Being the first person to do something can be liberating, but it can also be downright terrifying. Over the years, many musicians in the LGBTQ community have gathered the courage to stand up for who they are and what they believe in. They are pioneers in the industry for showing the world that even though they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer, they are just as talented and worthy as any heterosexual or cisgender artist.
From ’80s icons to pop powerhouses of today, these individuals have not only paved the way for similar musicians to authentically present themselves — they’ve also furthered the gay rights movement through their drive and their passion.
After growing up in a Mormon household, see which rockstar’s life was transformed by coming out.
Freddie Mercury’s Legacy Lives On
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In the 1970s, Freddie Mercury of Queen had no apologies for being bisexual. But acceptance of the LGBT community was still in its infancy (homosexuality was only legalized seven years earlier). Mercury helped people see what it meant to be queer at a time when it was still taboo.
He was diagnosed with AIDS in the ’80s but didn’t let the disease bring him down, and even today is an inspiration for those living with HIV. Despite his legacy, a trailer for an upcoming film about Mercury doesn’t mention AIDS or the singer’s sexual preference for men, which angered a lot of people.
David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Was Life Changing For Many
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David Bowie was fluid with his sexuality. In 1972, he identified as gay. Four years later, he said he was bisexual. Still, later in life, he called himself a “closet heterosexual” and married supermodel Iman. Bowie embraced androgyny and performed as the character Ziggy Stardust, paving the way for future musicians to be true to themselves and their sexuality.
Following his death, Boy George recalled watching Bowie perform as Ziggy Stardust. George was only 12 at the time but called the concert a “life-changing and life-affirming event.” The Pet Shop Boys said upon his passing: “We are all @davidbowie’s children. He inspired us and changed our lives.”
Neon Trees Singer Tyler Glenn Is A Gay Pop Star With Mormon Roots
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Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees was raised a Mormon. Glenn initially chose to keep his sexuality a secret, partially because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints considers gay sex a “serious transgression.” When he eventually told a producer that he was gay, his world opened up.
Glenn set out to redefine what it means to be a gay rock star. He told Rolling Stone in 2014: “I’ve gotten tired of kind-of gay or straight people being pop culture’s gay [spokespeople] – like Macklemore,” he says. “It makes me wonder, ‘Are we ready for an actual gay pop star and not just the safe straight guy saying it’s OK?'”
The Pet Shop Boys made queerness mainstream.
Sam Smith Reluctantly Became A Gay Spokesman
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Sam Smith was initially reluctant to be a spokesperson for the gay community. He told the New York Times in 2017: “People forget but no one learns about gay history in school. Nothing. So I didn’t know anything about my history as a gay man and then words like ‘spokesperson’ are being thrown at me when I’ve just brought out my first album.”
He added, “It scared me because I was like, I don’t know anything about being gay, really.” His Grammy-winning song “Stay with Me” was a huge international hit. In 2017, he said his album The Thrill of It All showed “the gay guy I’ve become.”
George Michael Used His Fame To Support Others In The Gay Community
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George Michael is known for being the other half of Wham! with hits like “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” He’s also known for being brutally honest about his own journey coming out as a gay man.
The English singer-songwriter frequently turns to social media to voice his support of the gay community and campaigned for LGBTQ rights and supported HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust. Sam Smith considers George Michael a role model in how he carried himself as a spokesman. “I feel like George Michael had a way of being authentic to himself and honest in a way that was warm,” he told the New York Times in 2017.
The Pet Shop Boys Made Queerness Mainstream
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The British synth duo the Pet Shop Boys got their start in the early ’80s but stars Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe didn’t make any statements about their sexuality even though people were curious. Many fans didn’t care, while others couldn’t help but notice the gay undertones in songs such as Young Offender and It’s a Sin.
After Tennant officially came out in the early ’90s, he and Lowe had already put their stamp on the music community and moved queerness into the mainstream. They’ve shown their support for the LBGTQ community with songs such as “Being Boring” about a friend who died of AIDS.
The B-52s Played Music Geared Towards LGBTQ Listeners
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The B-52s hit the scene in the late ’70s and early ’80s with gender-bending songs such as “Quiche Lorraine” at a time when male-centered punk rock ruled the charts. For fans struggling with their sexuality, the band was a welcome, and much-needed, alternative. Four of the original members identified as LGBTQ.
Ricky Wilson died of AIDS-related cancer in 1985. The band took a two-year break and then reformed. “We started realizing we had something so precious together,” Kate Pierson told Billboard in June 2018. “Ricky’s spirit returned in a way. It was a real healing process.”
Lady Gaga Strongly Supports Gay Rights
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Lady Gaga tweeted as recently as June 2018, “I love the lgbtq community more than I can say. So I’ll sing it instead. Forever. And that’s a NY promise. One love!” She has long been a supporter of the LGBTQ community. She’s public about being bisexual and founded the Born This Way Foundation in 2011 geared towards helping LGBTQ children and teens who regularly face harassment.
Lady Gaga appeared on the season 9 premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race and protested the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy at the Video Music Awards. She’s continually and consistently stood up for LGBTQ rights and consequently has become a gay icon.
Perfume Genius Says What He Feels Through His Songs
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Mike Hadreas, also known as Perfume Genius, got personal on his first two albums with songs about abuse, violence, and suicide. His said of his third album In Shape, “There are a lot of songs about youth and young love, especially in relation to gayness; I wanted to make sacred the other side of that.”
His album Too Bright touched on themes such as gay panic and the feeling that gay people are simply tolerated by society. He speaks of things that others in the LGBTQ community feel and experience on a daily basis. Still, he’s said in interviews he’s still a bit insecure about fully expressing himself in public.
Billy Gillman breaks all the stereotypes.
Billy Gillman Breaks The Country Music Star Stereotype
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Not a whole lot of country artists are openly gay. Billy Gilman told fans in a 2014 video message that he was gay. He said, “It’s difficult for me to make this video, not because I’m ashamed of being a gay male artist, or a gay artist or a gay person, but it’s pretty silly to know that I’m ashamed of doing this knowing that I’m in a genre and an industry that’s ashamed of me for being me.”
His admission didn’t hurt his career — he later won Mainstream Artist of the Year at the American Music Guild’s Heritage Awards.
“Flexible” Sia Doesn’t Care About Gender
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Australian singer Sia has always been open about her sexual fluidity. While some celebs keep their orientation private, Sia is a loud and proud mainstream artist who has produced several hit songs, including “Chandelier.”
“I’ve always been honest if anyone ever asked me,” Sia told Same Same in 2009. “Before I was actually successful I’d always said I’ve always dated boys and girls and anything in between. I don’t care what gender you are, it’s about people. I didn’t just recently open up, I just recently got famous! I’ve always been … well, flexible is the word I would use.”
Mary Lambert’s Music Inspires Others To Be True To Themselves
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Mary Lambert tweeted in 2017: “Still gay! Very gay! Gay gay gay! Happy day bay-bays! Yay yay!” She wrote “She Keeps Me Warm” about being a lesbian in a Christian household. Her songs, such as “Same Love,” have even inspired at least one young woman to talk openly about their sexuality.
She told Radio: “The fact that music was able to do that? That I could have been a part of that, and that she felt safe enough to tell me? I know how strong you have to be to do that. If I can give that fight to somebody, then I want to keep doing it.”
Conchita Wurst Believes Everyone Can Be Successful Regardless Of Who They Are
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Drag artist Conchita Wurst won Eurovision in 2014 and just one year later said she was not entirely sure she deserved the title of gay icon. She explained: “I’m not really comfortable (with it) if I’m honest because I don’t see myself as an icon, I’m just representing myself in the first place.”
Born Tom Neuwirth, Conchita presents as female with a beard. She wears it because it’s “a statement to say that you can achieve anything, no matter who you are or how you look.” She’s involved with the It Gets Better Project, which helps LGBTQ teens know they aren’t alone.
Keke Okereke Believes Gay Artists Need To Do More
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Kele Okereke of Bloc Party breaks the mold by being a gay, black indie music star. He has inspired many up-and-coming gay artists. Yet, Okereke still feels gay singers have a long way to go and still need to do more to push the gay community forward.
He explained in an interview with Attitude, “I don’t see many gay artists in the mainstream being that real, to be honest. There’s still a long way for gay artists to go in terms of being fully realised and being able to express themselves in the way that heterosexual artists do.”
K.D. Lang Broke Barriers When She Came Out In The ’90s
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In 1992, Canadian country-pop star K.D. Lang revealed in the Advocate that she was a lesbian. It was unusual at the time for women in particular to do this. Her Grammy-winning song, “Constant Craving,” became a gay anthem. It was her first hit after she came out. She made it easier for both male and female artists to be open about their sexuality.
Her honesty and music were empowering to her fans. She made history in the gay civil rights movement and later said of coming out: “I’m one of the lucky ones. I realize that. It’s still not easy for people to come out in every instance.”
Rapper Angel Haze Identifies As Pansexual
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Gay rappers are uncommon, but Angel Haze easily breaks stereotypes. She identifies as pansexual, a person who can love “men and women but also transgendered, androgynous, and gender fluid people.” She once dated Alec Baldwin’s model daughter Ireland Baldwin and doesn’t get hung up on pronouns when people describe her.
“I sound like four people when I get written about as ‘they’. It drives me crazy. If you call me ‘him’ or ‘her’ it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t consider myself of any sex. I consider myself an experience,” she told the Evening Standard in 2015. Her music tackles subjects such as racism, rape culture, and homophobia.
Elton John Talked Openly About Sexuality When No One Else Did
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Elton John is one of music’s most well-known gay musicians. The flamboyant performer admitted to Rolling Stone in 1976: “There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex. I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree.” Even though his sexuality was an open secret, his admission was shocking because in those days no one discussed sexuality, especially not with the press.
John joined the battle against AIDS in the late 1980s. He founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992. He wed his partner David Furnish in 2014 after same-sex marriage became legal in England and Wales.
Lowell Is Unapologetic About Her Past & Is An Advocate For LGBTQ Rights
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Lowell, whose full name is Elizabeth Lowell Boland, dropped her first album in 2014. In her music she includes anecdotes about being a sex worker — the openly bisexual star dropped out of college and worked as a stripper for a period of time. She believes there’s nothing wrong with using sex for empowerment.
In an interview with Rolling Stone she talked about the song LGBT, an anthem that includes lyrics such as “Why are you afraid of how I feel? L-G-B-T, L-O-V-E, oho, don’t hate our love” alongside lines touching on homophobia such as “They never choose who they like, so they like me dead.”
Laura Jane Grace Transitioned Mid-Career
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Laura Jane Grace (born Thomas James Gabel) of the punk rock band Against Me! transitioned in 2012 after struggling with gender dysphoria ever since she was a child. In 2014, she released Transgender Dysphoria Blues, the band’s sixth studio album. She said of the project:
“Dealing with depression is really what a lot of that’s about. On the surface level, the album may be transgender-themed, but underneath it, there are those universal themes — alienation, depression, not being happy — that I think that everybody can really identify with.” Grace also produces a web series called True Trans, which tells her story.
Olly Alexander Is A Role Model For Young Fans
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Growing up, Years & Years singer Olly Alexander was bullied and shamed for his sexuality. Now he’s a champion for LGTBQ rights. In 2017 he spoke candidly about his experiences in the documentary Olly Alexander: Growing Up Gay. He told NME in an interview at the time:
“What I see is a lot of Years & Years fans are more fluid with gender identity and sexuality, which is great. The media sometimes present it narrowly as ‘Gender’s over and everything’s fine now.’ There are more young people who accept and understand different identities and sexualities, but we have a long way to go to ensure they aren’t suffering abuse and discrimination.”