Equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is today’s defining civil rights issue, but the music world has always played a significant role in LGBT progress. As LGBT Pride Month kicks off, Billboard reflects on 25 musical moments that have been pivotal in advancing LGBT understanding, acceptance and rights.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Serenade 33 Gay & Straight Weddings at the Grammys with ‘Same Love’
When Macklemore & Ryan Lewis took to the Grammys stage on January 26, 2014 to serenade 33 gay and straight couples being married in the audience simultaneously by Queen Latifah, the Seattle hip-hop duo elevated “Same Love” — already a gay anthem AND hit song that rose to No. 11 on the Hot 100 — into something even greater: a joyous live, national celebration of marriage equality. The nearly three dozen pairs of newlyweds stepped into married life with this all-star performance that also included Madonna singing “Open Your Heart,” and both “Same Love” vocalist Mary Lambert and horn player Trombone Shorty lending their talents. “This song is not a love song for some of us but for all of us,” said Latifah as she introduced the “Same Love” segment. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, GLAAD called the performance “the latest in a long line of signs that our nation not only accepts, but celebrates the love and commitment of gay couples today.” –Jessica Letkemann
Frank Ocean Opens Up About Sexuality
On July 4, 2012, Odd Future member and R&B artist Frank Ocean published an intimate Tumblr post explaining that his first love was a man. The declaration was initially meant to be included in the liner notes to his debut major-label album, Channel Orange, which came out a week later, but Ocean chose to pre-emptively announce it after a British journalist speculated about the use of the pronoun “he” in love songs like “Bad Religion” and “Forrest Gump.” “The night I posted it, I cried like a fucking baby,” Ocean later told GQ. “It was like all the frequency just clicked to a change in my head.” (To be clear, Ocean has never publicly defined his sexuality as gay, bisexual or anything else.)
Subsequently, Channel Orange was lauded as a major musical accomplishment, earning album of the year at the Soul Train Awards and Grammy nods for album and record of the year, best new artist and best urban contemporary album, the lattermost of which he won-a milestone as the first openly non-straight male in hip-hop and R&B to reach mainstream acclaim. While Ocean’s confession garnered support from across the industry — from Beyonce and Jay Z to executives Russell Simmons and Joie Manda — his accolades proved that the music spoke for itself. –Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
Adam Lambert Glams Up ‘Idol,’ Debuts at No. 1
While Adam Lambert didn’t make his sexuality a major talking point while competing on American Idol — he later came out in a Rolling Stone cover story — Idol viewers and fans at home knew there was something special about the flamboyant contestant. Lambert was out in his personal and professional life well before he hit the “Idol” stage and made his mark as the contestant to watch. On the show, he fired up audiences with his glam rock stylings, sexed-up stage persona and multi-octave range. Though he finished the 2009 season of Idol in second place, he remained the season’s breakout star and has since worked to become a role model for LGBT teens. His major label debut album For Your Entertainment earned him a Grammy Award nomination for the No. 10 Hot 100 hit “Whataya Want From Me,” and his sophomore set, Trespassing, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in 2012. –Keith Caulfield
Ricky Martin Reveals All in ‘Me’
From fresh-faced Menudo sweetheart to “Latin explosion” leader, Ricky Martin has spent much of his career dodging relentless scrutiny over his sexuality. Martin finally put the circus to rest in 2010 and declared himself a “fortunate homosexual man” in an intimate letter to his fans that eloquently described the fear that keeps so many potential gay role models like himself in the closet. “Many people told me: ‘Ricky it’s not important,’ ‘it’s not worth it. . . all the years you’ve worked and everything you’ve built will collapse,'” he wrote. Martin ignored the naysayers and discussed his struggles with his sexuality in his 2010 autobiography Me, which quickly became a New York Times best seller. Martin is the proud dad of twin boys, born to a surrogate in 2008. –Monica Herrera
Against Me! Singer Comes Out as Transgender
In May 2012, Tommy Gabel made a very important announcement. After living for 31 years as a man, half of that as singer/guitarist for Florida punk band Against Me!, he would be transitioning to life as a woman named Laura Jane Grace. The story of Grace’s lifelong struggle with gender dysphoria was revealed in an intimate Rolling Stone profile, which also explained that Heather Gabel, Grace’s wife of five years with whom she had a young daughter, was staying. The immediate public reaction was largely surprised but overwhelmingly supportive.
While the personal transition has been both challenging and liberating, as Grace described in an essay for Cosmopolitan, she says that life in the band has been in many ways business as usual. “I didn’t go into it at all thinking, ‘Oh, God, what is this going to do for my career?’ Because that was the furthest thing from what I was scared to death about,” she says. On the band’s tour just one week after the article, she says it was, “totally humbling how many people would be waiting out back — new fans and members of the LGBT community.”
When asked if she’s become a mentor to transgender fans or others she’s met, she says, “Yeah, but it’s really co-dependent. . . I need that too.” Her own transition was inspired by metal band Life of Agony’s Mina Caputo, who came out as transgender in 2011, and the mainstream success of LGBT acts like Frank Ocean and Tegan & Sara give her optimism. “It has to get to a point where it isn’t even an issue because it’s so commonplace,” she says. –Evie Nagy
Jay-Z and Obama Support Same-Sex Marriage ?
After Barack Obama publicly endorsed same-sex marriage in 2012, Jay Z voiced his own support in an interview with CNN. “I’ve always thought it as something that was still holding the country back,” said the rapper. “What people do in their own homes is their business and you can choose to love whoever you love. That’s their business. It’s no different than discriminating against blacks. It’s discrimination, plain and simple.” Other stars, from Lady Gaga to Alicia Keys, also backed the president’s words. –Sarah Maloy
‘Glee’ Puts Gay Teens on Primetime
After first being introduced to Kurt Hummel (played by Chris Colfer) as he was being thrown into a dumpster on the series premiere of Glee, the Fox show tackled gay issues big and small, bringing LGBT storylines to the forefront. In 2010, Kurt met the swoontastic (and equally out) Blaine Anderson (Darren Criss), causing the audience to cry “squee!” into their Tumblrs and Twitter accounts at the same time. Blaine and the Warblers serenaded Kurt with Katy Perry‘s “Teenage Dream,” and the Glee cast earned its best single sales week for a download with the song’s release (214,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan).
Meanwhile, Brittany (Heather Morris) and Santana (Naya Rivera) were struggling with their sexuality, and the two expressed their feelings through a duet of Fleetwood Mac‘s “Landslide.” Glee also featured a much-lauded bullying storyline, which culminated when Kurt’s former bully, David Karofsky (Max Adler), attempted suicide after his classmates mocked him for being gay. Later, in season 3, Glee Project contestant Alex Newell joined the cast as Wade Adams, a transgender character who performs with the rival glee club as a woman, Unique. –Sarah Maloy & Keith Caulfield
Country’s Chely Wright: Out, Married, and a Mom
Country music has boasted stars of every age, race and gender, but the genre had long been conspicuously heterosexual. Countrified pop chanteuse k.d. lang — who famously graced a 1993 cover of Vanity Fair in a barber chair being amorously “shaved” by model Cindy Crawford — fired the first salvo in shattering that unspoken barrier when she opened up about her sexuality in the early ’90s. Almost two decades later, country singer Chely Wright carried the conversation into the 21st century when her coming out made headlines in 2010. Wright faced death threats and declining record sales following her announcement, but rather than take a lower profile, the “Single White Female” singer married (current Sr. Director of Marketing at Sony Music Entertainment in NYC) Lauren Blitzer in 2011.
Wright’s story during the past few years has been inspiring to many, particularly in the form of Wish Me Away, a documentary about her experience. Shot during the course of three years, the film made its debut at the 35th annual Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco in June 2011, and won several major awards in 2012 — including trophies from the Los Angeles Film Festival, the Seattle LGBT Festival and the Tallgrass Film Festival in her home state of Kansas.
And in 2013, Wright had an even bigger reason to celebrate — she and Blitzer welcomed twins George Samuel and Everett Joseph Wright on May 18. –Jessica Letkemann & Chuck Dauphin
Rob Halford Makes Metal History
Studs, leather and rough talk are de rigeur accoutrements in mainstream metal, but the machismo-driven genre had always been worlds away from the slice of the gay male spectrum that shares its fashion sense until Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford came out during a 1998 MTV interview. “I’ve been a gay man all of my life,” Halford told the network on camera. “It’s only been in recent times that it’s been an issue that I’ve been comfortable to address… This is the moment to discuss it.” The Grammy-winning singer went on to say, “A lot of homophobia still exists in the music world, in all kinds of music… But that’s something we have to address in our own lives.” Then he added with a smile, “If you want to go through your Priest collection, you’ll be surprised how many innuendoes and how many metaphors are used. That was my way of getting my message out [then] for the people who cared to explore that.” –Jessica Letkemann
Conchita Wurst Wins Eurovision 2014
Despite protests in eastern Europe before Eurovision 2014, bearded drag queen Conchita Wurst not only competed in the celebrated singing contest but won with her ballad “Rise Like a Phoenix.” The 25-year-old Austrian performer, aka Thomas Neuwirth, was both emotional and poignant when she accepted the prize in May. “This is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom,”she said. Wurst also spoke to reporters after her victory, sharing that she hopes LGBT people everywhere continue to gain strength in their battles for rights. “We are unity and we are unstoppable,” she said. –Jessica Letkemann
Sylvester Dons a Dress, Feels Mighty Real
?Long before RuPaul sashayed onto the Billboard charts in the early ’90s, drag diva Sylvester was paving the way for queens everywhere with his high-energy club tracks. Best known for his 1978 anthem “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” Sylvester James found his calling and adopted his one-name moniker after moving to San Francisco to pursue music just a couple of years before New York’s Stonewall riot launched the national gay liberation movement. It was via the welcoming world of disco that the out, loud and proud soul singer found worldwide acceptance. Though he tragically died of AIDS in 1988 at age 41, Sylvester’s flamed burned bright during his brief life: In his ’70s & ’80s heyday, Sylvester earned 10 top 10s on Billboard’s Dance/Club Play Songs chart (including two No. 1s) and a place on the dancefloor for evermore. –Jessica Letkemann
Lady Gaga Fights for Gay Rights
With her equality anthem “Born This Way” and . . . well, nearly everything she says, does and wears, Lady Gaga has proven herself to be this era’s gay-friendliest pop star. But Gaga goes well beyond celebrity gestures and digs her paws into real political action. First came her rallying cry at the National Equality March on Washington in March 2009. The 2010 MTV VMAs followed, where U.S. service members affected by the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy accompanied her on the red carpet. Later, she appealed to her millions of Twitter followers to ask the New York State Senator to vote yes for the Marriage Equality Act. And since 2009, Gaga has teamed with Virgin Mobile to help combat homelessness among gay youth. Gaga also notably took her vocal support of LGBT youth on the road in early 2013 with her Born Brave Bus, which was part of her Born This Way Foundation’s campaign in partnership with Campus Pride, GLSEN and other youth empowerment groups. –Monica Herrera, Andrew Hampp, Jessica Letkemann
Enrique Iglesias Embraces ‘G-A-Y’ Fans
Many female pop stars openly embrace their LGBT fans, but only a few straight male singers are comfortable enough to play to the gays. Enrique Iglesias proved that his appreciation for his fans is not specific to gender or sexual preference in June 2007 during his performance at London’s G-A-Y nightclub. During the show, Iglesias brought a boy on stage and serenaded him with his ballad “Hero.” Iglesias confidently hugged, caressed and kissed the swooning fan and, as the viral video made its way around the world, sent a message to male pop stars everywhere that they shouldn’t be afraid to embrace their LGBT fans — literally or figuratively. –Erika Ramirez
Lance Bass Gets In Sync With His Sexuality
Lance Bass may not have emerged from the closet during *NSYNC‘s boy-band reign , but the singer’s 2006 coming out was still nothing less than bold. In a People magazine cover story, Bass declared that he’s “not ashamed” of his sexuality. “I don’t think it’s wrong, I’m not devastated going through this,” he added. Following his coming out, Bass was awarded the 2006 Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award. He later outlined his life’s story and struggle with his sexuality in Out Of Sync, his coyly titled autobiography released in 2007. Since then, Bass has taken his place in the LGBT community by working with GLAAD and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. –Jillian Mapes
Elton & David Tie the Knot, Welcome Sons
In the ’70s, Elton John was famously slippery about his sexual preferences. But the singer set aside all ambiguities on Dec. 21, 2005 when John celebrated England’s recognition of same-sex civil partnerships and wed his longtime partner, filmmaker David Furnish. The couple, who have been together since the early ’90s, held a small ceremony in Windsor in which both sets of parents acted as witnesses. Five years later, John and Furnish adopted a baby boy, Zachary Jackson Levon Furnish-John, who was born to a surrogate. And in January 2013, the couple welcomed Elijah Joseph Daniel Furnish-John, a little brother for Zachary. –Jason Lipshutz
Melissa Etheridge Says ‘Yes I Am’ ?
While out rocker Melissa Etheridge had experienced a good deal of success on the charts in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it wasn’t until her 1993 album Yes I Am that she hit paydirt. The album — whose title served as an answer to questions about her sexuality — spent 138 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart and has sold 4.4 million copies in the U.S. according to Nielsen SoundScan. The set spawned the Hot 100 top 40 hits “Come to My Window” (No. 25), “I’m the Only One” (No. 8) and “Like the Way I Do/If I Wanted To” (No. 16) and helped make Etheridge a household name. –Keith Caulfield
Rapper Lil B Goes ‘Gay’
Hip-hop aficionados were left dumbfounded when heterosexual MC Lil B announced that his forthcoming album was to be called I’m Gay. The Oakland rapper’s announcement, made during his performance at the 2011 Coachella festival, came days after Hot 97 DJ Mr. Cee was controversially arrested for lewd conduct with another man. “No matter what you do, it doesn’t matter,” said Lil B. “We only have one life to live. Be happy. F*ck the hating, baby.” After months of receiving death threats, Lil B stuck with the title — although the album cover shows the title to be I’m Gay (I’m Happy). Diluted message or not, Lil B’s stand for individuality brought the discussion of gay issues into the largely homophobic world of hip-hop. –Erika Ramirez
Madonna Makes Vogueing Mainstream, Battles Boy ScoutsMadonna had already established herself as an advocate for LGBT rights and causes in the ’80s, but she took her gay-positive message to a different level when she introduced mainstream America to vogueing, a flamboyant style of dance which dated back to the 1960s underground drag-ball scene. Released in 1990, “Vogue” soared to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and came with a striking black-and-white video that taught the world how to strike a pose. More than 20 years later, you’ll still find everyone from fratboys to grandmas giving good face whenever the song is played.
Madonna continues to speak out for LGBT equality. In 2013, she arrived at the GLAAD Media Awards dressed a Boy Scout uniform, called on the Boy Scouts to lift its ban on gays while also calling for a “revolution” to prevent discrimination and abuse of the gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual community. “When I think about young kids in America who are being bullied and tortured, who are taking their own lives because they feel alone and judged, outcast and misunderstood, I want to sit down and cry a river of tears,” Madonna said from the GLAAD podium. Later she added, “I don’t know about you, but I can’t take this (expletive) anymore. That is why I want to start a revolution.” –Keith Caulfield & M. Tye Comer
Synth-Pop Gets Political
Bronski Beat wasn’t the only LGBT-friendly synth-pop group of the ’80s. But back when bands like Pet Shop Boys and Erasure were only making veiled references to their sexualities, falsetto vocalist Jimmy Sommerville and company were adorning their album covers with pink triangles and writing political, gay-empowering club tunes that left no room for misinterpretation. 1984’s “Smalltown Boy” was the trio’s most celebrated hit, and the song’s video was one of the first of any genre to address the issue of violence against gays. –M. Tye Comer
Mana Supports Marriage Equality
The world’s biggest Latin touring act, Mana, made a strong statement on April 2, 2012. The Mexican rock band’s lead singer, Fher Olvera, joined a chorus of other like-minded musicians and backed gay couples on the band’s millions-strong Facebook account. “Full recognition for same-sex couples is not just a question of equality, it is also a matter of justice,” the singer wrote. “In a chaotic world where there is still too much hatred, all expressions of love are important so that we do not forget that, even in spite of our imperfections, we are called to be angels. Because the only sin is the absence of love.”
Although other high-profile artists have expressed their support of the LGBT community, the politically charged topic is rarely touched so directly in Latin music, where heterosexual love ballads frequently chart. Like in the real world, responses ranged from opposition to supportive fans like Olivia Ramirez, who applauded the band and echoed its sentiments in a reply post: “If two men or two women love each other who are we to say what love is bad? Peace and love for all.” –Justino Aguila
Stars Pay Tribute to Freddie Mercury
Queen frontman Freddie Mercury never wore his sexuality on his sleeve, though the flamboyant performer openly had relationships with both men and women during the band’s popularity. In November 1991, Mercury revealed to the world that he had contracted HIV, and — upon his passing one day later — became the first major rock star to die of AIDS. In April 1992, the remaining members of Queen staged The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness to celebrate the life and legacy of Mercury and raise money for AIDS research. The concert, which featured performances by Robert Plant, Roger Daltrey, Elton John, Metallica, David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses and U2 among others, was broadcast live to 76 countries, had an estimated viewing audience of 1 billion people, and was instrumental in bringing awareness about the disease to a generation of music fans. –M. Tye Comer
Rufus Wainwright, Friend of Dorothy
In 1961, Judy Garland made a comeback at Carnegie Hall that is revered as one of her most legendary performances. The campy magic of that night was recreated by singer Rufus Wainwright, who paid homage to the gay icon by recreating the her show in June 2006. In 2007, Wainwright took the act to Britain’s Glastonbury festival, where he donned lipstick and heels for a performance that declared his friendship with Dorothy. Over the rainbow, indeed. –M. Tye Comer
Jill Sobule Kisses a GirlLong before Katy Perry catered to male fantasies by singing “I kissed a girl and I liked it,” singer-songwriter Jill Sobule made the same declaration in earnest. Her 1995 hit reached No. 75 on the Hot 100 chart in spite of — or perhaps because of — its overt declaration of lesbianism. The subversive song struck a chord as a character-driven narrative, giving voice to sexual exploration in a way rarely touched in pop. –Jillian Mapes
Tom Robinson is ‘Glad to Be Gay’In 1976, British songwriter Tom Robinson penned the tune “Glad to Be Gay” for a London gay pride rally that year. Inspired by the in-your-face posturing of punk bands like The Sex Pistols, the song’s lyrics were bold and brave, especially considering the climate towards homosexuals at the time. Some 40 years later, the song still serves as Britain’s national gay anthem. –M. Tye Comer
Christian Chavez Fights for ‘Libertad’?Christian Chavez came out of the closet back in 2007 while he was a member of wildly popular Mexican teen pop group RBD. But in March 2011, Chavez fully demanded his own liberty through song. In the provocative video for “Libertad,” the Latin-pop singer uses a sexy narrative about two gay lovers who meet in a club to make a stance for gay rights and sexual freedom. Spliced between flashing images of Harvey Milk, RuPaul, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others, Chavez and his new flame go in for the kill with a kiss that has helped the video garner millions of YouTube hits and wide applause. –Jillian Mapes