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Music’s Unsung LGBTQ Heroes

25 of music’s most underrated trailblazers across the queer spectrum

Music's Unsung LGBTQ Heroes

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.

Music's Unsung LGBTQ Heroes Lesley Gore

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Lesley Gore

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. 

Music's Unsung LGBTQ Heroes Tom Robinson

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Tom Robinson

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.

Music's Unsung LGBTQ Heroes Chavela Vargas

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Chavela Vargas

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

Music's Unsung LGBTQ Heroes Arthur Russell

Arthur Russell

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.

Music's Unsung LGBTQ Heroes Limp Wrist

Limp Wrist

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.

Music's Unsung LGBTQ Heroes Wendy Carlos

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Wendy Carlos

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.

Music's Unsung LGBTQ Heroes Janis Ian


Janis Ian

Fourteen-year-old folk prodigy Janis Ian knew she’d send America into a tailspin when she wrote and recorded her first hit single, “Society’s Child (Baby I’ve Been Thinking),” in 1965. Written in the tradition of folk hero Joan Baez, Ian bravely addressed the complexity of interracial dating in a very divided country – and marked the beginning of her lifelong foray into matters of forbidden love. In 1967, the song peaked at Number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, and Ian began receiving death threats – in her autobiography, she writes that a radio station in Atlanta was set on fire after playing her song. Composer Leonard Bernstein took notice, hosting her performance on his show Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution. The now-disgraced comedian Bill Cosby followed suit and chatted her up at a Smothers Brothers show – and tried to blacklist her on suspicions that she had a lesbian relationship with her older family friend. (Ian wrote that she had fallen asleep on her chaperone’s lap backstage after playing a set.) After Atlantic Records went cold on an offer to record and release her single, Ian turned to Verve Records to release a full-length debut. Then in 1975 she served her haters a royal comeuppance with a Number One hit, the anti-cool-kid ballad “At Seventeen” – and rocked daringly cropped curls to boot. At the 1976 Grammys she beat Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy and Olivia Newton-John for Best Pop Vocal Performance, and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. In 1993 she came out as a lesbian with her album Breaking Silence, and married her longtime partner, Patricia Snyder, in 2003. (Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin was one of the best men at the wedding.) Ian is now a science-fiction writer and contributed articles to The Advocate magazine in the Nineties. S.E.

Music's Unsung LGBTQ Heroes SOPHIE

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For years, Scottish DJ Sophie was quite literally shrouded in shadows. The enigmatic producer behind songs by Charli XCX, Madonna and Vince Staples was once notorious for performing gigs via gorgeous lip-syncing stand-ins – while mashing on a laptop off to the side. It’s unclear why so many had assumed she was yet another exploitative cis male DJ for so long – perhaps because her music almost inexplicably attracted frat boys? Nevertheless, the discrepancy between Sophie’s presentation and her high-pitched, computerized vocals prompted unfounded accusations of “feminine appropriation,” launching bitter debates on whether her music was a celebration of girly millennial poptimism – or a satire. With an idiosyncratic sonic palette of twinkly synthesizer blips, balloon screeches, gasps, and belches, Sophie’s deeply heartfelt trap-influenced jams find their emotional power by subverting pop cliches.

“I’d rather collaborate with my friends who are whatever gender they please, or have very fluid ideas about gender. I don’t think that falling into those pre-defined roles helps anything,” she told Rolling Stone in 2015. “What do people want exactly, making these accusations? What do they think is a constructive way to play this situation? I view the people that I work with, girls and boys and people who identify as whatever gender they please, as strong individuals.” Now with her solo debut, Sophie’s come out of the darkness and into the light as a woman. Her recent singles have toyed with the multitudes of her gender expression through song: The clashing factory sounds and BDSM-laden lyrics of “Pony Boy” are contrasted sharply with the lushly saccharine sentiments and sparkly synths of “It’s OK to Cry.” SOPHIE is a cyberpop icon all her own. E.S.

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