In the early hours of the morning of June 28, 1969, the queer patrons at The Stonewall Inn in New York City had enough. After police converged on the bar to arrest and harass the LGBTQ attendees, as was customary, the patrons fought back, sparking what would inspire the gay liberation movement.
Fifty years later, Pride month stands as our reminder of that fight. While the movement has largely become a celebration around the world, filled with parades, festivals, street fairs and parties, Pride month is, at its core, an act of protest. The LGBTQ community still has good reason to fight back against the systematic oppression we face from society, and Pride month is meant as a mobilizing tool to do just that.
Music has always been an effective way to galvanize a community, and that is especially true for protests. So, in honor of Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the event that began Pride month as we know it, Billboard Pride has put together a list of 16 songs that embody the spirit of activism in the LGBTQ community.
Gossip, “Standing in the Way of Control”
When Beth Ditto got word that Congress was considering a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and woman, she got to work. The result was Gossip’s “Standing in the Way of Control,” an angry kiss-off to politicians, homophobes and anyone else who wanted to keep queer people down.
Best lyric: “It’s part not giving in/ Part trusting your friends/ You do it all again and I’m not lying.”
Janelle Monáe, “Americans”
Monáe revitalized what it means to be a queer artist in the modern era with her 2018 album Dirty Computer. “Americans,” the closing track of her project, serves as a giant middle finger to those in the United States who would keep black people, women and queer people relegated to a second-class status. From her own lyrics to an interpolated sermon from Rev. Dr. Sean McMillan, Monáe proudly states that she’s not going anywhere until real progress is achieved.
Best lyric: “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land/ I’m not crazy, baby, naw, I’m American.”
Tom Robinson Band, “Glad to be Gay”
Long considered to be the “gay national anthem” of Britain, Tom Robinson Band doesn’t hold back on the 1978 track. While the song may not have the fiery energy of other protest songs, the lyrics directly call out police brutality, homophobic violence and the insistence that queer people are less than human. The group then spits in the face of all that violence, directing their audience to “sing if you’re glad to be gay.”
Best lyric: “You don’t have to mince or make bitchy remarks/ To get beaten unconscious and left in the dark.”
Bronski Beat, “Smalltown Boy”
To this day, queer youth are still highly at risk of being thrown out of their homes for coming out. But in 1984, it was unheard of for a band to openly sing about that fact — until Bronski Beat released “Smalltown Boy.” The song follows the story of a young man uprooting himself from his home out of fear of persecution, as he prepares for the struggle he will face in the future. The song called to attention the fear and loathing faced by LGBTQ youth everywhere, making it a proper act of protest.
Best lyric: “And as hard as they would try they’d hurt to make you cry/ But you never cried to them, just to your soul.”
Angel Haze feat. Sia, “Battle Cry”
It’s always great to see an openly pansexual and gender-fluid artist like Angel Haze (who now performs under the name ROES) get to team up with a massive icon like Sia to send a message of love. “Battle Cry” is an affirmation of Haze’s success, a condemnation of those who tried to keep her down, and a call to those who feel left out to stand up, fight back and claim their crown.
Best lyric: “Take the sun and you still grow, lose your light and you still glow/ I been there, I’m still here, and I know how you feel.”
Carl Bean, “I Was Born This Way”
Disco has always been a musical movement embraced by the gay community. But Carl Bean’s “I Was Born This Way” is largely recognized as one of the first disco songs openly created for the queer community at large. The lyrics proclaim the story of a man proud to be gay, set to an upbeat, shimmering disco beat. Just that act alone of releasing a disco track so openly advocating for queerness in 1975 was a revolutionary act.
Best lyric: “It ain’t a fault it’s a fact/ I was born this way.”
Team Dresch, “Hate the Christian Right!
LGBTQ rights advocates have long found themselves at odds with the evangelical Christian right. Instead of writing a song with thinly veiled metaphors about religion, queercore icons Team Dresch instead decided to opt for “Hate the Christian Right!,” a fiery, scream-rock track letting religious homophobes know exactly where they could stick their prayers.
Best lyric: “You never wanted to care/ You kill, you kill, you kill”
Pet Shop Boys “It’s a Sin”
There are a plethora of songs from the Pet Shop Boys’ stunning discography that tackle homophobia head-on. But one of their most effective was “It’s a Sin,” a tongue-in-cheek indictment of band member Neil Tennant’s Catholic upbringing, in which the star reiterates over and over again how ashamed of himself he should be — while making it clear that he has nothing to be ashamed of. Having that message crack the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 only further proves the significance of this anthem.
Best lyric: “At school they taught me how to be/ So pure in thought and word and deed/ They didn’t quite succeed.”
Ani DiFranco, “On Every Corner”
Folk rock icon Ani DiFranco has never been quiet about her more activist tendencies. “On Every Corner” is yet another example of the singer’s scathing indictments of society, this time aimed directly at the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Through strained guitar chords, DiFranco angrily asks who will be to blame when the plague wipes out the queer community, firmly pointing her finger at everyone who refused to care.
Best lyric: “May you never be fighting for your life/ And at the same time have to fight for your name.”
Against Me!, “True Trans Soul Rebel”
Throughout her storied career, Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace has dedicated herself to providing near-constant visibility for the transgender community. In “True Trans Soul Rebel,” Grace made her point clearer than ever, depicting the fear and self-loathing that comes with coming out as trans. But with the song’s angsty melody and poignant lyrics, Grace makes it perfectly clear that being true to yourself shouldn’t have to be a fight.
Best lyric: “Yet to be born, you’re already dead/ You sleep with a gun beside you in bed.”
Melissa Etheridge, “Uprising of Love”
Inspired by the Russian government’s violent abuse toward the LGBTQ community, which was only highlighted by the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Melissa Etheridge put her platform to good use, releasing her single “Uprising of Love.” Accompanied by the founding of an advocacy organization of the same name, the song embodies the spirit of fighting back against oppression with the power of love.
Best lyric: “Come into the sun and tell everyone/ Love has a face, it has a name.”
Perfume Genius, “Queen”
On “Queen,” Perfume Genius’ Mike Haedras leans into the stereotypes surrounding queer men, setting himself up as the titular monarch, prepared to rule over his kingdom. He makes clear the suffering and strife of the queer community, before also making clear that those struggles don’t define the community. The song was practically made to piss off every bigot who has ever said “Don’t shove your gayness in my face.”
Best lyric: “No family is safe when I sashay.”
Shea Diamond, “Don’t Shoot”
Trans women of color, throughout history, have always been the most at-risk victims of the LGBTQ community — and unsurpisingly, they’ve also been the first to fight back. Shea Diamond highlights that fact on “Don’t Shoot,” a scathing track criticizing the continued shootings and killings of black trans women in America, as she demands that justice be served.
Best lyric: “We’re living in a world but it can’t take truth/ They say they don’t see color but the bloodstains show the bruise.”
teddy<3 (Teddy Geiger), “I Was in a Cult”
When songwriting star Teddy Geiger made her return to a solo career in 2018, no one could have seen her new sound coming. “I Was in a Cult,” her punk rock single after a five-year hiatus from her solo career, shines a light on the harsh conditions of heteronormative society, with Teddy finally breaking free of her constraints and claiming her spot as a liberated trans woman.
Best lyric: “I wanna look to now, now that it’s real/ I wanna love tonight, now that I’m free”
Pussy Riot, “Organs”
No list about queer protest songs would be complete without an entry from Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock group dedicated to protesting Vladmir Putin. “Organs” serves that purpose, pointing out the Russian government’s contempt for any perceived subversion, including homosexuality. These pissed off punk rockers make it clear that even if they have to go to jail, they’ll never stay quiet.
Best lyric (translated): “Why do I have to see damn jerks’ faces in the homeland of avant-garde?/ Dickheads!”