The idea of a queer musical superstar is now fully accepted. In recent years, we’ve seen musicians talk openly about their gay identity and same-sex relationships. Others have proudly shared their stories about being transgender rockers fighting for visibility. And pop stars have even proclaimed their pansexuality. Fans may openly embrace a gay Elton John, Melissa Etheridge or Ricky Martin now, but over the past 50 years or more it’s been a struggle for most queer artists to live their lives openly and without shame and persecution. Some of these figures – Arthur Russell, Sylvester, Amanda Lepore – have earned cult followings, while others – Jackie Shane, Jobriath, Lavender Country – have remained obscure. But all of their tireless efforts matter. So here we celebrate these 25 pioneers who may not be on everyone’s radar but who helped shape music – from transgender punk rockers to queer disco divas – to influence countless others to forge their own paths today by remaining true to their visions.
Although EDM has become the dominant genre of mainstream pop, the lack of historical perspective held by the notoriously white and straight fist-bumping fans of the style is often apparent. House music’s popularization (traveling a tortuous route from underground, inner-city warehouse parties to the 1990s rave scene to Jersey Shore to the stages of Coachella) has had some significant cultural consequences, one of which is the erasure of the queer, black origins of the music. With that in mind, it’s hard to underestimate Frankie Knuckles’ influence on our contemporary sonic landscape. Transforming the tropes of disco into a futuristic sounding, lifelong thesis on love and desire, Knuckles’ music – equal parts sultry, political, licentious, and earnest – is so widely beloved that his death in 2014 prompted personal letters to close friends from President Obama. With the city of Chicago serving as the setting of his immaculately produced tracks, the spirit of the “Godfather of House” lives on in the thumping, seductive sounds providing the backdrop for a new generation of escapist party goers. Eric Shorey
If the blues were a house, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey would be the mother. Born a generation after chattel slavery ended in the United States, her songs articulate the newfound autonomy African-Americans were exploring taking ownership of their sexuality. “They preached about sexual love, giving voice to the most powerful evidence there was for many black people that slavery no longer existed,” writes Angela Davis in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, on Ma Rainey, and her protégé: Bessie Smith. Rainey’s oeuvre reimagines the possibilities of black women’s social realities from leaving domestic spheres for show business, to enjoying a night out on the town, dressed in man’s hat, jacket, and tie while police watched her seduce two women. Rainey proudly sung of her nights enjoying the love of other black women in her song, “Prove It on Me Blues.” The Mother of the Blues legacy remains forever enshrined after induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Fame in 1990. Marcus Borton
Less a rock singer than a majestic, motorcycle-riding lord of the mosh pit, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford carried the British band to unprecedented levels of international superstardom from 1969 onward. His theatrical scream-singing, macho stage presence, and all-around badassery (best showcased on iconic records like 1980’s British Steel and 1982’s Screaming for Vengeance) prompted many fans to call him “Metal God:” a traditionally masculine trope Halford boldly upended in February 1998, when he came out as gay in an MTV News interview. As the earliest show of queer solidarity from a prominent metal musician, Halford’s admission proved vital in reshaping the public perception of heavy metal, reposting an earsplitting, heteronormative boys’ club as a safe space where headbangers of all types could be themselves, sheltered in the flailing arms of not just a benevolent (and openly gay) God, but the scene writ large. Zoe Camp
Country music may not be the first place one goes looking for LGBTQ representation, though there have
been a handful of instances over the years. In the present moment, perhaps no single person has had a greater impact on the sound than songwriter-producer Shane McAnally, a native of tiny Mineral Wells, Texas. In the last decade, McAnally has penned hits such as Miranda Lambert’s deliciously campy drama-fest “Mama’s Broken Heart,” Brothers Osborne’s sensual “Stay a Little Longer” and Midland’s sly Urban Cowboy nod “Drinkin’ Problem.”
He also helped define a new, multi-faceted idea of country masculinity as a producer on Sam Hunt’s blockbuster Montevallo, for which he co-wrote the hits “Take Your Time” and “Leave the Night On” (he also co-wrote Hunt’s record-breaking “Body Like a Back Road”). Notably, he injected a no-big-deal kind of queerness into the mainstream by co-writing and co-producing Kacey Musgraves’ CMA Award-winning “Follow Your Arrow” in 2013, with the casual suggestion to “kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of
girls, if that’s what you’re into.” When superstar Luke Bryan reached Number One in 2018 by singing, “I believe you love who you love, ain’t nothin’ you should ever be ashamed of in “Most People Are Good,” the path had already been cleared for him. –Jon Freeman
While Britain had David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry all performing glamorous, cosmic rock songs, the United States was searching for its own. Enter impresario Jerry Brandt (who founded New York’s Electric Circus nightclub and managed Carly Simon’s early career), who discovered an unknown named Jobriath Boone. Born in 1946 as Bruce Wayne Campbell, the self-made American sang “Sodomy” in the original late-Sixties L.A. production of Hair before reinventing himself. Jobriath was quickly signed to a record contract in 1972 with Elektra (rumored to be worth $500,000) and an ambitious advertising campaign began, with full-page ads in Vogue, Penthouse and Rolling Stone. “Jobriath is going to be the biggest artist in the world. He is a singer, dancer, woman, man. He has the glamour of Garbo. He is beautiful,” Brandt explained to Melody Maker, then telling Rolling Stone: “The kids will emulate Jobriath because he cares about his body, his mind, his responsibility to the public as a leader, as a force, as a manipulator of beauty and art.”
The 11 songs on his debut album included his single “I’m a Man,” the S&M ballad “Take Me I’m Yours” and “Blow Away” – with Stephen Holden writing in his review for RS that Jobriath’s voice was “uncannily reminiscent of Mick Jagger’s.” The fact that he did it all while being completely open about his sexuality – calling himself “rock’s truest fairy” – is astounding and, for a brief, shining moment in 1974, Jobriath became the most visible gay man in popular music. Then, just as suddenly, he was rejected by media and audiences – a Nassau Coliseum concert had crowds throwing trash and reportedly yelling “faggot” – so after Elektra push out his second (and final) album, Creatures of the Street, he vanished and became a mostly forgotten footnote in music history, a cautionary tale of the evils of the music hype machine. But his legend was revived decades later, having influenced everyone from Morrissey and Jayne County to Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters to Will Sheff of Okkervil River. Jerry Portwood
As the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons (the group’s name being a reference to transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson), Anohni created an enthralling and distinctive experimental pop sound that earned the group of Mercury Prize in 2005 for their second album, I Am a Bird Now, which included the single, “Hope There’s Someone,” which was later covered by Avicii. Outside of the group, Anhoni co-wrote and sang on Hercules & Love Affair’s biggest hit, “Blind,” while Antony and the Johnsons collaborated with everyone from Lou Reed to Bjork and became soundtrack fodder with songs heard in V for Vendetta, Sons of Anarchy and the Wachowski siblings’ Sense8 TV series. Since coming out publicly as transgender, Anohni released the critically acclaimed electropop protest album, Hopelessness, which features the haunting “Drone Bomb Me,” told through the perspective of a young Afghani girl, whose family has been killed by a drone. (The music video stars an emotional Naomi Campbell and is art-directed by Riccardo Tisci.) She also earned a 2016 Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song becoming the second only transgender person to be recognized by the Oscars and in 2017, released the EP Paradise. All of this to say, she’s easily one of the most successful and influential openly transgender artists working today. Stacy Lambe
Hailing from New Orleans, Big Freedia is often credited with popularizing bounce music – the Mardi Gras-influenced energetic sound, where twerking also originated – alongside other LGBT hip-hop artists like Nicky da B. After releasing her debut album in 2003 – while not transgender, the rapper’s preferred pronoun is “she” – Freedia started building momentum and popularity outside of the Deep South, thanks to subsequent releases (Big Freedia Hitz Vol. 1 featuring the insanely addictive “Azz Everywhere”), tours with Matt & Kim and The Postal Service, musical collaborations with RuPaul – peanut butter, anyone? – and Diplo. In 2013, she starred in the Fuse docuseries, Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce (later renamed Big Freedia Bounces Back for its sixth season). Freedia’s most mainstream attention, however, came in 2016, when she was heard speaking on “Formation” by Beyoncé, who invited her and Messy Mya to perform ad-libs for the song. “I did not come to play with you hoes, ha-ha. I came to slay, bitch! I like cornbread and collard greens, bitch! Oh yas, you besta believe it,” she snarled in the music video. Freedia has since collaborated with Mannie Fresh and can be heard on Drake’s “Nice for What,” becoming one of the few openly queer rappers to reach her level of mainstream success. S.L.
While the “Queen of Disco” is a title most commonly bestowed upon Donna Summer, it also applies to Sylvester, who was a fixture of the disco scene and an icon of the gay liberation movement that spawned out of San Francisco. After brief stints with the Disquotays and the Cockettes, Sylvester first emerged as a solo artist after Jann Wenner offered the singer to record a demo album in the early-1970s. He later found commercial success – both in the States and abroad – with the release of his second solo album, 1978’s Step II, which features the now-iconic dance tracks, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” – a song that is ubiquitous with pride and any film about the Seventies – and “Dance (Disco Heat).” The album proved his superior falsetto rivaled many of disco’s black divas and that he could do androgyny better than David Bowie. When his success waned a few years later, his backup singers left him to form the Weather Girls (yes, of “It’s Raining Men”). Ultimately, his career and life was short-lived – he died in 1988 of AIDS-related complications at 41 – but Sylvester’s sound can still be heard today, most recognizably in artists like Prince, RuPaul, New Order and Hercules & Love Affair. Yasssss, queen. S.L.
Like a being from another planet flung tragically towards this Earth, this bizarre performance art and music legend still serves as a guardian angel to the true weirdos of the art world. Nomi’s legacy will always (for better or worse) be associated with that of David Bowie, who he sang backup for throughout the late 1970s and was featured on the infamous December 15th, 1979 Saturday Night Live performance. But Nomi’s contributions to the history of queer culture – both his strange, quivering takes on pop standards
and his lavishly sung operatic overtures – are certainly indelible. Subverting the assumed heterosexuality of both highbrow and lowbrow music (Nomi refused to change the pronouns of the love objects of his songs so as to better reflect his desires), it was Klaus’s geometric sci-fi fashions and avant-garde
aspirations that came to define the amorphous “no wave” movement. Nomi’s death from AIDS-related complications in 1983 prevented us from knowing what he could have accomplished with a longer life, but he’s on a different journey through the stars now. E.S.
If Lavender Country‘s lone album were to come out tomorrow, it would still sound radical. The fact that it was originally released in 1972 with songs like “Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears” and “Back in the Closet Again” feels positively miraculous. Far away from the Music Row machinery in Seattle, singer-songwriter and Patrick Heggarty and his bandmates Michael Carr, Eve Morris and Robert Hammerstrom made what may well be the first ever queer country-folk album, recorded with the assistance of fellow activist Faygele Ben-Miriam. It’s shot through with queer loneliness and heartbreak, yes, but also a sense of humor – evidence that classic country song themes were never the exclusive domain of straight folks. The album’s influence is still echoing today in the work of out country and roots musicians like Little Bandit, Karen and the Sorrows and Sam Gleaves. J.F.
The cover of I…Amanda Lepore has the titular heroine posing mostly naked in a hall of mirrors – her sleek gynoid body replicated infinitely into the future. The world wasn’t ready for Amanda when her transgressive, debut album dropped in 2011, but her status as an icon in the fashion and art world has since been firmly established. Although she served as a muse to David LaChapelle long before popping up in the form of loving homages on RuPaul’s Drag Race, Lepore’s post-electroclash musical output still manages to shock more demure audiences. Bragging unapologetically about her impeccable genitalia and raucously celebrating superficiality, Amanda’s odes to glamour and opulence serve as empowering anthems for self-made club kids and other assorted nocturnal queer children pursuing fame in the neon lights of nightclubs. Eric Shorey
Born in 1940, Jackie Shane’s story mirrors Underground Railroad passengers escaping North to social freedom. Blessed with an affirming parent, Shane found escape from Jim Crow racism and gender restraints after traveling to Canada on a carnival gig. Her singing career would take off in Toronto, where she appeared on the local music TV show Night Train. Her debut album, Any Other Way, details heartbreak inflicted by various women, the poor conditions of tenement living, and her ever-growing need for money, as a transgender woman of color with few available career paths. The title track even includes the lyric: “Tell her that I’m happy, tell her that I’m gay.” A soul pioneer, Shane’s music elucidates the lived experiences of African Americans, especially gender non-conforming individuals, intersectionally located on the margins of social acceptance – and on her live albums, her brassy voice twangs similarly to her Tennessee soul sister, Tina Turner. A living ancestor, having recently turned 78, she now enjoys a glamorous life as a recluse back in Nashville, Tennessee. M.B.
Genius musician Me’shell Ndegeocello is a veteran at relaying dynamic stories through song. Her work spans classical to cosmic reggae with vocal deliveries ranging from fiery emcee to tender acoustic songstress. Ndegeocello’s lyrics easily fall into a lineage of black poetry: love, pleasure, commercialism, heartbreak, revolution, time travel, space, religion, politics, sorrow, and joy. “Leviticus: Faggot,” from her early album, Peace Beyond Passion. contextualizes the harsh realities queer youth [of color] experience daily predisposing them to health outcomes such as drug addiction, homelessness, or suicide. Similarly to Prince, her musical inspiration, Ndegeocello has struggled throughout her career honoring her authenticity in an industry confused how to neatly market beautiful gender binary blurring blackness. Honoring her authentic self – while escaping categories besides being Grammy-nominated – shows the resilience of black queer women carrying the blues tradition in the music industry. Me’shell offers days worth of listening with 12 albums under her belt, her most recent, Ventriloquism, just released spring 2018. M.B.
A key organizer of that 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin’s legacy as an angelic troublemaker often shrinks into the shadows of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s stature as one of the key leaders of the Civil Rights movement. Rustin was introduced to King through Coretta Scott, who was a music education student at the time. While attending college, Bayard sung in the Wilberforce Quartet and was a staunch pacifist with Quaker roots. He taught himself to play the lute while incarcerated for conscientiously objecting to World War II’s enlistment draft. Rustin sung spirituals, a music style expressing the desire for an end to all oppressive systems, and he released Bayard Rustin Sings a Program of Spirituals and Elizabethan and Negro Spirituals with Fellowship Records in the early 1950s. Without Rustin helping organize over 200,000 people to the march, the stage would’ve never been set for King’s delivery of the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. President Barack Obama, the last U.S. leader to formally acknowledge the struggles, triumphs and contributions of the LGBTQIA community, posthumously honored Rustin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. M.B.
Long before words like “shade” and “wig” entered the vernacular of the mainstream, the queens of the New York City ballroom scene were strutting their stuff and competing for glory to the tune of bumping, underground house music. But above all it’s MikeQ who has helped crystallize the sound of vogue music into a recognizable sub-genre, spreading the gospel of the legendary Masters at Work “Ha Dance” sample to the furthest corners of the globe. Fiercely protective of his culture’s authenticity (and why wouldn’t he be, considering mainstream culture’s proclivity for co-opting the scene, from Madonna to Surkin to Ryan Murphy), MikeQ is now both a figurehead and gatekeeper of vogue music – respected by elitist techno heads and drag queens alike. Now, at the helm of his own record label, Qween Beat, MikeQ is the brains behind some of the edgiest, precisely crafted contemporary music blasting in clubs. E.S.
Life of Agony vocalist Mina Caputo made history in 2011 when she came out as a transgender woman via Twitter, making her the heavy-music community’s first, and by far most famous, member of the heavy-music community to identify as such. Caputo channeled her struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts into pugilistic hardcore throughout the alternative-metal band’s heyday in the Nineties and Aughts – most notably on 1993’s acclaimed debut, River Runs Red – which cracked the mainstream rock charts and prompted tours alongside Korn, Deftones and others) – before departing the band for a solo career in 1997, tired of living a double life. She finally rejoined Life of Agony in the early 2010s, motivated by a fearless desire to take on the status quo with kickass pit-starters. “The band makes more sense now than it did before,” she told Rolling Stone of the band’s rebirth last year. “It’s its own beautiful, perfect monster.” Z.C.
In the Nineties, 4 Non Blondes broke out with their megahit “What’s Up?”– which would rock karaoke rooms for decades to come. She took some time to pursue a solo career after her band broke up, but it was the post-bubblegum pop of the early Aughts where she found her second act. Pink contacted Perry to write for her second, breakthrough album Missundaztood. “Neither one of us knew what was gonna happen,” Perry recalled years later in an interview with Huffington Post. At the time, Pink had made her name in the R&B world before Perry honed in on the pop star’s rock edge. “What happened was that we were able to open up to each other … she completely abandoned what she was told she was supposed to be, and just became Alecia Moore.” After their fruitful collaboration on the megahit “Get the Party Started,” Perry found a home extracting a similar vulnerability and honesty out of other major pop stars and has helped craft some of the 21st Century’s most memorable hits, including Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and “Candyman” and Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” Along the way, Perry has always been open and proud of who she is, famously playing a guitar with the word “dyke” written on it at the Billboard Music Awards in 1993. She’s been married to Roseanne star Sara Gilbert since 2011. B.S.
As a teen, Lesley Gore became the powerfully ubiquitous and feminist voice of Sixties pop. She spent the following decades outside of the teen idol spotlight, going to Sarah Lawrence for college and getting an Oscar nomination for the score to Fame, which she composed with her brother Michael. Forty years after launching empowering hits such as “It’s My Party” and “You Don’t Own Me,” she became a LGBT rights activist, serving as one of the many guest hosts for the PBS series In the Life. It wasn’t until after hosting various episodes of the show for a couple years – which all centered on LGBT issues – that she spoke openly about her partner of over two decades and the struggles of being gay in the music industry. “I think the record industry – by and large what’s left of it – is still totally homophobic,” she said, noting that she came out in her twenties and never went to “lengths” to conceal it. “I just kind of lived my life naturally and did what I wanted to do.” B.S.
British punk rocker Tom Robinson achieved chart success with hit songs “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, “Up Against the Wall” and “Don’t Take No for an Answer,” but he’ll always be immortalized for his singalong protest anthem, “Glad to be Gay.” Originally written for a 1976 London gay pride march, the song was nearly banned by the BBC in 1978 – although DJ John Peel defied the stricture. After his band broke up, Robinson co-wrote several songs for Elton John, including the controversial “Elton’s Song,” about a young boy at a boarding school longing for on an older student. He eventually left music and embarked on a career in broadcasting in the 1980s, championing indie music with his own radio show, but in 2015 he released his first new album since 1996, Only the Now, a folk-pop album that included songs “The Mighty Sword of Justice” and “Holy Smoke,” which features the Bible-mocking voice of Sir Ian McKellen. “If your songs don’t reflect feelings you share with your audience then you’re not writing pop music, and I certainly share that widespread belief there’s a small, cynical elite who are taking the rest of us for a ride,” Robinson explained. “If only one potential leader of the Opposition is prepared to give voice to this perception, no wonder disillusioned people are rallying to his campaign.” J.P.
Born Isabel Vargas Lizano, Chavela Vargas left her hometown in Costa Rica at 17 to become a cigar-smoking, gun-toting ranchera singer in 1930s Mexico City. She would remain there for the rest of her 93 years, pushing the bounds of Mexican social mores around music, gender and sexuality. Whereas ranchera music was typically the domain of heterosexual men and their drunken declarations of heartbreak, Vargas notoriously refused to swap pronouns in her songs, aiming her throaty bellows towards women who scorned her all the same. There continues to be speculation that she once had a dalliance with bisexual Mexican painter Frida Kahlo; an iconic photo, taken in the 1940s, captures the two mid-giggle as they snuggle in the grass.
In the 2002 biopic Frida, Vargas plays a specter who serenades Kahlo – played by actress Salma Hayek – with her original song, “La Llorona” [“The Weeping Woman”]. Vargas would also appear in several of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, including La Flor de Mi Secreto; but she insisted that acting was never her focus. She did not come out as a lesbian until the age of 82, or when her autobiography, Y si Quieres Saber de Mi Pasado [And If You Want to Know About My Past], was published in 2002. In spite of her Costa Rican heritage, dozens of Mexican singers have since cited Vargas as an influence, from Lila Downs to Grammy winner Natalia Lafourcade. In 2007, the Latin Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences granted her a Lifetime Achievement Award – which she accepted dressed in a man’s button-down shirt and straw hat. Chavela, a documentary chronicling her life, was released in the U.S. October 2017. Suzy Exposito
Few knew the wildly eclectic cellist-composer Arthur Russell’s music when he died from AIDS in 1992 – but in the 21st Century, he has experienced a renaissance that’s taken in his many sides. Born in Iowa in 1951, Russell moved to San Francisco after high school and began studying Indian classical music at the Ali Akbar College of Music. Later he would meet Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, and then he began accompanying him on cello during Ginsberg’s readings. After moving to New York City, he attended the Manhattan School of Music but was discouraged so dropped out to play in rock bands, write folk songs, and compose downtown disco epics. He performed with members of the Talking Heads, Philip Glass Ensemble and, briefly was a drummer for Laurie Anderson. He only released one solo album in his lifetime — 1986’s cult classic World of Echo – but his records were later reissued in the 21st century. And on Master Mix: Red Hot + Arthur Russell, a two-disc compilation of covers released in 2014, had everyone from Robyn and Sufjan Stevens to Blood Orange and Devendra Banhart covering his songs. And if that weren’t enough, Kanye West sampled Russell’s song “Answers Me” on his 2016 album The Life of Pablo.
The hardcore world has its own brand of fist-throwing ultra-machismo, the kind which only legendary aggro queers such as Limp Wrist have been able to transcend. Formed from the ashes of a handful of disparate bands in 1998, Limp Wrist’s name flaunts a cheeky retort to the hypermasculinity of the punk underground – a space that frontman Martin Sorrondeguy would claim for the queers while donning a leather cap and harness. Sonically, Limp Wrist is hard to distinguish from droves of so-called powerviolence bands – but fan-favorite songs like “I Love Hardcore Boys, I Love Hardcore Boys” invert the sub-genre’s preoccupation with by focusing instead on risqué desires. Swapping out punk moralist clichés for LGBT issues, the themes underlining the group’s music give voice to both fury and hope for gay punks. E.S.
A classically-trained pianist, with degrees in physics and music from Brown University, Wendy Carlos pioneered digital music in the Sixties – first by writing commercial jingles, then by concocting Moog-assisted renditions of Bach songs, which comprised her 1968 debut, Switched-On Bach. The release of Bach brought Robert Moog’s controversial invention some much-needed critical acclaim; the record won three Grammys and sat at Number One on the Billboard Classical Albums chart from 1969 to 1972. Carlos, however, struggled to balance an increasingly public life and private truth; she began hormone replacement therapy and underwent gender-reassignment surgery in 1972, but performed in masculine appearance throughout the Seventies by wearing suits and glueing sideburns to her face. She changed her legal name on Valentine’s Day 1979, and that same year came out as a transgender woman in Playboy. “There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place,” she said of her years spent presenting as a man. “It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.” After Bach she scored two Stanley Kubrick films – 1971’s Clockwork Orange and 1980’s The Shining – plus the 1982 cuberpunk masterpiece, Tron. Following the release of her celebrated 1984 opus, the cosmic Digital Moonscapes, she found herself totally taken with the stars. Now 75, she enjoys a quiet life of photographing solar eclipses and hanging out with her cats. S.E.