Out/Loud: A brief history of pop music’s LGBT roots

Posted by Daniel Bromfield on Thursday, Oct. 24 at 2:00 pm.

The 21st century has seen mainstream music take gigantic leaps in the acceptance of LGBT artists. This might give rise to the illusion that now is the only time when LGBT artists have competed with straight artists for chart space. On the contrary, the LGBT culture is one of the fundamental pillars of pop music history.

One of the most influential rockers ever, Little Richard, was a self-described “omnisexual” who, despite becoming a born-again Christian in 1957, proclaimed himself the “founder of gay.” His flamboyant stage persona was the first of a number of clever interpolations of LGBT fashion and culture into the pop mainstream by queer artists. In the 1970s, David Bowie toyed with gender roles, while Freddie Mercury and Elton John drew from the camp side of gay culture. Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford took two decades of metal heads wearing leather and studs before revealing he got his look from the gay bar scene.

But authorities on the local LGBT music scene say this isn’t anything new.

“I don’t think queer people are influencing the music industry any more than in the past,” said Sophia Mantheakis, one of the organizers of Eugene’s Out/Loud festival for queer women performers. “What’s different now is it’s more accepted for artists to come out.”

One of the most notable recent coming-out’s was that of Laura Jane Grace of punk band Against Me! Born Tom Gabel, Grace came out as transgender last year.

“I was stoked when I heard (Grace) had come out,” said Abigail Turner, a member of UO’s LGBT community. “I think she’ll help a lot of trans people with their transitions — it takes bravery to make that transition in front of thousands of eyes.”

Though the LGBT presence in mainstream music has become much more acknowledged as of late, regional scenes are still going strong. New York’s queer music underground is big enough that Lady Gaga used it as a platform for her pop breakout. Eugene has its own LGBT music scene, which encompasses major events such as Out/Loud and the Eugene-Springfield LGBT Pride Festival as well as queer performance groups such as Soromundi Lesbian Chorus of Eugene. Also drag performers like Trai La Trash and Daphne Storm are both regulars at Cowfish.

Thirty years ago, if Eugene were to produce a major LGBT star, they would most likely have had to come from that scene. But in today’s musical climate, the gay singer of a bar band frequenting Sam Bond’s or a transgender singer-songwriter playing coffeehouses might have a strong chance of breaking through beyond the local scene. The true success of the 21st century lies in the increased acceptance of LGBT musicians in the mainstream, not the increased prevalence. The queer community is as vital to music now as it was when kids in the 1950s dreamed of being rock stars just like Little Richard.