W elcome to this month’s Music that Matters. This month we focus on social justice movements surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation. June is a special time to celebrate Pride, and it is Pride Month for many reasons. The Stonewall riots that catalyzed the Gay Rights Movement erupted on June 28, 1969. The following year, a peaceful mass protest in New York City commemorated Stonewall—the first Gay Pride parade in American history. It took too long, but on June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas’ anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Exactly 12 years later, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court finally enshrined equal marriage rights for all, in Obergefell v. Hodges. And just this week, on June 15, 2020, a majority of the Supreme Court agreed with equality advocates that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects Americans from workplace discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Across the nation, we’re also witnessing history in the making of a similar and not unrelated sort. Black lives do indeed matter, for many reasons. Amongst them, and long before Obergefell, brave Black trans and queer people stood up to adversity with pride, courage, defiance, and perseverance. They risked and gave their lives for all LGBTQ people—past, present, and future. JusticeAid supports a future in which all Black lives, including LGBTQ lives, are safe and protected.
Sexual orientation and gender identity subsume an enormous swath of issues, perspectives, and individual movements, each of which deserve their own attention. JusticeAid recognizes that the very nature of discrimination often involves oversimplified accounts of human experiences, and so we’ve tried to deliver a diverse representation of music reflecting queer perspectives on issues regarding queer liberation. Still, we can’t meaningfully touch on every theme or issue with a single blog post, especially because, as always, we give “protest songs” a broad meaning.
We need to hear songs that gave solace to those who had to hide. We need to hear artists who risked their careers for their beliefs and their love. We need to hear songs that shouted identity and orientation out loud, no matter the dangers involved. And we need to hear the music that continues to comfort and empower our LGBTQ neighbors while their basic safety remains a daily unknown. These are songs that focus on intensely personal issues that many millions of people have had to hide for too long.
This isn’t just about who we get to love and how we ought to feel about it. This is about visibility, affirmation, equality, and revolution. We all have a role to play, and you can get started by opening your eyes and ears to the artists we’ve featured in this month’s Music that Matters, knowing that JusticeAid sings alongside you.
Artist: Janelle Monae (2018)
Songwriter(s): Monae, Irvin, Webb, Joseph
Americans is an anthem for anyone who searches for solidarity despite being forced to the margins of society. Monae conjures a choir-like vision for a truer and stronger America–one in which majoritarian sensitivities are no match for the strength of intersectional identities.
“Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over.”
Monae rejects reductive labels and spotlights the overlapping oppression that endangers LGBTQ identities and other disenfranchised people. Americans calls out by name the ways in which discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, racio-ethnic background, and socioeconomic status all work to inhibit a truly free America. Along the way, Monae proves her point that visibility and equality aren’t merely conduits to community, but rather the strongest American ideals of all. Did we mention that it’s an absolutely electric song? You can see it here, courtesy of The Late Show with Steven Colbert. And we’ve got the studio version for our playlist, as usual.
It’s a Sin
Artist: Pet Shop Boys (1987)
Songwriter(s): Tennant, Lowe
It’s a Sin is hardly a happy song. But then again, Pride started out as a riot. And when we consider the Pet Shop Boys’ contribution to queer culture in the 1980s, from their at-times extreme invocations of theatrics to their brutally introspective lyrics, everything starts to make a lot of sense. It’s a Sin brings to light the torment that so many LGBTQ individuals are forced to keep in the dark. It’s an exorcism of the social specters that haunt queer lives. For a look back at Pet Shop Boys in all their theatrical glory, here’s It’s a Sin from 1989.
Oh! You Pretty Things
Artist: David Bowie (1971)
It is hard to overstate the importance of Bowie in helping to create a climate of acceptance. He was a shape-shifting artist who always rejected conformity and intolerance, and who accepted all, no matter how they looked, dressed, or loved. Look away for one moment and Bowie was trying to hit on a Martian, and look again moments later to find that he was someone else.
Oh! You Pretty Things is a simple song, and it came out right when he did. We could have selected any number of Bowie songs to highlight, because his integrity and impact is the point, and it all shined so brightly in everything he did. Bowie performed this track on the BBC several times, in the first instance wearing a dress. As it turned out, the BBC was so appalled at his gender-bending display that they destroyed that tape. And so, in 1971, he performed it again, famously hugging his guitarist, Mick Ronson, which was itself a signal that you could love who you wanted. And he did all of this while awaiting the birth of his son, perhaps another gesture to listeners that mental, sexual, and gender liberation were concepts to be crafted by each of us as we’d like to see fit. Bowie truly did it his way.
Glad to Be Gay
Artist: Tom Robinson Band (1978)
Tom Robinson truly was glad to be gay at a time when the British government wasn’t equally glad about it. And as Robinson watched politicians, policemen, and ordinary citizens take to violence to silence gay voices, he sang loud and proud. Glad to Be Gay was written for the gay men in England whose pubs, publications, and basic safety were threatened daily by government-sanctioned discrimination and violence. And later live versions of the tune featured express dedications to the victims of AIDS’ devastation, alongside calls for action by an otherwise recalcitrant British government. You can listen to a stateside performance from 1979 right here.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Artist: Against Me! (2014)
The entirety of Transgender Dysphoria Blue radiates a powerful punk energy, all of it a memorial to gender dysphoria’s destruction, especially for trans individuals like Against Me! frontwoman and songwriter Laura Jane Grace. Coming out as trans and transitioning into one’s true self can entail enormous trauma. The Trevor Project reports that 40 percent of trans adults admit to having previously attempted suicide, and 92 percent of these individuals did so before they were 25 years old.
Yet Laura Jane Grace stands tall, proudly a woman but honest about her pain and self-doubt. In publicly revealing her experiences on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, she penned one of the bravest albums ever made—a refusal to bow to transphobia. It is part of an ever-strengthening path forward for trans individuals—a reminder that trans lives, voices, and anguish matter. Some in the punk scene may not have been fully ready, but Against Me! wasn’t willing to wait, and that made a world of difference for trans’ lives and punk’s progression. The album’s title track gets it great. Here’s an excellent live version.
“You want them to see you –
Like they see every other girl –
They just see a faggot –
They hold their breath not to catch the sick.”
As the earliest struggles for queer equality become easier to forget with each passing day, their memory grows increasingly important. Long before Obergefell, there was a time when every LGBTQ song had to speak in code—to avoid attack, arrest, and societally imposed shame. In Britain, for instance, folks spoke in Polari, an encrypted slang designed to avoid detection and the brutality that would follow.
When love is illegal, warmth is forced into the underground. In the early 20th century, artists like Douglas Byng, Marlene Deitrich, and many more fought to bring it to the surface. Their efforts to advance LGBTQ equality laid a groundwork that deserves our attention and remembrance. We don’t bring you some of the many songs from earlier eras as we lack good video and audio for them, but we honor the effort so many artists made to give respite and community in even more challenging times.
Artist: Chika (2017)
Chika’s sound builds on hip hop traditions while charting historic new territory for LGBTQ artists. Proud represents an emblematic example of this point, showing how technology, creativity, and bravery can coalesce to create music with serious staying power. Did we mention that this Montgomery, Alabama native is barely 23 years old?
Proud takes its cue from hip hop pioneers of days past, using samples—in this case Ed Sheeran’s hit single Shape of You—as the backdrop for a composition whose message is squarely aimed at equality. Released prior to any attention from major name labels, Proud was a way for Chika to create innovative art without big financial backing. “No mistakes,” she proclaims, alongside verses whose lyrics acknowledge homophobic social forces working actively to silence queer voices.
“Y’all repeat the rhetoric just like a class was taken –
But I bet we could settle it just if the past were traded –
And y’all were born a certain way and told you had to hate it.”
We think you’ll be hearing a lot more from Chika in the days ahead, so we suggest you get to know her early work, like Proud, by checking out the SoundCloud page that helped launch her success.
Come to My Window
Artist: Melissa Ethridge (1993)
Let’s face it: bravery is pretty romantic. Melissa Ethridge embodied queer courage when she stepped proudly out of the closet in 1993, at the height of her career and long before the tides of public opinion turned toward acceptance for LGBTQ couples. Come to My Window, released that same year, showed mainstream America that gay romance was a force just as powerful as the heteronormative narratives of love songs before it.
For our non-LGBTQ allies reading along, consider this:
What if every love song you’d ever heard spoke only of an affection that made you feel excluded? What if you had no reference points in the world around you to validate your emotions?
It matters that our music makes everyone feel valued and present. And it matters that artists exist to show society that its superficial judgements won’t stand. To be proudly gay in 1993 was to be a revolutionary. Come to My Window was a song for those individuals, both in and out of the closet. To listen and to know Melissa Ethridge was to know that this song was for you. That matters, and we think this live version is a great example.
“I don’t care what they think –
I don’t care what they say –
What do they know about this love anyway?”
Artist: Frank Ocean (2012)
Songwriter(s): Breaux, Ho
It seems like everything that Frank Ocean does is cool in the sort of self-assured sense that most of us imagine only when we think of something smart to say after a conversation has concluded. But one of R&B’s brightest stars is always a step ahead. Forrest Gump runs with that vibe, crafting a smooth sound that speaks of a gay romance that came and went, but for which Ocean still feels the buzz.
Forrest Gump is one of several tracks on Ocean’s debut studio release to make relaxed reference to same-gender pronouns in a romantic context. It was as if the singer/songwriter didn’t feel the need to announce his sexual identity because he was busy just being himself, and perhaps that’s the point. Especially for younger listeners who are LGBTQ or questioning, Frank Ocean’s poised approach to a liberated existence is a special sort of reassurance. You can watch a live performance of Forrest Gump right here, and be sure to check out the studio version on this month’s playlist.
Artist: Billy Bragg (1988)
Tender Comrade paints a portrait of soldiers in arms with a sense of duality that simultaneously deconstructs glorifications of combat while confronting the forcefully repressed romance shared by gay men at a time when such affections were shunned. It calls into question the way we view military crusades, while framing homophobia as a war in itself. You can watch Billy Bragg perform Tender Comrade in 1988, while reminding his audience that “the expression of your sexuality is a basic, fundamental human right.”
Born This Way
Artist: Lady Gaga (2011)
Songwriter(s): Gaga, Laursen, Garibay, Blair
Pop music holds a special slot in the history of queer liberation, and for good reason. Since the days of disco, LGBTQ Americans have greeted and conquered adversity with an arsenal including tools of both rebellion and celebration.
When Lady Gaga unveiled Born This Way in 2011, she did so with an eye toward the millions of LGBTQ Americans for whom public praise could precipitate broad-scale equality. Rather than rely on suggestive subtleties or advocate for assimilation, Born This Way proudly validates queer lives exactly as they are. The song’s upbeat approach resolves any remaining doubt: being LGBTQ is something to celebrate.
“No matter gay, straight, or bi –
Lesbian, transgendered life –
I’m on the right track baby –
I was born to survive.”
For queer and questioning youth, Born This Way is a reassuring reminder to be proud. For every LGBTQ person worldwide, it is an epic cry to march forward together with bravery and solidarity. We agree, and we love this live version from Lady Gaga’s performance at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
Whatever songs you sing today, JusticeAid sings them with you.
That’s it for this month’s Music That Matters. We are so happy to bring you this collection of songs and thoughts, fully aware that there is so much more to talk about and explore. We hope that you will listen, however you love, whoever you love, and however you identify. Build bridges, show love—and know that we will be listening too.
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