COMMENT: Pride Month – The Relationship between LGBTQ+ & Music
Sing Like You Want To Be Heard and Dance Like Everyone is Watching.
Music has many powers and harbours the ability to transmit them simultaneously. It can move us, both physically and emotionally, and create a range of feelings, often in the same song – or even the same verse. Amongst these seemingly mystical abilities is the strength that bands and artists omit through their music to reach out to us and help us find a place in the world – a factor that often comes with a growing sense of self-awareness of one’s own tastes, around the confusing early teenage years. Nothing else quite seems to allow us to feel understood like the air-guitar and the hairbrush microphone in the privacy of our bedrooms.
For some, these are phases that pass even if the music remains loved and throughout their ‘teenage years’, nostalgia-driven playlists. However, for many others, this connection to music remains to close to the source of their early identity construction. Of course, figuring out who you are is a deeply personal experience for everybody, but there are plenty of artists who speak up on behalf of certain members of society that are placed into certain categories (it is important to note that these groupings are not necessarily by their own accord). A large example of this being the LGBTQ+ community. Many icons – past and present – have put their weight behind issues and topics that were considered taboo, or, against perceived social normativity. There are (and may there long continue to be!) many notable persons who have played their part in highlighting the cruelty & ignorance surrounding prejudice; doing so both overtly and via the medium of music.
David Bowie’s death in 2016 came as a crushing blow to music lovers everywhere – sometimes it takes this to fully realise the legacy that a person created. Bowie was foremostly an individual, paving his own way in the music scene – his many songs and albums might be what the icon is most remembered for, but his wider-reaching contribution to humanity must also be duly noted. Bowie felt no need to identify behaviour with gender, challenging the conventions that he felt were unnecessary – to Bowie, there wasn’t a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ way to dress, a rigidity to sexuality or what one must like. It is all too easy to say Bowie helped to achieve this by donning dresses for LP artwork and in his interviews – in fact, that would be an insult to the point being made.
Though his outward personas highlighted this outlook, on a deeper level – as far as Bowie was concerned – it didn’t matter who you were or what you liked.”Difference” for Bowie only existed because other people made it that way. The musician invited along those who were wrongly labelled “freaks”, “weirdos” or “queer” (before the reclamation of the term) and other pejorative classifications, to be themselves, joining communities through his music. Yes, theatricality and fun might have been centre stage of much of the performer’s career (using personas like Ziggy Stardust to communicate certain concepts and ideas), but Bowie brought these issues of equality and individualism to the spotlight. Although he might be a less obvious example when it comes to the link between the LGBTQ+ community and music, especially with the abandonment of his queer identity onstage, Bowie should be remembered as this innovator in his challenging of the status quo. Of course, though, he is not alone in this…
Freddie Mercury became as well known in the news for his then “alleged” homosexuality as his music; this was a sign of the times. Western attitudes (and perhaps the British press’ in particular) towards anything other than heterosexuality was still deeply conservative in the 1970s and as such, Mercury was discussed, analysed and scrutinised very publicly. Although Mercury wished to play no part in being an icon, the musician undoubtedly became one thanks to his personality and most memorably his ability to hold entire stadiums in the palm of his hands. Whatever stereotypes and generalisations about behaviours attributable to sexuality were still being purported, Mercury certainly wasn’t the commonly received “idea” of what it was to be a gay male. The strength, energy and raw power of Freddie’s stage presence always made sure that these were the dominated opinions of him – and quite right too. The Queen frontman’s death from one of the biggest and unspoken killers of the decade – AIDS – brought about many changes in attitudes that had been a long time coming. Mercury refused to give into the fear of the press, the fear of the disease that eventually killed him and the fear of death itself. It is the strength of character and bravery in the face of extreme adversity that truly makes Mercury the icon he is to this day, and will no doubt continue to be.
Fast-forward to 2018 and both representation and attitudes towards difference have improved. A person’s choice to identify with a specific sexual-persuasion is no longer automatically assumed to be the defining feature of their personality, or, the focal point of their performances. Beth Ditto, of 2003-2016’s Gossip, identifies as a lesbian and a punk (the term punk itself has seen a change in its generally accepted meaning and is worth looking up). Whilst ditto is a notable advocate of LGBTQ+ rights, her music isn’t wholly focused on pushing a certain message – however, that doesn’t mean she isn’t iconic. The point here is that a person’s sexual persuasion doesn’t have to dictate the art a person creates, nor should it have to be focused solely on their personal beliefs. It might be, but it doesn’t have to be.
What Ditto should be commended on is her projection of self-love – putting forth to both young and old alike, her outward example and message to love who you are and to celebrate your authenticity. Ditto’s powerful stage presence can be described well as a sort of the opposite of apologising for any part of who she is and what she’s all about; a declaration, saying: “Here I am – and proud!”. This display of self-acceptance is immeasurably inspiring to those who feel judged, discriminated against or otherwise marginalised. Like Bowie and Mercury, Ditto’s acceptance of herself can mobilise an army of fans who look to her as an inspiration; someone to aspire to be like. Gigs of artists like Ditto then become a safe-space where one can go to in order to let loose without the fear of abuse – or worse, physical attack – instigated by perpetrators based on how an individual looks.
Sophie Lancaster, killed in 2007, is one horrible example of someone receiving abuse for the way they look. Though the attack wasn’t necessarily deemed to be motivated by LGBTQ+ hatred, it was due to a similar hatred of difference – a person should never pay with their life for expressing themselves. Though some LGBTQ+ laws already existed at this time, they simply weren’t enough and in April 2013 Greater Manchester Police announced that any crime committed against subcultures, including verbal or physical assaults, would be dealt with as Hate Crime. It often takes the loss of life for the seriousness of an issue to be addressed. Music does many things and, as mentioned throughout, helps to give one a sense of belonging. This is an essential part of a person’s teenage years, and for those like Sophie, becomes a rite of passage, often being where we make our first friends that share views and similar tastes to ourselves. Music allows us entry into communities whereby we can truly discover who we are, and find others who accept it. For many young members of the LGBTQ+ community, this safe-haven can act like an extended family that they come to rely on as a support network in what can still be a cruel, and judgemental, society. Knowing that there are others who understand you, have been through similar experiences and most importantly who always accept you, provides for some connections and relationships that will stay with a person for life. Having music to enjoy as a collective, entertainers & powerful personalities who stand for free love and equality, lets people be part of a movement that celebrates who they are with a sense of belonging, entitlement and pride.
As we come into 2018, it is important to look back on how far we have come in regards to equal rights, homophobia and individuality – however, living in an age where it is easier than ever to express your thoughts (both supportive, and non) we still have a long way to go. Music has acted as a platform for both deemed ‘outcasts’ and the LGBTQ+ community alike, giving creatives the spotlight to express themselves and celebrate their differences and has brought light to the need for a changed outlook, joining many individuals and communities through the artform in the process. Long may the relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and music continue. Love and let love! Sing Like You Want To Be Heard and Dance Like Everyone is Watching!