Without LGBTQ People, Modern Music Wouldn't Exist
The author of 'David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music' tells us about the most surprising contributions queer people have made to music history.
A memorial to David Bowie around a mural in the artist's hometown in Brixton, South London. Photo by Darryl W. Bullock
When David Bowie died last January, people the world over mourned the loss of the great musician. Among them was UK-based writer Darryl W. Bullock, author of David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music, out today on The Overlook Press. Bullock, of course, doesn’t actually think Bowie made him gay—rather, inspired by the late, great Ziggy Stardust/Thin White Duke/Goblin King, Bullock shares in the book a history of the LGBTQ community’s work in the music world, one of the first ever books to do so.
But why Bowie? The artist told Melody Maker in 1972 he was “gay and always [had] been,” not a thing your regular famous musician did at the time. “For the generation that would spawn the out-gay pop stars of the 1980s, Bowie’s outrageous campery and sexual androgyny was a revelation,” Bullock writes, making them feel validated, less alone, and inspired to create their own work. Though Bowie would later redefine his sexuality over the years, the 1972 statement is the one that always mattered, Bullock suggests. “For thousands of young LGBT people across the world,” he continues, “life was suddenly a little less suffocating.”
David Bowie Made Me Gay runs from what may be the first record made by a queer person—in 1916—through the births of jazz and blues, the post-World War I “Pansy Craze,” to the swinging 60s, the glam 80s, Bowie’s death, and everything in between. Bullock spoke with VICE about the inspiration for his book, the most surprising revelations it led to about the role of queer people in music history, and more.
VICE: What initially made you decide to write this book?
Darryl W. Bullock: I wanted to write a book about LGBTQ people making records, but to be honest, it was a bit dull. It was starting to look a bit like an encyclopedia, an A-to-Z of gay musicians. Then, maybe three or four months into the project, David Bowie died, and his death struck me really viscerally.
But it was while I saw how others reacted to his death, especially the stars I grew up with—the Boy Georges and the George Michaels and the Madonnas—that I realized I was going down the wrong track. I realized the book shouldn’t just be about LGBTQ people making records, but how they influenced each generation that followed. You start to build up this timeline, and it stretches back over 100 years, almost back to the birth of commercially available discs.
It was also a definite decision to include voices you don’t hear of. It would be easy to write a book just about Elton John, George Michael, Boy George, Freddie Mercury, those kinds of people. But I really wanted to document the lives of people like Patrick Haggerty, Blackberri and John “Smokey” Condon, people who have made incredibly important contributions to music and to LGBTQ lives but have been basically ignored by the mainstream media.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the LGBTQ community in music while working on the book?
The biggest surprise is this idea that LGBTQ music or LGBTQ artists didn’t suddenly become visible with Stonewall, that there were periods or little pockets throughout the century where LGBTQ people were making music, making records, were out in their own lives, were performing as out and they weren’t receiving the censorship we’d expect. Obviously I knew of things like the Weimar era of Berlin cabaret, but I really wasn’t aware of how big that scene was and to find in pretty much every major city in America at that time, in every capital of Europe that similar scenes also existed. I suppose this new sense of freedom that people felt immediately after the first World War allowed people to be a bit more free, to express themselves more openly and readily.
What was your perception of the role of the LGBTQ community in music history before starting the book, and what was it after?
When I was much younger I thought “gay music” meant disco. I learned gay music actually meant a lot more than that—for instance, that punk wouldn’t have happened without LGBTQ musicians. In Britain, if it hadn’t been for gay clubs in London giving the early punks a place to congregate, drink and play, then British punk as we know it—the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees and those kinds of acts—may never have happened. I knew that the punk movement and the LGBTQ movement had rubbed side by side with good relations, but I didn’t really know until I started writing the book how punk wouldn’t have happened in that way if it hadn’t been for the gay community.
Do you think LGBTQ music should be labeled separately from other music?
If everything was equal, I would gladly not have to worry about labels, but everything isn’t equal. There are still people who are shocked that I’m a man married to another man. If labels help someone else search out that particular product or piece of music or musician or whatever, then they’re helpful. You could be in living in a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere, your parents don’t understand you, your classmates bully you, your church has disowned you, and turning on the radio or picking up a record and hearing a voice come out of that speaker telling you things are gonna be alright is incredibly important. I’m sure someone somewhere put on an Elton John record once and decided not to kill themselves. I know firsthand how important certain gay musicians were to me. If it makes it easier for your intended audience to find you, to feel comforted by you, and to then branch out, grow and think about how they live their life and how they are going to impact other people, then I think in that case labels are incredibly important.
What do you think modern music would look like without LGBTQ people?
I don’t think it would exist! That’s a really flippant thing to say, isn’t it? But it’s true. Music would be so different. In the 1960s, the British pop music scene was almost entirely run by gay men. You wouldn’t have had The Beatles without Brian Epstein, a gay man. You wouldn’t have had David Bowie without Kenneth Pitt, a gay man. You wouldn’t have had the 80s bands, like Culture Club or Frankie Goes to Hollywood, without David Bowie. The influence of LGBTQ acts is insurmountable, and it’s certainly far greater than anybody’s ever given it credit.
I really hope this book helps people recognize how important LGBTQ people have been in every single genre of popular music. We were there at the beginning of jazz. Blues wouldn’t exist without the number of lesbian and bisexual women involved in it, like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Billie Holiday. If it wasn’t for Wendy Carlos, a queer woman, we may not have had popular exposure to the Moog synthesizer. People do forget this stuff if they’re not reminded.
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.