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25 Essential LGBTQ Pride Songs

From Sylvester to Perfume Genius to everyone in between, editors pick the most evocative, transformative songs

Is there an LGBTQ sensibility? What was it 40 years ago, before much of today’s language for gender and sexual identities even existed? Or, much more simply: Which songs best evoke the sex, drama, heartache, struggle, liberation and mindfucks of queer lives then and now? What follows is not a comprehensive (or ranked) list, but one that bridges the gap between post-Stonewall disco parties and gender-queer millennial rock of today. While some classics do appear on our list, others do not – sorry, Gloria Gaynor, Kylie Minogue, RuPaul, Britney and Cher, we still adore you – here are 25 essential pride songs from the 1970s to today. 

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Elton John, “Elton’s Song” (1981)

An overlooked one-off from 1981’s The Fox, when Elton was still fumbling through the darkest, most confused period of his career. It’s a quiet piano ballad about growing up gay. The lyrics come from the out-and-proud British punk rocker Tom Robinson, who had a hit of his own with “Glad to be Gay.” The payoff is the tender moment at the end when Elton sings, “I would give my life/For a single night beside you.” Maybe he scared himself with how emotional he could be – it was years before he tried anything this revealing again. –RS

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The Weather Girls, “It’s Raining Men” (1983)

Two amazing facts about this wet, frothy, muscle-bound dream of a dance jam: David Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer co-wrote it (with Paul Jabara), and none other than Donna Summer passed on recording it. “Lyrically she hated it, because she had become a born-again Christian. She thought it was blasphemous,” Shaffer told Vanity Fair. No matter:  Two Tons o’ Fun, rechristened the Weather Girls (featuring multi-decade MVP studio singer Martha Wash), laid it down instead, landing a massive hit that appealed to any man-craving human enduring a dry spell. Hallelujah. –JR

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Erasure, “A Little Respect” (1988)

Much of Erasure’s discography embodies not precisely celebratory gay pride but gay romantic reality – a frankness about the emotional, if not overtly sexual, lives of gay men toward the end of the 20th century. So when out British duo Andy Bell and Vince Clarke’s plaintive yet buoyant single became a worldwide hit in gay-unfriendly 1988, it felt quietly revolutionary to anyone in the know. Did straight teens in Iowa realize that they were bopping at prom to a “Borderline”-like plea from one vulnerable, smitten man to his cold, withholding boyfriend? The gay teens and tweens, most of them closeted, definitely did. “If you’re doing music, you should use it for something and have substance,” Bell once told Seventeen. “Being gay and open about it is my substance.” –JR

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Madonna, “Vogue” (1990)

With a small budget of $5,000, Madonna and her then go-to remixer Shep Pettibone banged out this track (originally considered a B side for another single), improvising that movie-star rap last-minute in a basement studio in midtown Manhattan. “She was always a first-take artist,” Pettibone told Billboard in 2015. The result wasn’t just one of the Queen of Pop’s most definitive hits but an improbable connector between Old Hollywood, the late Eighties club scene and Harlem drag balls, finding glamour, subversion, inspiration and self-preservation at the peak of the AIDS epidemic. (Plus, that video! Those men! The dancing!) With this as her springboard, Madonna would later dive head-first into LGBT subcultures via her “Justify My Love” video and, more expansively, in her Sex book and Erotica album. Soul is in the musical. –JR

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George Michael, “Freedom! ’90” (1990)

It would be eight more years until George Michael would come out to the general public, but the gifted, soulful and charismatic former Wham! frontman had long been a white-hot sex symbol, role model and trendsetter for gay men and other LGBTQ individuals across the world. “In terms of my work, I’ve never been reticent in terms of defining my sexuality. I write about my life,” he told CNN in his 1998 coming-out interview. And while later music would directly address his sexuality and his relationships (including the loss of a partner to AIDS), his ageless 1990 single pointed to a radical, transformative honesty not yet ready to be said aloud: “I think there’s something you should know/I think it’s time I told you so/There’s something deep inside of me / There’s someone else I’ve got to be.” The accompanying video – in which the marquee-handsome superstar goes M.I.A. to let supermodels do the lip-syncing, and his cheesy Faith-era leather jacket goes up in flames – remains unmatched. –JR

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Deee-Lite, “Groove Is in the Heart” (1990)

Expertly layering one funky sample after another, the psychedelic, pansexual trio of Deee-Lite – fronted by a drag-inspired Lady Miss Kier – introduced a vibrant queer club-kid energy and aesthetic to the masses with this orgiastic track and accompanying video. It remains a magnetic gateway for anyone itching to let their freak flag fly.  –JR

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Pansy Division, “Anthem” (1993)

These Bay Area gay punk pioneers found a hint of mainstream fame when they toured with Green Day on their Dookie run in 1994, but it was their sexy lyrics and who-gives-a-fuck attitude that endeared them to a generation of queer kids – before that term was even fashionable. It’s difficult to pick one song that defines them – with songs like “Dick of Death,” “Groovy Underwear” or their classic cover of Prince’s “Jack You Off” – but we went with one that seems to defy the idea of a gay “anthem” no matter how you think of it. “One thing that we have is that we’ve always sung about being gay. We’re not just gay and musicians,” Jon Ginoli told Rolling Stone last year before the release of their latest album, Quite Contrary. “We have sung about being gay as a part of the topic within our songs. I think, over time, some of them are less specifically gay than they were at first because it seemed like, when we had the chance that was really what we wanted to sing about and that was really unique.” –JP

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Melissa Etheridge, “Come to My Window” (1993)

Etheridge was feeling lonesome on tour, longing for a lover who was slipping away, when she penned this hit that ended up on her brazenly titled breakthrough album, Yes I Am. Little did she know that her cowgirl blues would not only win her the Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance but would also yield an empowering theme for the gay community. “At the same time the album became a hit, I came out publicly,” she told Entertainment Weekly in 2009. “The gay community lifted me up and supported me. That bridge in the song was taken to an anthem level. (‘I don’t care what they think/I don’t care what they say/What do they know about this love anyway?’) It bypassed any meaning I ever put in the song and became part of a mass consciousness. It is still a huge moment when I perform it live.” –SE

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Peaches, “Fuck the Pain Away” (2000)

Good advice from Canada’s raunchiest sex sage. With the help of a Roland MC-505, the bisexual drama teacher–turned-rapper sparked a titillating new wave of sleazebag disco with her 2000 LP, Teaches of Peaches. Although “Fuck the Pain Away” was too risqué to chart, its unforgettable, braggadocious lines permeated everything from South Park to 30 Rock and 2003 film Lost In Translation: “Suckin’ on my titties like you wanted me/Calling me all the time like Blondie/Check out my Chrissy behind/It’s fine all of the time.” It was reportedly Madonna’s favorite workout song, and she also featured it in her London play, Up For Grabs. In a 2003 interview with The Guardian, Peaches divulges that she sent Madonna and Guy Ritchie some autographed panties as thanks. “I signed some underwear,” she says, “I wrote, ‘Dear Guy, fuck ya later, love Peaches,’ and for Madonna I wrote, ‘Dear Madonna, fuck ya now, love Peaches.’ It’s cool.” –SE

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch, “Wig in a Box” (2001)

If any show tune’s making this list, let it be a Hedwig original. Centering on a transgender rock singer from Berlin, the iconic Broadway musical and film took shape in New York City drag club SqueezeBox!, where Mitchell first conceived of the character known as Hedwig. With the help of house-band leader and Hedwig composer Stephen Trask, Mitchell finally got the guts to debut Hedwig live at SqueezeBox! in 1994. His first wig was propped up by paper towel rolls, hot glue and staples. “I had never done drag, I had never sung with a rock band,” said Mitchell to Rolling Stone. “It was like I was baptized. Everything I did was completely in support of Hedwig. I’d go off and do a sitcom and use the money to buy wigs and make my own costumes.” –JP

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Limp Wrist, “I Love Hardcore Boys/I Love Boys Hardcore” (2001)

Leathered up and lathered in each others’ sweat, American hardcore band Limp Wrist were at the forefront of the Queercore movement in the late Nineties. As both devoutly straight edge and proudly homosexual, their substance-free stance made them stand out in a time when bars, clubs and other intoxicating spaces comprised the few safe havens for LGBTQ people. Their 2001 song “I Love Hardcore Boys/I Love Boys Hardcore” was an especially cheeky, cathartic release for frontman Martin Sorrondeguy, who came out in the later years of his tenure in Latinx punk band Los Crudos. “I would have never come out in the Eighties,” Sorrondeguy once professed to The Portland Mercury. “I recall spotting a few folks who were queer in those times and I was nervous for them. There were many violent folks around at the time so it was a bit scary. When I came to the point where I was actively gay it took a bit of time to get comfortable and come out but I felt ready for whatever came my way.” –SE

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Scissor Sisters, “Take Your Mama” (2004)

New York City’s queens of camp Scissor Sisters portrayed the dilemma of coming out to family as pure comedy: In “Take Your Mama” out, frontman Jake Shears suggests plying your mother with liquor before you break the news. The song appeared on their self-titled debut, which topped the U.K. Albums chart and went nine times platinum. Bono lauded them as “the best pop group in the world” that year, and Elton John would collaborate with the band on their 2006 smash hit “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’.” Although only a fraction of the band’s success in Europe translated to the United States, “Take Your Mama” remains a staple in gay bars across the country. –SE

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Hercules and Love Affair, “Blind” (2008)

“Blind,” the 2008 collaboration between DJ Andy Butler and transgender singer Anohni, became an instant dance-floor classic in the aughts. Anohni elevated the dark nu-disco cut with her syrupy, Nina Simone–inspired lilt. Butler later told The New York Times that “Blind” recalled “growing up a gay kid, my immediate family and social group rejecting me, and asking why I was born into this situation. … But knowing that as soon as I could escape, I would, and that I would find freedom and solace. As an adult, however, I found a life full of excess and other wounded people and confusion. Thus, I felt blind.” –SE

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Robyn, “Dancing on My Own” (2010)

Yes, this historic banger also belongs to Lena Dunham and brilliant Swedish women of all persuasions. But there’s something about the picture painted in Robyn’s not-so-mini pop masterpiece that’s deeply resonant to queer, marginalized people: Its protagonist is at her most rejected, lonely and isolated as she tries not to feel like a freak eyeing an ex with his (or her) new piece at a club. Rather than go home or make a scene, however, this heartbroken heroine does what we all should: Dance alone and for herself. –JR

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Lady Gaga, “Born This Way” (2011)

Forget the (admittedly delicious) Madonna feud it provoked, and focus instead on the anthem’s bombastic disco-metal sound and its message of self-love and self-acceptance – as preached by Mother Monster, one of the most steadfast and powerful LGBTQ allies in the world. “I had this sort of ‘Eureka!’ revelation moment that those three words ‘Born This Way’ were the answer to so many questions that I’d been asked over the years: ‘Who are you, who are you really?’ I was born this way,” Gaga told Rolling Stone in 2011. “It gets bigger every day, the meaning of it. Every single day my fans realize the gravity of the words.” –JR

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Mary Lambert, “She Keeps Me Warm” (2013)

An outspoken lesbian and a Christian, Seattle singer-songwriter Mary Lambert sheds her shame and gets swept away by the ultimate dream girl in “She Keeps Me Warm.” Lambert drafted the song from her hook in “Same Love,” the 2012 hit single by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. The trio would later make headlines after the 2014 Grammy Awards, where their landmark performance of the song would soundtrack a mass wedding between 33 gay and straight couples. (Not to mention it was officiated by Queen Latifah.) “I’m not crying on Sundays,” she sings impassionately – and it feels just like a prayer. –SE

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Tegan and Sara, “Closer” (2013)

Canadian sister act Tegan and Sara capture the thrill behind fleeting moments of intimacy in “Closer,” a track from their platinum 2013 LP Heartthrob. The video depicts friends and lovers of all genders, cuddling in blanket forts and taking cosmetic trust falls by applying each others’ makeup. It’s a breathtaking portrait of queer friendship, describing love that exists not just in the sexual or romantic sense, but as a broader spectrum of good feelings. Tegan Quin says: “I was writing about my youth – a time when we got closer by linking arms and walking down our school hallway, or talked all night on the telephone about every thought or experience we’d ever had. It wasn’t necessarily even about hooking up or admitting your feelings back then. … It was the anticipation of something maybe happening that was truly exciting and satisfying.” She adds, “These relationships existed in a state of sexual and physical ambiguity. Is there anything more romantic than that?” –SE

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Perfume Genius, “Queen” (2014)

Seattle’s Michael Hadreas transforms from young man into queer menace in the sparkling video for “Queen.” Singing “No family is safe when I sashay,” he slinks into a conference room and gyrates his hips for a room full of suits – a sly riposte to the legions of homophobes who weaponize their fears against LGBTQ people, from within board rooms, in Congress, or out on the streets. In a 2014 interview with The Guardian, Hadreas says: “I’ve always been very resentful of the fact that something I have no control over would make people uncomfortable. So with this song it was more of a ‘fuck you’ thing – I was hoping other people would feel uncomfortable for once, not me.” -SE

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Against Me!, “True Trans Soul Rebel” (2014)

In her 2016 memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace recalls the time leading up to her transition, when she would disappear into motel rooms to practice wearing dresses. “You become more brave about presenting femme, but you’re still closeted, so you have nowhere to go,” she explained to Rolling Stone in 2014. “You end up in a weird motel in the middle of nowhere, wandering down halls, hoping nobody sees you.” Those days would inspire her song “True Trans Soul Rebel,” a punk-Western battle cry for trans women fighting to live. –SE

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Shamir, “On the Regular” (2015)

In the tradition of fellow pop countertenors Prince and Klaus Nomi, 22-year-old Shamir Bailey stunned listeners with slinky, androgynous wordplay in his 2015 debut, Ratchet. That same year, Bailey tweeted that he identifies as genderqueer – “I have no gender, no sexuality, and no fucks to give.” He later clarified in The Advocate: “Ever since I was little I showed traits of both masculine and feminine energies. Androgyny was never something that I thought about or tried for.” As sweet as he may sound, he doesn’t dare hold back the swagger, especially not in the cowbell-inflected disco track “On the Regular.” “Don’t try me,” he croons, “I’m not a free sample.” –JP

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Sia, “Alive” (2016)

In August 2013, Sia tweeted: “I’m queer. I don’t really identify as a lesbian because I’ve dated predominantly men. But I’ve certainly dated women,” putting those rumors to rest and basking in the adoration of fans in the LGBTQ community who love the hitmaker’s songs – she penned Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” among many others – for their uplifting and empowering messages. Most of Sia’s singles from This Is Acting work as all-purpose anthems, and “Alive” features the singer-songwriter’s massive vocals on a track she co-wrote with Adele and Tobias Jesso Jr. “You took it all,” she declares, “But I’m still breathing/I’m alive.” –JP

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