” and the rise of drag balls during the 1920s and 1930s dealt with wordplay connecting fairies to effeminate men. One was “I Have Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden” made popular in 1924 by Straight ally Beatrice Lillie. Her friend Noel Coward is reported to have said, “”I should love to perform ‘There Are Fairies in the Bottom of My Garden’ but I don’t dare. It might come out ‘There Are Fairies in the Garden of My Bottom’.” Another even more blatantly stereotypical song was “Let’s All Be Fairies” recorded in 1933 by the Durium Dance Band:
[chorus] Ding dong ding dong
Fairy bells are gaily ringing
Ding dong ding dong
Everybody’s gaily singing
dancing ’round the moonbeams
Hear our fairy footsteps
Whoops, there we are
Backlash and Camp Records
During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, homosexuality was considered un-American during World War II, and connected to the threat of communism during the post-WW II Red Scare. Gay-related folk performance in the USA became less public. Only the boldest performers (including Straight cabaret singer Ruth Wallis) risked offending the censors by singing double-entendre songs with homoerotic lyrics.
In the early 1960s, an anonymous company known as Camp Records produced two LPs (long-playing vinyl recordings), Mad About the Boy and The Queen is in the Closet, as well as several 45s (shorter and smaller vinyl recording of about 3.5 minutes). Accompanying the album Mad About the Boy, which featured torch songs (songs with romantic lyrics, from the phrase “carrying a torch” for a someone) usually sung by women about men, but in this album sung by men. The producers of Mad About the Boy state the following on the album cover:
Gender should not be the determining factor as to who should sing what. Far too many singers have all too often been frustrated by lyrics not being acceptable [for] them because of the text. Hence, we the producers of Camp Records…decided to do this album.
The Queen Is in the Closet has examples of camp, with song titles such as “Homer the Happy Little Homosexual,” “Li’l Liza Mike,” “I’d Rather Fight Than Swish,” and “Stanley the Manly Transvestite.” Despite the campiness of such songs, an emerging political consciousness can be heard in Camp Records music with songs such as “A Bar is a Bar is a Bar,” which laments the constant police raids that left many Gay people without a public place to socialize.
The Stonewall Uprising in 1969 had a tremendous impact on the production of openly Gay and Lesbian music. During the homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Gay people had yet to form a sense of community beyond small local enclaves. With the founding of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and an increased drive for Gay rights, many people in several countries saw a connection between Gay populations everywhere around the world. They imagined themselves as a community based on sexual difference, and more musicians began to write music for an openly Gay audience.
Among the first songs to emerge during the Gay Liberation movement were Maxine Feldman’s “Angry Atthis”—which was written in 1969 (recorded in 1972, Harrison and Tyler Productions), and is considered the first openly Lesbian record. Madeline Davis’ 1971 song, “Stonewall Nation” (produced by Mark Custom Records), was perhaps the first Gay Liberation song to be released to the public. Record companies such as the women’s music label Olivia Records provided an outlet for performers to record their music for Lesbian and Gay audiences.
Rock and Glam Rock
The gender-blurring glam rock era of the mid-1970s and early 1980s allowed a three-decade space for orientation- and gender-diverse performances by rock musicians. Glam rock influenced many other genres of rock, and Straight rockers in several countries acted and dressed queerly for shock value. But rock music got its own underground openly-Gay performer, Jobriath Boone (USA), whose on-stage theatrics made him a Gay icon.
Boone is sometimes musically/theatrically compared to New Wave artist Klaus Nomi, a Gay German countertenor who performed pop with an elfin persona from the 1960s through the 1980s. Nomi was one of the first celebrities to contract AIDS, and he died in 1983 at the age of 39. Among the rockers idolized by both Gay and Straight communities were the cross-dressing New York Dolls (USA), openly-Gay Elton John (Britain), Freddy Mercury of Queen (Britain), heavy metal icon Rob Halford of Judas Priest (Britain), dykon (Lesbian icon, but not necessarily lesbian) Joan Jett (USA), gender-bending David Bowie (Britain), and avowedly asexual yet lyrically Gay Morissey of the Smiths (Britain).
In 1976, British rock star Rod Stewart came out with a commercial hit, “The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II),” a tribute to a Gay friend of his who was murdered in New York City. At significant personal risk to himself and his career, Stewart was the first Straight ally to make a song about a Gay person in a positive fashion and then mourn his death, opening the way for greater tolerance for the Gay community in rock music.
Disco, House, and the Circuit
The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the rise of disco, which has been framed and condemned in American folk discourse as “gay music” because of its connection to Gay male club folklife, even though disco was produced by Straight artists as well. Many LGBTQ anthems were originally disco hits of this era made by African Americans, such as Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” (1979), The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men” (1982), “I Was Born This Way” by Carl Bean (1977), Gloria Gaynor’s “I Am What I Am” (1983) and “I Will Survive” (1978), “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer (1977), and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” (1979). Disco’s stars include the aforementioned drag queen Sylvester and the macho Village People, a crew of men who dressed in homoerotic archetypes of police officer, cowboy, Indian warrior, soldier, construction worker, and one distinctly Gay iconic figure, the Leatherman.
With disco music, DJs working in Manhattan/Fire Island Gay male clubs began mixing one song seamlessly into the next without stopping the beat, and extending a constant pulse for hours at a time. This in turn led to house music tailored to Gay male dancers (formatted to a strict 32-count, between 120-135 beats per minute) featuring further refinement of the beat through remixing (modifying the structure of a song with various elements, and rendering the beat so that it moved forward with computer precision), creating extended segues in which two or more house music songs would play simultaneously, and generating a musical journey for the dancers.
The popularity of these journeys resulted in the Circuit, a series of weekend long dance parties for Gay men and their allies, and a genre of house music made specifically for the Circuit called tribal: dance music with “pots and pans” (strong polyrhythms), semi-percussive “synth-stabs” (bursts of sound that often carry a basic note or melody), and extension of the pulse from 32 to counts of 64 and 128 beats. Gay DJs who have been influential in the club music scene and the Circuit include Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Ralphi Rosario, Susan Morabito, Tony Moran, Lydia Prim, Abel Aguilera, Sharon White, Barry Harris/Chris Cox, and Wendy Hunt.
Queercore (sometimes called homocore, or dykecore where it intersects with third-wave feminism) is a Gay folk’s music movement that emerged in the 1980s in the United States, Canada, and Britain as an offshoot of punk folkways. Queercore arose in response to hardcore punk’s domination by young, male, and sometimes aggressively homophobic fans and performers.
Coming out of the gender-bending of the 1970s punk scene, queercore performers felt ostracized by punks for being Queer, and alienated by Gays and Lesbians for being punks. These performers expressed themselves and their alienation with confrontational language on stage through music lyrics and speech, and in print through the alternative press. The makers of the self-produced underground magazine (called a zine) BIMBOX declared, “BIMBOX is at war against lesbians and gays. A war in which modern queer boys and queer girls are united against the prehistoric thinking and demented self-serving politics… BIMBOX hereby renounces its past use of the term lesbian and/or gay in a positive manner.”
The most influential queercore works have been produced through the media of zines and punk-style music. The queercore scene originally existed as an imagined Queer musical community depicted in the zine J.D.s. This zine was created by underground filmmaker and photographer Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones, who became the drummer for the dykecore band Fifth Column. J.D.s ran eight issues between 1985 and 1991. By May 25, 1991, Queer punk zines had gained enough influence for Chicago’s Randolph Street Gallery to host Spew: The Queer Punk Convention. The makers of J.D.s were present with other Queer zines such as BIMBOX, which emphasized an “us versus them” attitude between those who identified as Queer and those who viewed themselves as Gay or Lesbian. Members of Queer activist organizations such as ACT UP and Queer Nation also attended the convention.
Queercore bands such as Tribe 8, Team Dresch, God Is My Co-Pilot, Sister George, Fifth Column, and Pansy Division emerged in the late 1980s, but were not well known in either the punk or Queer scenes until the early 1990s. Coming out of the punk movement, they carried themselves in a similarly confrontational fashion. For example, the Queer lead singer Martin Sorrendeguy of the Latino punk band Los Crudos repeatedly outed himself while performing by asking the audience if there were Queers present, and then raising his hand. The growing popularity of these musicians in turn resulted in the proliferation of Queer punk zines, including The Burning Times in Australia.
Women’s music, also known as Womyn’s Music and Wimmin’s Music, is music by and for women. While women’s music is not an exclusively Lesbians’ music, the movement was pioneered by Lesbians during second-wave feminism in the mid- to late-1960s and 1970s. Women’s music is not a specific type of music, and songs are available from every genre including rock, folk, and punk with a preference for acoustic music. It is largely defined by the inclusion of women in the various production processes, sometimes to the complete exclusion of men, a practice incorporated by record labels such as Olivia Records and Ladyslipper, and music festivals such as the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival. Groundbreakers in the genre include Meg Christian, Cris Williamson, Alix Dobkin, Maxine Feldman, Ferron, Toshi Reagon, Holly Near, and Tret Fure.
Like women’s music, Bear music is defined by its participants and not restricted to any particular musical genre (but once again with a preference for acoustic). While Bear communities began forming in the 1980s (valuing a form of masculine beauty that includes large, hirsute bodies, body hair, and beard) its members did not begin to form community-specific music until the late 1990s and early 2000s through festivals and records labels.
In 2002, Freddie Freeman organized the Bear music festival called Bearapalooza. In 2004, Greg Hudson founded Woobie Bear Music, which produces music by Bears for Bears, including several volumes of an ongoing compilation album project called Bear Tracks. Artists include Freddy Freeman, Matthew Temple, Max Christopher, Kendall, and Nekked.
Theater has long been a haven for orientation- and gender-variant artists. Specifically Gay-themed musicals emerged alongside other adult musicals in the 1970s. Gay topics were considered taboo for Broadway, and the popularity of off- and off-off-Broadway adult productions opened space for Gay male and (less often) Lesbian expression. Some early Gay musicals include The Faggot (1973), Lovers: The Musical That Proves It’s No Longer Sad To Be Gay (1974), Boy Meets Boy (1975), La Cage Aux Folles (1984), Ten Percent Review (1987), the AIDS musical An Unfinished Song (1991), and the Lesbian-themed I Like Me Like This (1979). Broadway musicals such as the 1996 production Rent, the 2013 production of Kinky Boots, and the 2014 production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch became popular enough to bring Gay-themed songs from stage to market for public consumption.
In the country music scene, Doug Stevens & the Outband broke through the stereotypical notions of cowboy masculinity to become a known Gay country band in America. Doug Stevens founded the Lesbian & Gay Country Music Association in 1998, and included the song “HIV Blues” on his album, Out in the Country (1993). This album’s title refers to mainstream homosexual musicians’ reluctance to reveal their orientations to the public out of fear of rejection. For example, while Lesbian country music artist k.d. lang enjoyed a significant Lesbian following at the outset of her career with the album A Truly Western Experience (1984), and media and fans alike suspected her same-sex orientation, she did not declare her sexuality to the public until 1992.
Jamaican reggae/dancehall music has been criticized for promoting anti-Gay (also known as gay-hate) lyrics that advocate shooting Gay people, stabbing them, and setting them on fire, including the song by Buju Banton, “Boom Bye Bye” (1988, rerecorded 1992). Characterized as murder music, songs with such inflammatory lyrics have been condemned by Gay activists from Jamaica and abroad. The Stop Murder Music (SMM) campaign accused artists such as Beenie Man, Sizzla, and Bounty Killer of promoting anti-Gay attitudes and violence, and SMM protests against murder music have led to concert cancellations and refusal of entry past customs for the worst offenders.
A compromise was made with the creation of the Reggae Compassionate Act (RCA) in 2007, Banton, Beenie Man, and Sizzla have signed the RCA, renouncing expressions of homophobia in their music. The commitment of artists who signed the Act, however, has not been consistent, leading to further boycotts, cancellations, and refusal of entry to countries outside of Jamaica.
Hip-hop and rap music have been sites for homophobic lyrics since the genre emerged with “Rapper’s Delight” (with the following lyrics about Superman: “He’s a fairy/I do suppose/Flying through the air/In panty hose”). However, there is a Queer hip-hop music scene with artists such as Juba Kalamka, Tim’m T. West and Phillip Atiba Goff of Deepdickollective, Unecc of Untouchable (a group that includes her Straight brother E, a forthright Straight ally), and Mélange Lavonne, all of whom bring LGBTQ themes to hip-hop music. Heterosexual hip-hop artists have begun to speak out against homophobia. Some examples are nerdcore rapper MC Frontalot’s “I Heart Fags,” and Dr. Cornel West’s “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations,” which features topics such as racism, homophobia, xenophobia, September 11, and corporate power, supported with a lineup of hip hop and R&B musicians. In 2012, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released “Same Love,” a rap tribute to Macklemore’s Gay uncle and that uncle’s partner.
The Gay choir movement started with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC), which gave its first performance on November 27, 1978 at the San Francisco City Hall in honor of openly-Gay Supervisor Harvey Milk and Straight ally Mayor George Moscone. The two men were assassinated only hours earlier that same day.
Since the founding of the SFGMC, there are LGBTQ choirs located in different nations, including Musica Lesbiana (Stuttgart, Germany), the London Gay Men’s Chorus, Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus, Glória (Ireland), Vancouver Lesbian and Gay Choir, AMASONG Lesbian/Feminist Chorus (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois), and Gospel/Christian music choirs such as Lavender Light (New York City) and Men Alive (Orange County, California).
International EDM and Pop Music
Since the early days of rock and roll, Gay-related performance has been manifested in artists such as Little Richard and Joan Jett. The rise of electronic dance music (EDM) as a worldwide phenomenon features even more androgynous performers that could be considered iterations of David Bowie and Duran Duran, with a significant portion of their popularity resulting from image and videography as well as song.
Drag and Trans presentation is explicitly portrayed by pop artists such as Azis of Bulgaria, Verka Serduchka of Ukraine, and Dana International of Israel. Boy bands such as Kazaky of Ukraine and a host of Kpop (Korean popular music) boy bands from South Korea such as Big Bang, JYJ, NU’Est, SHINee, and f/x (and some girl band performers such as Jiyeon of T’ara) reflect an obsession with fashion-based androgyny not unlike that found in Japanese anime and yaoi.
Music and Activism
Many openly Gay performers are also activists and view their music as part of their activism.
Madeline Davis, author of the Gay anthem “Stonewall Nation,” began writing Gay-themed lyrics to her music in the 1960s. She founded a chapter of the Mattachine Society and went on to become a major force for defending Gay rights in politics and AIDS activism. Michael Callen, a musician and AIDS activist, includes a number of songs about AIDS on his 1988 album, Purple Heart, and wrote “How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach” (1983), advocating safe-sex practices when government ignored the rise in HIV infection because it was thought to be a homosexual problem.
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