The past twelve months since Pride Month 2020 have been unprecedented. The world has experienced enough to fill a lifetime, and the queer community has been impacted in countless ways. With the pandemic continuing, along with demonstrations for Black, Brown, Asian and Pacific Islanders, and Indigenous communities, this year has been an opportunity for LGBTQ+ people to understand the diversity and breadth of their community. We have seen the nuanced ways that queer people exist in and are impacted by the world.
2021 is on track to have one of the highest volumes of anti-LGBTQ+ national and state legislation. Amendments to the Affordable Care Act defined “sex” as one’s gender assigned at birth. This made transgender and nonbinary folks vulnerable to discrimination, preventing people from seeking care that they need. Furthermore, state legislation against the LGBTQ+ community is at a record high, with bills including anti-trans sports bans, banning the discussion of LGBTQ+ people, sexuality, or gender in classrooms, and prohibiting transgender folks from having access to their gender’s bathrooms. Unfortunately, none of these legislative proposals are new to the LGBTQ+ community. For those that are not affected directly, they are a reminder of the work yet to be done. For those that are, they are life-altering and life-denying.
At Songtrust, we want to celebrate the intersectionality of the LGBTQ+ community and highlight some songwriters and artists throughout history that have expanded visibility inside of and outside of the queer community.
A Brief History of LGBTQ+ people in Music
Below, we have selected three genres of music where queer artists found space to express their identity. This is in no way a comprehensive list of queer musicians, nor does it highlight every queer artist in each respective genre.
The Blues (late 19th and early 20th centuries)
The blues started in the 1870’s in the American Deep South. Its roots stem from the musical and cultural traditions established by enslaved people. Despite the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery as it manifested in America from the 16th to mid-19th century, Black Americans continued to face economic and social oppression throughout the country. The emotional strife experienced inspired some of the themes of early blues music.
Many people may know about the blues being inherently linked to the Black experience, but it is also a genre that held space for many queer people, specifically queer women. 2021 saw many people rushing to their televisions to watch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a film starring Viola Davis that tells the story of exactly this - a queer Black experience. The songs “Empress of the Blues'' by Bessie Smith, “Prove It On Me Blues,” by Ma Rainey, and “B.D. Woman’s Blues,” (B.D. being a slang term for gay women) by Lucille Bogan explicitly reference same-sex desire. Alongside these expression’s of overt queerness, many artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mamie Smith, and Sippie Wallace challenged the traditional ideas of femininity held in early 20th-entury America.
As the 20th Century progressed, the jazz and blues communities continued to provide space for some artists to express queerness. This can be seen with artists, composers, and producers like Billy Strayhorn, Francis Faye, Janis Joplin, and Jackie Shane.
Electronic, House, and Disco (1970s and 1980s to now)
The 1970s and the 1980s often come to mind first when discussing the emergence of of LGBTQ+ identities in music: pop and rock music had become more mainstream, the “sexual revolution” had begun in the late 1960s, and disco culture of the 1970s and 1980s was directly associated with pioneering Black and queer musicians. Gender and sexual fluidity were more visible than ever before, which allowed artists like Freddie Mercury, Grace Jones, and David Bowie to exist in the ways they did. For people like David Bowie and Prince, it was the ambiguity of their sexuality that made the community surrounding their music a safe space for queer people.
However, these big names in pop and glam Rock are only the tip of the iceberg. An even larger queer community existed in disco, electronic, and dance music. It was the music played at underground queer clubs in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. The queer, drag ballroom “house” culture of the 1980s, chronicled in the 2005 documentary Paris is Burning, was soundtracked by disco, dance, and funk tracks.
The influence on more recent queer artists is not lost today. Artists like SOPHIE, who we tragically lost this year, melded dance-y synth distortion with pop melodies to create something entirely SOPHIE’s own. Honey Dijon, a transgender artist from Chicago, has been a north star for anyone in the house or electronic scenes. In an interview with Ssense she said, “This is a 30-year-old subculture that’s now above ground, and I try to convey that music from where I come from—queer Black culture. This music was started by queer people of color.” And since the late 1990s, “Queen of Bounce” Big Freedia has been growing in popularity and influence, collaborating with artists like Beyonce and Drake, and touring with huge acts across genres, like The Postal Service and Kesha. (Big Freedia, whose legal name is Freddie Ross Jr., identifies as a gay man, but in interviews has indicated she prefers “she/her” pronouns.)
Punk music came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s as a genre of music that inherently prides itself on questioning and rejecting social norms. For this reason, queer people have flocked to punk scenes since punk existed as it provided a place to safely to explore and express their sexualities.
The 1970s and 1980s saw artists like pioneering trans rocker Jayne County, who wrote the song “Man Enough To Be A Woman.” Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks, who is bisexual, wrote their hit “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” about a friend turned crush.
The 1990s and early 2000s saw the rise of the Riot Grrrl movement, which set out to normalize women's anger and celebrate their sexuality. Queercore bands like Team Dresch reclaimed queer language with songs like “Fageterian and Dyke.” Sleater Kinney’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” recontextualizes a confidence usually associated with men in rock music. Bikini Kill’s song, “Rebel Girl” is an unconditional love song to any woman living their truth, screaming “in her kiss, I taste the revolution.”
At the same time a movement called Sista Grrrl Riots, founded by Tamar-kali Brown, Maya Glick, Simi Stone, and Honeychild Coleman, was created for Black and other BIPOC women who felt excluded by the largely white Riot Grrrl scene. Their goal was to provide a safe space for Black and Brown women to create music and revolution with their own truths and experiences, and to lend visibility to BIPOC women in the punk movement. To this day, the Afropunk movement, known well for its annual music festival, tries to further this mission.
Prove It On Me Blues by Ma Rainey
Ma Rainey is one of the world’s most famous blues musician and someone people like to say was “allegedly queer”.
I 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
I don’t know. Seems obvious to me.
Chosen Family by Rina Sawayama and Elton John
The concept of chosen family encompasses any queer space and community that I have been a part of it. It is the truth that family, in fact, can be a choice and, for some queer people, must be a choice. It is something queer folks have celebrated forever and something that is present in all of these above discussions. Rina Sawayama and Elton John gave us an anthem encapsulating this this year.
It’s Okay To Cry by SOPHIE
It’s Okay To Cry is an outlier for SOPHIE seeing as SOPHIE’s music usually uses more synth, distortion, and industrial sounds. However, this song and video is significant because it accompanied SOPHIE coming out as transgender, and it is the first time SOPHIE’s voice and image are used in one of SOPHIE’s songs and videos.
Honey Dijon at Boiler Room at Berlin
A DJ set by the one and only Honey Dijon, a transgender DJ and electronic musician hailing from Chicago and currently based in New York City and Berlin.
Fagetarian and Dyke by Team Dresch
Team Dresch, 90’s queercore legends, mix angry, distorted, loudness with beautiful, measured melodies to really give you everything you need at once for your pride month celebrations.
Boot by Tamar-Kali
Tamar-Kali is a Brooklyn-based artist and revolutionary. She is one of the founders of the Sista Grrrl Riot movement.
Particle Mace by Aye Nako
Aye Nako is a punk band from Brooklyn, New York, a staple of the DIY scene there. The band and fanbase are incredibly intersectional and generally just one big safe space. Oh, to be at Market Hotel again, moshing as the J goes by the window. One day soon.
This list of genres, artists, and songs just scrapes the surface when it comes to holistically representing queer people in music. The truth is that queer people are so integrated into the music industry, that it would be near impossible to acknowledge everyone. The internet has helped create a platform for so many queer voices in music. So much of the work done by the artists listed above is to thank for how far we’ve come. We hope you enjoyed this brief history and list of queer influence throughout the history of music, and encourage you dive into these genres and find something new.
In addition to these amazing artists and songs above, make sure to follow and listen to our 'Love is Love' playlist on Spotify, and learn more about some of our fellow LGBTQ+ Songtrust clients, such as Davis Mallory and Claud.