The first of February saw the start of LGBTQ History Month and the importance of music in bringing about greater social equality cannot be understated. When we can find no hope in our own lives, we look to music for liberation. David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Elton John all redefined what it meant to be ‘normal’ and, in the process, helped to liberate anyone who didn’t fit society’s rigid expectations. In a world where there was no hope, no icons for the LGBTQ community, they became not just stars in a musical sense, but of hope and inspiration too.
While LGBTQ individuals were being shunned from society, it was gay, bisexual and lesbian individuals who dominated the music scene of the 20th century. From Lou Reed to The Kinks’ guitarist Dave Davis to George Michael to Elton John to Azelia Banks, not only have dominated the charts, but they have produced some of the most forward-thinking records of recent times. Their ability to put a human face to the tabooed terms of ‘homosexuality’ and ‘bisexuality’ helped challenge the discriminatory connotations of what it meant to be ‘gay’. When some of the most loved people on the planet are also the outcasts, then what did it mean to be part of the ‘mainstream’? The freaks were no longer freaks, but cool.
“I’m gay” David Bowie announced in 1972 only five years after homosexuality was decriminalised in the UK, before later retracting this statement in 1976 when he claimed he was bisexual before stating he was a “closet heterosexual” in 1983. While Bowie may have retracted his statement, he opened the closet door open for fellow LGBT musicians, offering inspiration at a time when Freddie Mercury and Elton John were still in the closet, Boy George still at school. Bowie’s ability to show us that there’s something incredibly human about feeling alien showed us it’s ok not to fit in; it’s ok to feel like a freak. There’s a hero, an alien-starman that lies within all of us and we shouldn’t let society tell us otherwise.
Of course, LGBTQ music and musicians haven’t been free from struggle. The Kinks’ 1970 hit ‘Lola’ was banned for its description of a sexual encounter with a transgender woman and, in a time where LGBTQ individuals were stigmatised as sexually perverse, lyrics like ‘girls with be boys and boys will be girls / it’s a mixed up shook up world’ challenged traditional expectations. People were beginning to see past the social constructs of ‘male’ and ‘female’, and the BBC wasn’t happy about it. Yet, while this may appear as a just another example of the silencing of a minority group, it helped build momentum for the LGBT cause: it was clear that they were being inflicted to unfair discrimination.
Being gay in a world which tells you to be straight is hard, but musicians’ ability to hold two fingers up at the establishment provided much need hope for LGBT individuals. Musicians not only produce music, but they become heroes; we related to them in a way that politicians can only dream of. Would David Bowie be the hero he is today if it wasn’t for is boldness to transcend all social boundaries? Would Freddie Mercury be as loved if it wasn’t for his flamboyant stage presence? While both produced some of the most iconic records of the last century, it was their ability to make the shocking acceptable that allowed them to surpass the limits of ‘musicians’ and become ‘stars’.
When Freddie Mercury donned a tight mini leather skirt, heels and a wig in Queen’s music video for ‘I Want to Break Free’, he was singing about more than just breaking free from the pain of a failed relationship. Mercury sings about the constraints of 80’s Britain and its rigid social values. He dreams of a world where gender and sexuality are no limitations, where people are ‘free’ to be who they want to be.
Whether you want to be a bisexual-alien-rock-star like Ziggy Stardust or an androgynous chameleon like Boy George, it has been musicians who have continually given us the confidence to do so. In showing us the superficiality in traditional expectations of men and women, they give us an insight into a future where gender and sexuality are no limitations.
Unfortunately, the world is not perfect, and in 2015, over 5,000 homophobic hate crimes were reported to the police in the UK, but the actual figure of such crimes is suspected to be around four times higher than this as many still feel too afraid to report such crimes to the police. There is still a long way to go before equality is achieved. But the confidence of musicians over the past fifty years to be themselves in a world which tells them to do otherwise reminds us how a rainbow can only appear after a storm. One day the LGBT community will be able to break free, and they will have a lot to thank LGBT musicians for this achievement.
Words by Juliette Rowsell