LGBT History in 21 pieces of music

There’s a long cultural history of men loving men, women loving women and of people who didn’t fit neatly into the categories ‘male’ and ‘female’. For LGBT History Month, Colin Wilson presents a history of queer music.

The history of this music goes back long before the beginning of modern LGBT politics with the Stonewall riot of 1969. If we begin an account in the eighteenth century and gradually come up to the present, we find that we’re beginning in a world very unlike our own, and that we’re dealing with something much more complex than a simple celebration.

Queer classical

George Frideric Handel, ‘Lascia Ch’io Pianga’ (1711)

There is a centuries-long European tradition of castrated male singers: castrati were singing in the Sistine Chapel in 1558, and the last Vatican castrato, Allessandro Moreschi, died in 1922. In the eighteenth century, thousands of Italian boys were castrated every year. Castration doesn’t just keep the voice high: it causes the bones to continue to grow, so that the castrati were tall, and their rib cages large. Farinelli, depicted in the video (from the rather tacky film of the same name), only needed to breathe once a minute. Combined with rigorous training, this made castrati capable of extraordinary virtuoso performances – a few were the superstars of their day, becoming rich and famous. It was that chance of riches that made castration so widespread – comparable, perhaps, with present-day boxers, who accept the likelihood of brain damage in exchange for a small chance of wealth and fame.

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier (1911)

Opera doesn’t get any less queer as we enter the twentieth century with Strauss’s 1911 Der Rosenkavalier. In this scene, close to the opera’s conclusion, the older and more sophisticated Marschallin (in lilac) gives up her young lover Octavian (a male role but also sung by a woman) to his beloved Sophie. The Marschallin sings that she always knew she would have to give up Octavian; Octavian sings about how much he loves Sophie; Sophie sings about her feelings of gratitude and respect for the Marschallin; and they all do this at once. There then follows a final duet (here’s an excerpt from a different and very queer-looking production) in which two women, one playing a man, sing about the joy of their heterosexual romance.

Benjamin Britten, Peter Grimes (1945)

In his superb history of twentieth-century art music, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross notes how many significant figures in modern art music were gay or bi – he suggests that while popular music was dominated by boy-girl romance, classical music and opera left open more space for other experiences. Certainly it’s striking how many of Britten’s operas, though written in a period of Cold War homophobia, address queer themes. Death in Venice is the story of an older man’s obsession with a beautiful youth; Turn of the Screw involves suspicions of various forbidden sexual relationships; Midsummer Night’s Dream creates the alternative sensuous world of the fairies, with the fairy king Oberon singing counter-tenor, the same pitch as the castrati.

Peter Grimes is the grim tale of how a Suffolk fishing village hounds Grimes, a morally ambiguous outsider, until he kills himself by sailing out to sea and sinking his fishing boat. In this concluding scene, the villagers watch the suicide while denying this is what’s happening (at 3:00: ‘what is it?’, ‘nothing I can see’, ‘one of these rumours’) – after which the community unites in a chilling final chorus.

Between the wars

Kurt Schwabach and Mischa Spoliansky, ‘The Lavender Song’ (1920)

The November 1918 revolution in Germany led to change in every aspect of society, and in the 1920s mass organisations of LGBT people arose, along with a burgeoning press and commercial scene. Kurt Schwabach and Mischa Spoliansky’s 1920 cabaret song in explicit defence of same-sex desire, from that period, is one of the first gay anthems. A modern recording with German lyrics also exists, as does a 1921 recording.

Lucille Brogan, ‘B.D. Woman’s Blues’ (1935)

The early twentieth century saw a mass movement of African Americans from the rural south to the cities of the north. Harlem in New York became an urban centre offering a huge range of services from which black people were excluded in other parts of the city. Harlem was also the location for drag balls, attended by thousands of people and reported in the African American press. Black women also broke with sexual and gender norms – Gladys Bentley performed in a tuxedo, backed up by a chorus line of female impersonators. Here Lucille Brogan sings a defiant blues from 1935, defending the independence of lesbian women.

The 50s and 60s – Cold War homophobia

After the social disruption of World War Two, the US government was keen to promote the family by subsidising suburban housing – at least, for white and heterosexual people. Black people whose mortgage applications came from ‘redlined’ districts were excluded, as were gay people discharged from the military as ‘undesirable’. Cold War homophobia also characterised a grim period for British queer people.

Veteran rocker Mitch Mitchell tells some tales…
The 1950s in the US and the UK was the era when men were men, women were women and anything in between was probably illegal.
For people in the public eye, to admit or be discovered as gay was career suicide, apart from risking jail terms. Movie actors such as Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift and Randolph Scott all hid their sexual preferences from a prying public. James Dean was bisexual – as was, it is widely believed, Cary Grant.
The music industry was no different. Many of the early rock and rollers hid their homosexuality or bisexuality for the same reasons.
Perhaps one of the best known bisexuals was Little Richard. Born in Macon, Georgia, he moved to New Orleans, a city that was a little more open than most of the rest of the USA. Richard began hanging out in the various gay clubs and came under the tutelage of Billy Wright, a rhythm and blues singer with a huge following in the area, especially in the gay areas. Wright introduced Richard to S.Q. Reeder who performed as Esquerita and is reckoned to be the person who taught Richard to play piano. When he began his career, he was known as ‘Little Richard – The Georgia Peach’.
Richard was bi and for some years had a girlfriend called Angel who worked as a stripper. In Charles White’s biography of Richard, it is asserted that Buddy Holly used to get his rocks off watching Richard and Angel getting it on in dressing rooms whilst on tour together. I obviously cannot attest to the validity of that.
A hit making vocal group of the day was the Coasters. The songwriters, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote most of their hits, said in their autobiography, that at least one and maybe two of that outfit were gay men.
Another New Orleans singer, Frankie Ford, hit singer on the song ‘Sea Cruise’ also had to hide his sexuality. Ironically, Huey Smith, who with his band The Clowns, provided the backing on that track had originally recorded it with his regular lead vocalist, Bobby Marchan. Marchan also made a living as a drag queen and Smith thought the record stood a better  chance of sales with a more macho, white, lead vocalist, so had Marchan’s vocal track dropped and Ford’s added.
When Clyde McPhatter, the first lead vocalist with the Drifters and later solo artist, died in 1972, I recall reading in one obituary that he was gay and died after several years of deep depression because of having to hide that fact. However, there was also a story doing the rounds that in the ’50s, he had fathered an illegitimate child with fellow Atlantic records artist, Ruth Brown. Both, of course, could be true.
In the UK, there were stories and gossip surrounding artists such as Cliff Richard and Billy Fury. I stress that these were only stories, but the repression of the times made it easy for people who held grudges to assert homosexuality as a weapon to try and bring an artist down.
Lesbian sex was not illegal, but most acts covered up gayness to avoid losing fans. Lesley Gore, hit singer of ‘It’s My Party’, came out in the ’80s and it was an open secret about Dusty Springfield.

Jane Russell, ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love’ (1953)

For all that, we can’t let the ’50s and ’60s go without mentioning the occasional performance that sent out signals to those in the know – such as the glorious high-camp performance of ‘Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?’ by Jane Russell and a troupe of near-naked male athletes in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (ignore the subtitles).

The late 1960s – the first signs of change

The Velvet Underground, ‘Venus in Furs’ (1967)

The Velvets represent a huge and liberating break from the musical and social worlds Mitch describes above. A non-standard guitar tuning and amplified viola evoke the BDSM imagery of Venus in Furs, a 19th-century porn classic by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian aristocrat who gave his name to the word ‘masochism’ and also happens to be an ancestor of Marianne Faithful. Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground’s lead singer, was to break through more taboos with Walk on the Wild Side, a 1972 song describing various trans members of the New York avant-garde art scene around Andy Warhol, while his Caroline Says II depicts domestic violence.

The Kinks, ‘Lola‘ (1970)

Released in June 1970, before gay liberation arrived in Britain, ‘Lola’ reached the top ten in Britain and America. This was probably the first time that trans people were mentioned in a pop song – a track described at the time by Record Mirror as a ‘sex change record’. It was banned in Australia the following November for its ‘controversial subject matter’.

The 70s – music from the movements

Sylvester, ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ (1978) 

The gay liberation movement that began with the Stonewall riot in 1969 was not about respectability or conforming to gender norms. Many of those who initiated the riot were people of colour, and one of the first messages of support for the new movement came from Huey Newton of the Black Panthers. No performer better represents disco as a music that embraced queer and straight, black and white, than Sylvester – and there’s that high male voice again.

Tom Robinson Band, ‘(Sing If You’re) Glad to be Gay’ (1978) 

This is simply THE anthem of the ’70s British gay movement. This was a time when ‘gay pride’ only had the support of a minority of LGBT people, when bars didn’t support pride marches and endorsements from mainstream parties was nowhere to be seen. Yet at Anti Nazi League events out bi man Tom Robinson not only sang the song but got thousands of straight people singing it too.

Miquel Brown, ‘So Many Men, So Little Time’ (1983)

As the radical impulse of Stonewall began to fade, one result of the new movement was the expansion of the commercial scene of gay men’s clubs and bars and the music played in them. Much of this wasn’t very political and some of it wasn’t very good as music – but this video, as Miquel Brown staggers through a gym full of sweaty hunks, echoes something of the newfound hedonism of the time. Those looking for something musically better might want to check out Phyllis Nelson’s glorious Don’t Stop the Train. These records typically involved black female singers articulating the feelings of (typically white) gay men, but no one thought that odd.

Meg Christian, ‘The Road I Took to You’  (1977)

The early ’80s movement increasingly separated into two along lines of gender, and if gay men’s music was disco, one of the main forces in lesbian music was Olivia Records, which sold over a million discs in the 1970s and 80s. Artists on Olivia saw themselves as part of a community which validated women’s experiences as they came to live a life as lesbians. That concern for sincerity and authenticity was reflected in a musical style which often involved acoustic guitar and close harmony vocals. Olivia also reflected a political strategy – that women could find liberation by establishing businesses. Though the implications of that approach remained undeveloped at the time, in some ways it was a first step away from radical social transformation towards today’s ‘lean-in’ feminism.

Klaus Nomi, ‘Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix’ (1978) 

Lesbian and gay culture remained in these years in its various ways marginal and experimental. From the New York avant garde we’ve already met in the shape of The Velvet Underground now emerged Klaus Nomi. Here Nomi, a self-described soprano (high male voices once again) sings an aria from Saint-Saëns’ 1877 opera Samson et Dalila, as part of a 1978 vaudeville show (aria starts around 3:03). Not that Nomi limited himself to opera or the soprano range – here he is performing Total Eclipse in the costume with which he’s most associated.

Finding a place

Melissa Etheridge and kd lang, ‘You Can Sleep While I Drive’ (1989)

By now, in the mid-80s, there were spaces in some cities where LGBT people could live more openly – but they were few and far between. Moving away from homophobic communities was a recurring theme – Etheridge’s song opens with the words ‘C’mon baby, let’s get out of this town’. At one point she and lang were a couple – certainly the audience loves them together.

Bronski Beat, ‘Smalltown Boy’ (1984)

Moving from hometowns to London was the personal story of Bronski Beat’s members, and the video for the record addressed those themes in a hard-hitting way that was new for mainstream pop, as was the fact that all the band members were openly gay. The single was released in 1984, the year the miners’ strike began, and Bronski Beat stood firmly on the left, performing at the Pits and Perverts Ball, a major fundraiser for Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.


Madonna, ‘In This Life’ (1992)

The history of LGBT people since Stonewall isn’t one of steady progress. AIDS gave homophobes the chance to push back, as with Thatcher’s Clause 28 in 1988. Ronald Reagan did nothing while gay men, IV drug users and others died in the tens of thousands – by 2008, 81,542 people were dead in New York alone. Over 670,000 people have now died across the United States, Sylvester and Klaus Nomi among them.

As New York activist Sarah Schulman writes, ‘Our friends died and our world was destroyed because of the neglect of real people who also have names and faces… The names of our friends whom Ronald Reagan murdered are not engraved in a tower of black marble. There has never been a government enquiry into the fifteen years of official neglect that permitted AIDS to become a worldwide disaster. Where is our permanent memorial?’

kd lang, ‘So in Love’ (1990)

Gay men and lesbians came together to fight AIDS and to build organisations to support the sick – especially in the US, where no National Health Service existed. The video Red Hot and Blue was a fundraiser for AIDS work, consisting of cover versions of songs by Cole Porter, a gay men of an earlier time. kd lang’s video deals directly with the practicalities of caring work.

New Century, New Voices

Gossip, ‘Standing in the Way of Control’ (2006)

An inspiring anthem dedicated by the redoubtable Beth Ditto to ‘queers, straights, girls and boys’ – ‘It’s part not giving in/And part trusting your friends/You do it all again/But you don’t stop trying’.

Anohni (recorded as Antony and the Johnsons), ‘Bird Gerhl’ (2005)

Gender-variant people have always been a part of LGBT history, but over the last twenty years trans people have been specifically accepted as part of the LGBT movement, from Stonewall to unions, from students to media. Anohni has been one of the musical voices articulating trans experience alongside her other political concerns, such as climate change.

Janelle Monáe, ‘Make Me Feel’ (2018)

If trans voices haven’t always been given enough of a platform in LGBT life and politics, the same is true of bi people, and often black people. Janelle Monáe is only one of many voices putting that right, as is Frank Ocean with his track Chanel.

Planningtorock, ‘The Breaks’ (2011)

The slightly unsettling experimentation of the Velvet Underground or Klaus Nomi continues with nonbinary feminist musician Planningtorock, aka Jam Rostron. They’re aliens, aren’t they? What’s the relationship between these people. It’s all a bit sinister. Should we be dancing? Oh well…

Grace Petrie, ‘Black Tie’ (2018)

Petrie combines a protest song in the tradition of Glad to be Gay with the personal experience of ’80s lesbian music – and ends with the reassurance that ‘girl, you’re gonna be so happy – girl, you’re gonna be just fine.’ Maybe this a good point to finish up. No, no, I’m fine, I’ve just got something in my eye…


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