Evolution of LGBTQ+ Acceptance in Music & The Industry
Music has always been a huge part of my life. It is what keeps me optimistic during tough times, cheerful during joyful moments, and I would not be the first to admit the occasional sad song or two keeps my soul at rest. Essentially, music is a part of everything to me.
As an LGBTQ+ person of colour, it’s interesting to see how music has evolved within my own lifetime. From songs like “Same Love” by Macklemore or “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga becoming record-shattering hits, it’s clear that acceptance in the music industry has come a long way for underrepresented groups. While Macklemore may have used his platform to promote LGBTQ+ activism and inclusivity not only in society but in the music industry as an organization, he is definitely not the first.
In the 1930s after the Great War, there was a rapid expansion of bars since the demand to “party” has surged. Similar to gay bars that exist today, there was an increase in the number of drag queens performing at such venues similar to present times. However, at the time, drag queens were known as “pansy performers”. Julian Eltinge became one of the most well-known female impersonators at the time and was booked to play in several venues and appeared in numerous films. These drag queen performers would be the first wave of workers to resist societal pressures and unknowingly shape LGBTQ+ inclusion in the music industry as an organization. This would be the beginning of the rapid evolution of acceptance for LGBTQ+ artists as well (Elliot, 2020).
The social dynamics of the society in North America after the 2nd World War meant LGBTQ+ artists had to be careful to not offend or disturb societal/heteronormative norms. For example, Jazz legend Billie Holliday was rumoured to be bisexual, but nobody cared since it did not conflict with their desire to appreciate his music (Winkles, 2019).
LGBT+ acts were an essential part of the jazz and blues era. Tony Jackson, an out-gay black piano player and composer, was a mentor to Jelly Roll Morton, who many consider having been the father of jazz; Duke Ellington’s principal composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was an out gay man too (Read, 2018). During the blues era, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were the biggest stars at that time and both were actually bisexual (Elliot, 2020).
In the early 50s and 60s, gay stars such as Johnny Mathis, Lesley Gore, and Tab Hunter rose to prominence but kept their personal lives hidden tightly in their closets. As the 60s started to swing, many of the biggest stars of the era were steered by gay managers and producers, including Brian Epstein (The Beatles), Joe Meek (The Honeycombs), and Larry Parnes (Billy Fury). Out front, however, the damage an outing could cause a career kept closet doors firmly closed (Winkles, 2019).
It was the 70s, and the years following the Stonewall Riots and the birth of the modern gay liberation movement, that saw more dramatic evidence that LGBTQ artists, and those that supported them, could be more confident at last. Straight artists such as The Sweet, Alice Cooper, and New York Dolls experimented with make-up and flamboyant theatrics, and a societal change was made when, in 1972, David Bowie announced to the world he was gay – even though he later said he wasn’t (Elliot, 2020).
As for women, the mainstream media favoured safer, straighter women such as Diana Ross, who recorded “I’m Coming Out” in 1980 and which attracted the gay market to maintain their careers. This illustrates the allyship that artists began to brand themselves with in relation to the LGBTQ+ community. Songs such as "I'm Coming Out" are seen as LGBTQ+ anthems in terms of self-acceptance and pride amongst members of the community.
Later in the 1980s, there was a growing disinterest in the US for disco—right before the AIDS crisis began to bite. Within a few short years, the advances made by the LGBTQ community looked all but obliterated as gay men, in particular, struggled to cope with the catastrophic impact of the then untreatable HIV virus. The global HIV epidemic has always been closely linked with negative attitudes towards LGBT people, especially men who have sex with men (sometimes referred to as MSM); a group that is particularly affected by HIV and AIDS (Elliot, 2020).
At the beginning of HIV epidemic, in many countries, gay men were frequently targeted in hate crimes and systemic oppression in healthcare as they were seen to be responsible for the transmission of HIV. The media, which became increasingly homophobic, fuelled this view. Headlines such as “Alert over ‘gay plague’”, and “‘Gay plague’ may lead to blood ban on homosexuals” demonized the LGBT community (Avert, 2019). This impacted the music industry and the inclusivity of LGBTQ+ artists in the industry. However, a few famous stars rose to the occasion to help combat the stigma.
Elton John also emerged to create a huge charity effort that generated millions for AIDS causes. He started the Elton John AIDS Foundation which has raised over $600 million dollars towards research and treatment of the disease. This undoubtedly helped to fight the stigma between gay men and HIV/AIDS.
Later, Madonna used her position as the undisputed Queen Of Pop to provoke and challenge the sexual status quo. Her 1992 work with album Erotica and the Sex book was as bold a move as any mainstream artist would ever attempt.
And now . . .
The 2000s saw LGBT music branch off into its own genre, and new artists like Lady Gaga, Neon Trees, Miley Cyrus, and Troye Sivan supported a growing industry, spreading the message of equality and positivity.
It's quite comforting to see how music has evolved. I could have never imagined thriving LGBTQ+ rappers in the music industry, however, music has evolved significantly in the past century and it is now more accepting than artists 40 years ago could have ever imagined. For the last song in this article, I wanted to leave you with Lil Nas X's "Holiday" (a rap/pop song) to highlight that one of 2020's most popular singles is a song that alludes to LGBTQ relationships.
Simply put, LGBTQ+ artists have come a long way towards acceptance in the music industry.
Avert. (2019, October 10). Homophobia and HIV. Retrieved December 4, 2020, from https://www.avert.org/professionals/hiv-social-issues/homophobia
Elliott, M. (2020, September 15). How LGBTQ musicians broke barriers to the mainstream: Udiscover. Retrieved December 4, 2020, from https://www.udiscovermusic.com/in-depth-features/lgbtq-musicians-mainstream/
Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF). (n.d.). Retrieved December 4, 2020, from https://www.devex.com/organizations/elton-john-aids-foundation-ejaf-44481#:~:text=Elton%20John%20created%20the%20Foundation,with%20or%20dying%20of%20AIDS.
Read, 1. (2018, February 09). We are family: Exploring the history of LGBT music. Retrieved December 4, 2020, from https://thebristolmag.co.uk/history-of-lgbt-music/
Winkles, H. (2019, June 03). A history of LGBTQ music. Retrieved December 4, 2020, from https://resurgetmag.com/2019/06/02/a-history-of-lgbtq-music/