Throughout musical history there have been certain songs that have become synonymous with defining a certain time or feeling within the LGBT community.
From protest songs like Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad To Be Gay’ to bona fide gay anthems that give a voice and visibility to LGBT people like Lady Gaga’s 2011 global hit, ‘Born This Way’, we’ve certainly come a long way since the BBC banned Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ on the grounds that it was "obscene".
As part of our LOUD & PROUD series, we are tipping our hat to some of those seminal songs that have either stood up for or celebrated gay life throughout the last five decades, and which played a part in bringing LGBT life into the mainstream.
Tom Robinson ‘Glad To Be Gay’ (1978)
Originally written in 1976 for London’s Gay Pride event, this song went on to become an unofficial anthem for the gay community. The out gay singer later revealed he was inspired by the direct and confrontational style of punk legends, the Sex Pistols, who ruled the charts and the front pages at the time. The bold song’s direct lyrics deal with British society’s attitudes towards the gay community at a time when homophobia and persecution of them, particularly by the police, was rife.
Village People ‘YMCA’ (1978)
There can’t be many people left on the planet who haven’t thrown their arms into the air semaphore-style to spell out the title of this disco hit. The camp classic is still played at straight weddings across the land, which is kind of ironic, especially when you consider the lyrical content. You know, about young men doing whatever they feel, whilst having a good time with each other down at the local YMCA. However, according to band member Victor Willis, who co-wrote the song, we’ve all just got mucky minds, because he’s gone on record to state that the lyrics are actually very innocent. “The lyrics were written by me as an expression of urban youths having fun at the YMCA,” he said. “The words were crafted by me to be taken any number of ways but not specific to gays. It's much broader than that. The song is universal. I don't mind that gays think the song is about them but I won't perform the song in support of any protest.” No, but you will perform it in a pair of leather chaps.
Diana Ross ‘I’m Coming Out’ (1980)
Despite the song’s title and the fact that Ms Ross is a bona fide gay icon, this 1980 single isn’t actually about the act of coming out as gay but about Diana ‘coming out’ from under Motown boss Berry Gordy’s control. However, that didn’t stop the song becoming - and continuing to be - a gay anthem of three decades' standing. Chic star Nile Rodgers, who co-wrote and produced the track, has since revealed that he got the idea for the song after seeing three drag queens dressed as Diana Ross at a New York club called the GG Barnum Room. So, as far as we’re concerned, the song’s gay credentials are very much intact.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood ‘Relax’ (1983)
Everything about ‘Relax’ screamed ‘GAY!’ From the lyrics ("Relax don’t do it, when you want to suck to it, relax don’t do it, when you want to come"), to the risque video shot in a sleazy leather club. The first ads for the single were just as unsubtle, featuring lead singer Holly Johnson with a shaved head and wearing rubber gloves, and backing vocalist Paul Rutherford in a sailor cap and a leather vest. The oh-so-gay images were accompanied by the phrase ‘All the nice boys love sea men.’ Subtle. Holly and Paul's open and unapologetic homosexuality was used to full effect by their record company in the marketing campaign too. They were out to shock, and it worked - eventually. After a sluggish few weeks lingering in the lower reaches of the Top 75, Radio 1 DJ Mike Reid banned the song from his show. Then Radio 1 banned it entirely from its playlist, the fallout of which helped the single to top the charts for weeks and go on to sell over 2 million copies in the UK alone.
Bronski Beat ‘Smalltown Boy’ (1984)
The narrative of the lyrics to this Top 5 hit were replicated in the song’s accompanying video. The clip sees lead singer Jimmy Somerville contemplating his childhood in a series of flashbacks chronicling the events that led him to leave home. Later in the video, he’s seen talking to a man at a swimming pool before being subjected to a homophobic attack, led by the man he approached. He’s then brought home by a police officer and his sexuality is revealed, much to his father’s disdain. Powerful stuff. It was later, bizarrely, used by Boots in their Christmas advertising campaign.
George Michael ‘Outside’ (1998)
Not a gay song as such, but the self-deprecating lyrics and saucy video blatantly recall George’s arrest for "engaging in a lewd act" with an undercover police officer in a public loo six months earlier. The incident led to George finally confirming that he was gay after years of rumours about his sexuality, as well as the fact that, whatever the circumstances, he could always produce an absolute belter of a tune.
Lady Gaga ‘Born This Way’ (2011)
Gaga has always been a vocal supporter of the LGBT community but in ‘Born This Way’ she provided them with a bona fide anthem. “No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track baby, I was born to survive” - the lyrics discuss the self-empowerment of minorities and gave Gaga the chance to express her political and social beliefs. As she explained at the time: “I want [Born This Way] to be an attack, an assault on the issue because I think, especially in today's music, everything gets kind of washy sometimes and the message gets hidden in the lyrical play.” The power of the song shouldn’t be underestimated after it went on to be a huge global hit, reaching No.1 in 25 countries, and becoming one of the biggest-selling singles of all time, shifting over 8 million copies.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ‘Same Love’ (2012)
A pro-gay marriage hip-hop song? How far we had come was revealed when this single was released and subsequently adopted by supporters of the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Washington State. It was also groundbreaking in the sense that it was a hip-hop song - a community where widespread homophobia still exists. Macklemore explained it came out of his own frustration with hip-hop's positions on homosexuality. "Misogyny and homophobia are the two acceptable means of oppression in hip hop culture," he explained. "It's 2012. There needs to be some accountability. I think that as a society we're evolving and I think that hip hop has always been a representation of what's going on in the world right now.” One critic went as far to declare that it "may be the most profound song" hip-hop as a genre has ever produced. We're inclined to agree.
HuffPost UK is turning Loud & Proud. Over the next fortnight, we'll be celebrating how gay culture has influenced and, in turn, been embraced by all fields of entertainment, inspiring cinema-goers, TV audiences, music-lovers and wider society with its wit, creativity and power of expression.
Through features, video and blogs, we'll be championing those brave pioneers who paved the way, exploring the broad range of gay culture in British film, TV and music and asking - what is left to be done? If you’d like to blog on our platform around these topics, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with a summary of who you are and what you’d like to blog about.