When it comes to queer people in well-known histories they've often been relegated to the footnotes, their queerness glossed over by others and sometimes on their own account for safety. Even within LGBTQ+ history, many Black and brown queer and trans people have been downplayed or outright left out of their own stories. (Click here to read about Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and the other leaders who started the Stonewall Riots that Pride Month is meant to commemorate each year.)
Despite the community pioneering much of pop culture, assimilation has made it so that a bit of digging is required to get to the queerness of any widely spread trend or movement. It's important to keep telling the stories of queer trailblazers, past and present, so everyone understands that they've always been here and we can talk about their queerness without it "overshadowing" their accomplishments and vice versa. Here are just a few of my favorite queer pioneers in pop culture history to inspire you to do some digging of your own!
Little Richard, Jayne County, & the Queer Roots Of Punk Rock
My mind was blown when I found out that some of the first and most influential punk rockers were out queer people. Little Richard, along with other queer Black musicians in the 1950s like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, are thought to be some of the most important architects of rock and roll.
By the late '60s and early '70s, trans women like Jayne County and drag troupes featuring all kinds of gender-benders in New York were pioneering the glam-punk, look, sound, and attitude. They went on to influence pop cultural staples like Andy Warhol, David Bowie, Patti Smith, and Blondie. On the West Coast, bands with out and proud queer members like the Screamers were influencing artists who would go on to start classic punk groups like the Dead Kennedys. By the '80s, rock magazines run by men served the American public a white, straight narrative of the scene.
In the mid-1980s, artists like G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce got fed up and sparked a new movement called Homocore, later changed to Queercore for inclusivity. For further information on the queer and Black roots of punk rock, check out Parallel Lines by Kembrew McLeod, "7 Guitarists That Prove Black Women Were Pioneers In Music History" by Fabi Reyna, and the 2017 documentary QUEERCORE: How To Punk A Revolution.
Sylvester Becomes "The Queen of Disco"
While the Bee Gees and their soundtrack for the hit film Saturday Night Fever launched disco into the mainstream, its roots are of course queer, Black, and Latinx. One of the genre's most storied figures is Sylvester. Disco music evolved from various subcultures in Philadelphia's R&B scene in the late '60s and early '70s and along the way found a predominately queer Black and Latinx audience. The genre was popularized by the underground dance parties in New York's gay community. Sylvester's acclaimed disco album Step II with hit singles like "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)" is a longstanding pillar for disco and the queer community's close ties and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in 2019.
By the late 1970s, he was referred to as the "Queen of Disco" and became a fixture in the city of San Francisco eventually being awarded the key to the city. David Bowie is even recorded saying that San Francisco did not need him because "They've got Sylvester." The singer also campaigned against the spread of HIV/AIDS and he passed from complications caused by the virus in 1988, he left all his future royalties to San Francisco-based HIV/AIDS charities. For further reading on the disco scene check out "Disco and Gay Culture in the 1970s" by Manya Johnston-Ramirez. You can also watch the documentary Mighty Real: A Celebration of Sylvester here.
Wendy Carlos Pioneers Modern Electronic Music
Can you imagine synth covers of classical music heading straight to the top of the charts? No? Me neither, but that's exactly what happened when composer Wendy Carlos released her revelatory debut album, Switched-On Bach, in 1968.
Wendy's album was such a success that Robert Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer, began to receive requests from artists and producers to use his equipment. She is credited for bringing synthesizers into mainstream music and went on to score classic films like A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron.
Being one of the first visible transgender artists in the US meant she kept a low profile throughout her trailblazing career. According to an article in The Guardian, she repeatedly turned down requests for interviews over the years. The first book about Wendy's impact and life was just published in 2020 despite her work being responsible for most electronic music we hear in films, TV, and radio today. For more information on Wendy, check out her website.
Godfather Of House Music DJ Frankie Knuckles Ushers In "Disco's Revenge"
After conservative DJs like Chicago's Steve Dahl launched a Disco Sucks campaign fueled by homophobia and racism, it all ended in an unsettling riot called "Disco Demolition Night," where men set fire to disco records at Comiskey Park. The night sent a clear message to the country's LGBTQ+ community but that didn't stop them from creating art that the rest of society just couldn't ignore. Not long after, pioneering DJ Frankie Knuckles called house music "disco's revenge."
Today, house music, or EDM as it's now called has a reputation for being associated with frat boys. With the genre's current most popular artists being DJs like Diplo, Flume, and Zedd it's easy to see why that stereotype exists. However, DJs Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy are credited with shaping early house music in Chicago's gay club scene in the 1980s.
In 1977, Knuckles began playing regularly at the nightclub called Warehouse where he developed his skills and style. He would often play a mix of disco classics, little-known indie soul, European synth-disco, and any other rarities which would eventually become known as "House music," a shortened version of the name "Warehouse music." Knuckles' DJing became so popular that the Warehouse which was initially only for Black gay men began attracting whiter, straighter crowds. Knuckles went on to win a Grammy in 1997, get inducted into the Dance Music Hall of Fame, and in 2004, the city of Chicago declared August 25th Frankie Knuckles Day. The legendary DJ passed in 2015 at the age of 59 due to complications from Type II diabetes but luckily he received his flowers while he was still alive.
John Waters & Divine's "Bad Taste" Influences Everything From The Simpsons To Disney
Filmmaker John Waters and the late great drag queen star Divine are probably most known for the movie Hairspray after it found a cult following in the 1990s. The 1988 film is a campy take on racial segregation in the '60s set in Waters' hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. The PG film (the mildest rating a Waters film has ever seen) went on to be adapted into a successful Broadway musical of the same name and a second film version came out in 2007 featuring stars like Nikki Blonsky, Zac Efron, John Travolta, and Michelle Pfieffer. But even the duo's less family-friendly films went on to influence pop culture.
Before Hairspray, Waters and Divine spent the early '70s making transgressive cult films that shocked, disgusted and inspired audiences all over. His most notorious films include 1974s Female Trouble, which had a little cameo at the end of Miley Cyrus's music video for the song "Prisoner," and 1972s Pink Flamingos, which was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 2021.
Waters has been credited for bringing the queer sensibility of camp to a broader audience, changing American pop culture forever. The star of his most well-known films, Divine went on to influence the look of Ursula in Disney's The Little Mermaid and Waters even had an entire episode of The Simpsons dedicated to him. Their influence continues to pop up in today's media, most recently in the first volume of season 4 of the hit Netflix show Stranger Things. For further insight on how John Waters and Divine's queer films have influenced pop culture, check out this video essay by Matt Baume as well as the 2013 documentary I am Divine.
Josè Xtravaganza & Luis Xtravaganza Teach Madonna How To Vogue
What would pop music look like without Madonna? And what would Madonna's career look like without the influence of the queer community? When the pop icon met Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza and Luis Xtravaganza from Harlem's drag ball scene, they introduced her to the queer dance style known as vogueing. Willi Ninja who is known as the godfather of voguing explained the inspiration behind the now extremely popular dancing in the iconic 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning.
After Madonna's 1990 single "Vogue" became a worldwide hit, topping the charts in over 30 countries, she continued to work with Jose and Luis and other queer dancers on the music video and her Blond Ambition world tour. A behind-the-scenes tour documentary released in 1991 called Madonna: Truth or Dare was lauded for showing male homosexuality in a casual way. In 2016, a documentary called Strike A Pose specifically centered around the young male dancers on the tour was released and dealt with the struggles that they faced being out in a homophobic society.
Jose and Luis went on to record several songs including the "Queen's English" which featured background vocals by Madonna. As for his part in the House of Xtravaganza, Jose ascended to the role of House Father in 2002. After the Madonna period, Luis went on to perform in films like The Birdcage and Austin Powers in Goldmember and continues to teach dance in California.
While Madonna has been an outspoken advocate for LGBTQ+ rights for decades, the legacy of "Vogue" has been examined and debated. Is it a celebration of the New York ballroom scene created by and for Black and Latinx queer people or is it exploitation? There are a lot of differing opinions as there should be, but the most important part of this history is honoring the queer dancers and performers who created and continue to update the artform of vogueing. Today, more queer and trans people are getting to share their own talents with a wider audience with shows like HBO Max's Legendary, FX's Pose, and Slay TV's For The Boys.