We’ve officially launched into the most magical time of the year and even though this year will look a lot different than usual, we can still make June as queer as possible. In order to honor the struggles of those before us, we will be covering some grim yet necessary parts of our LGBTQ+ History this month. Before we explore the pain and struggles of our people, we want to start off with a celebration of the music and anthems that have marched us through our darkest times. 

We do have to point out that many of these songs and artists were not queer themselves. This was due to society’s rejection of the LGBTQ which prevented record labels and radio stations from signing and playing queer musicians. However, music speaks to all people regardless of who they are or even the message intended. Despite the pushback and open hostility of those around them, our people still sang, still danced, still marched along to the rhythm with PRIDE. So let’s dive into a list of the most notorious and rousing anthems of our past. 

Of course, we must start with the song that launched it all, 1939’s  Somewhere Over the Rainbow. There are countless “brick roads” that lead us to the reasons the rainbow has become a symbol of queer pride, but one of the strongest theories is tied to the ‘Friends of Dorothy’. A term coined in the late ’40s and used especially during the 1950s and 60s by gay men who wanted to reveal their orientation without fear of being arrested or beaten. A similar term was used in England except the British used the term Friends of Mrs. King’, a wink at the term Queen which was already known as a reference to a gay man. 

Queers in America chose the phrase ‘Friends of Dorothy” due in part to the LGBTQ popularity of the song Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and due to the extreme fandom in the queer community over Wizard of Oz star, Judy Garland. The actress had a huge following of LGBTQ supporters for many reasons. For one, she kept marrying gay men and didn’t seem that bothered by their affairs with other men. For another reason, she was known to support queer artists and even managed a few and had them open for her act. 

But there were plenty of personal reasons why the LGBTQ community related to Judy. She was one of the first actresses to be mercilessly dragged through the mud by the media and tabloid magazines. Her mannerisms were considered too masculine and her weight was too heavy. Many lesbians related to the scrutiny and Garland’s defiance of traditional beauty standards. Queer people as a whole related to the tragedy around her life. No matter how hard she tried, Judy was consistently rejected by society, maligned, and misunderstood. 

Eventually, her depression ended in suicide. She died just days before the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and some have even attributed the queer communities grief over Garland’s death as fuel for the fires of anger and unrest that had swept Greenwich Village. It was because of her death and her life that Somewhere Over the Rainbow became a cult classic in LGBTQ circles and is largely responsible for the rainbow becoming our symbol of hope and PRIDE.

While Over the Rainbow is no doubt the most famous of the early queer songs, it did have its predecessors and competitors. Das Lila Lied (German for The Lavender Song) is considered the first explicit, ‘Out’ anthem. And was written in response to Magnus Hirschfeld’s launch of the Institute for Sexual Science. Some of the lyrics, translated into English, ask dramatically:

Why the torment

to impose

morals of others on us?

We, listen to this,

are what we are,

even if they want to hang us.

The final lines however have a much bolder and proud stance. Declaring:

Then we will have contended successfully for our rights

we will not suffer anymore, but we will be tolerated! [4]

Among other early songs were gay jazz performer and civil rights activists  Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life and flamboyant British composer Noel Coward’s Mad About a Boy. Because of the time period, the artists could not live openly gay, though Strayhorn was about as open as possible. And they certainly could not sing about their love in a serious manner. Instead, early artists often resorted to coy and campy songs meant to poke fun at their circumstances. 

In Noel Coward’s Mad About A Boy he sings:

Mad about the boy

I know it’s stupid to be mad about the boy

I’m so ashamed of it but must admit the sleepless nights I’ve had

About the boy

 

He melts my foolish heart in every single scene

Although I’m quite aware that here and there are traces of the cad

About the boy

Lord knows I’m not a fool girl

I really shouldn’t care

Lord knows I’m not a schoolgirl

In the flurry of her first affair [5]

In these songs, the artists are more open yet at the same time the music is passed off as lighthearted fun and not to be taken seriously. Though those in the queer underworld knew better and the songs were often played in the Molly Houses and secret gay bars. But music is an art and thus self-interpreted so there were many songs adopted by queer groups along the way that were never specifically about LGBTQ+ love.

One such song was from the 1957 West Side Story Play, There’s a Place for Us, more commonly known as, Somewhere. The story of two teens being forced apart because of cultural bias no doubt resonated with queer listeners everywhere. After all, the lyrics summarized most LGBTQ couple’s dreams perfectly, stating:

There’s a place for us

Somewhere a place for us

Peace and quiet and open-air

Wait for us somewhere

There’s a time for us

Someday there’ll be a time for us

Time together with time to spare

Time to learn

Time to care

But as the sexual revolution took off and LGBTQ+ people began to be more open in their cries for equality, the queer anthems took a turn from longing to defiance. One very popular song among the homos of the day was the 1964 recording of You Don’t Own Me by Lesley Gore. Which was later covered in 1970 by future out lesbian Dusty Springfield. In fact, the rumors were already swirling around Dusty that she might “swing that way”. And she told the London Standard in 1970 “I know that I’m as perfectly capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t. She continued, ‘There was someone on television the other night who admitted that he swings either way. I suppose he could afford to say it, but I, being a pop singer, shouldn’t even admit that I might think that way. But if the occasion arose I don’t see why I shouldn’t.[8] 

In truth, the singer had already experienced many “occasions” to be with a woman. And 13 years later she would marry actress Teda Bracci. It was due to the singer’s rumored orientation and You Don’t Own Me’s defiant lyrics that made Springfield’s rendition of the song so popular in gay bars.   As did Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 mega hit I Will Survive where the legend belts out:

Go on now go, Walk out the door!

Just turn around now,

Cause you’re not welcome anymore

Weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye

Did you think I’d crumble?

Did you think I’d lay down and die?

Oh no not I, I will survive! [9]

And then there was the Tom Robinson Band’s 1977, in your face, Glad to be Gay. Which gave the British public, and the world, a piece of our mind with its harsh sarcasm on reality. The biting words matched a somber yet darkly whimsical tune as lead singer Tom Robinson confronted the world:

The British Police are the best in the world

I don’t believe one of these stories I’ve heard

‘Bout them raiding our pubs for no reason at all

Lining the customers up by the wall

Picking out people and knocking them down

Resisting arrest as they’re kicked on the ground

Searching their houses and calling them queer

I don’t believe that sort of thing happens here

Sing if you’re glad to be gay

Sing if you’re happy that way[10]

Yet with the violence and backlash of the budding gay rights movement, there was also finally some hope. And so the end of the 1970s sparked the beginning of celebrating Pride with songs like Abba’s Dancing Queen, and The Village People’s Macho Man. Yet it was 80s that really exploded with many of the pops we still hear frequently today. Starting the decade strong with the 1980 release of Diana Ross’s hit song, I’m Coming Out. The song itself has nothing to do with the LGBTQ community, however, the term ‘coming out’ is steeped deep in our history.

The phrase seems to have come from the queer drag balls hosted in the black and brown communities during the early to mid 20th century. The concept of a gay man ‘coming out’ to his friends in the form of a formal celebration dates back to the Molly Houses of the 16 and 1700s. But it was queer culture in poor neighborhoods that made the balls a regal affair. As early as 1931 the Baltimore Afro-American published a piece on these balls stating:

“The coming out of new debutantes into homosexual society was an outstanding feature of Baltimore’s eighth annual frolic of the pansies.” [11]

Other songs of the decade had no ties to the LGBTQ aside from our love to dance and party. Whitney’s I Want to Dance with Somebody, The Weather Girls It’s Raining Men, and Cher’s Believe were played on repeat in gay clubs across continents. Our hope and resiliency are significant when one considers the darkness of the 1980s. After some initial wins in the 70s such as the declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, the 1980s brought a staunch wave of conservatism following the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. LGBTQ rights seemed stalled in a social wide stance of “dont ask, don’t tell”. As if society as a whole was ready to accept that queer people existed and to leave us alone, provided we didn’t show our queerness in the general public.

This was especially true for many LGBTQ who now knew that they could find love and express themselves but not at home. Most would have to leave their families and friends behind and head to a city where they could find others like them. The Bronski Beat released a song in 1984 that spoke directly about this issue. Their song and music video to Small Town Boy tell the story of a youth kicked out of the house because of his sexual inclinations. The song begins with these lyrics:

You leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case

Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad and lonely face

Mother will never understand why you had to leave

But the answers you seek will never be found at home

The love that you need will never be found at home [12]

Yet our sacrifice only made our Pride stronger. The 1990s brought a huge wave of positive visibility to the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately, it started with the appropriation queer Black and LatinX culture through Madonna’s iconic hit, Vogue. Of course, the pop star insists she was merely inspired by the NYC Ball scene. But people of color have heard that line plenty of times before. And we have to take serious issue with the fact that Madonna chose to call out all white performers during her supposed “homage”, even if many of them were queer. None of them would have ever been part of the ball scene she was supposedly honoring. 

Still, we can’t deny the attention and popularity the song brought to a queer created artform. And Madonna did hire 6 gay dancers to star with her in her performances and in her wildly popular music video. She also gave credit to the two ball performers with whom she initially brought on the teach her voguing. Jose Gutierez was one of the ball scene voguers she brought onto set. In 2017 he stated in an interview: 

“I don’t look at it as she took from the [LGBTQ] community…in reality, I feel that she took two of [our] own of the community and gave us this opportunity and brought us to the forefront. So I think that was her way of giving back to the community.”[13]

Whatever the truth is, we can say that Vogue was a cultural shift towards the beginning of acceptance of open queer art. This was visible just two years later when drag queen RuPaul ranked number 2 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Songs with his worldwide smash Supermodel, a.k.a You Better Work. While there was plenty of hate and backlash, the numbers spoke for themselves. And it showed the progress around LGBTQ acceptance. Here was an openly gay man, in full drag, singing a dance song that wasn’t queer specific and everyone was openly enjoying the song.

The days of a star hiding their sexuality weren’t over, they still technically are not, yet this proved that you could be open and successful. And with that came more, open, LGBTQ stars sharing their music. Now instead of the queer community always having to adopt straight singers music as our own, the tables were often turned. Instead, straight listeners could adopt the music of openly, queer artists. Such as Melissa Etheridge Come to my Window, the Rent Musical hit Take Me or Leave Me, sung by a lesbian couple.

Today we are fortunate to have a wide variety of artists from all genres and identities to fill our Pride playlists and fuel our parties with great music. But many of the songs of the past still apply and are played frequently. Often with nostalgia as we remember those before us, or as we remember our own moments where we danced freely and unashamed. As you build your own list this month, make sure you add some of the standards.

Your recommended resource are all of the above videos which we have linked in our online script. And your homework is to create a playlist and share with Your Queer Story. 

RESOURCES:

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