Of Riot & Rebellion: Queer protest music through the Queen's reign

With so much of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations revolving around music, we explore music as an act of protest.


Making music has always been a rebellious act that captures the undertones of popular culture. In 1977, the Queen’s silver jubilee year, there were rolling power cuts, strike actions and mass unemployment across the UK. It also saw the rise of Punk which captured the mood of a generation who felt that their future was being sold out from under them. In the week before the silver jubilee, the Sex Pistols released their controversial anti-establishment anthem God Save the Queen - a song that received an almost instantaneous blanket play ban by the BBC. However, this is by far the first instance of music being used to stimulate social change, especially within the LGBTQ+ community.


Let’s explore LGBTQ+ music throughout the Queen’s 70-year reign:


Mid 20th Century

The 1950s were a time when homosexuality was widely criminalised across the globe with gay venues often subjected to police raids, however, musicians like Johnny Mathis and Little Richard weren’t afraid to allude to their sexual orientation in their music. Little Richard’s Tutti Fruitti and Long Tall Sally both make very little effort to hide their queer undertones. The 1960s saw the continued rise of pop musicians like Lesley Gore, who became powerful feminist icons with hits like It’s My Party and You Don’t Own Me. 40 years later Gore came out and spoke about how the music industry was largely homophobic during her career. 1970 saw the formation of gender and sexually fluid bands like Queen and solo acts like David Bowie. Bowie’s ambiguity around his sexual orientation created a safe space for queer people. At the same time, the disco scene began to rise with artists like Sylvester becoming a regular fixture and icon of the Gay Liberation Movement. Sylvester’s influence can still be heard in the music of RuPaul and others.


Latter 20th Century

By the early 1980s, there was a distinct air of discontent in society. As mentioned earlier, the Punk scene captured this seething unrest and began to challenge the establishment with musicians like the Sex Pistols leading the way. The mid-1980s moved away from the Punk movement making way for electronica and new wave acts like the overtly queer Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The late 1980s also gave rise to the freedom anthem Something Inside So Strong by Labi Siffre which protested both his own oppression as a gay man and the apartheid regime in South Africa.

The Punk movement also spawned its own LGBTQ+ subculture known as Queercore, which gave rise to the 1990s grunge culture and paved the way for openly bi fronted bands like Green Day, Placebo and Skunk Anansie. Songs like Placebo’s Nancy Boy and Green Day’s Coming Clean captured the coming out experience, while Skunk Anansie challenged racism with Interlectualise My Blackness. The 1990s saw rise to the Riot Grrrl spearheaded by Bikini Kill’s anthem Rebel Girl which matched feminism with queerness.


But it wasn’t all clashing guitars and teenage angst, DJ’s like Frankie Knuckles created contemporary sonic landscapes in the 1990s dance scene and highlighted the erasure of the queer, black origins of house music. Meanwhile, the New York Club Kids scene helped pave the way for artists like Lady Gaga.


Early 21st Century

As the new century arrived a new wave of LGBTQ+ protections were sworn into law in the UK, creating a more hopeful musical vibe, with more openly LGBTQ+ musicians being given air play like Will Young, Scissor Sisters, Lady Gaga and Mika. However, as the 2010s approached this feeling changed; LGBTQ+ equality wasn’t reciprocated around the world. Russia’s implementation of an anti-gay propaganda law saw bands like Pussy Riot use their music to protest and end up in prison. In America, Macklemore released Same Love to call for marriage equality. More recently, trans artist Shea Diamond released Don’t Shoot to protest police violence against trans people of colour in America, a sentiment echoed and amplified by Janelle Monae’s Americans.

Music is the glue of the world; it binds us together in a shared experience. For people from marginalised communities, it’s an essential part of creating change. Whilst the idea of queer musical superstars is now fully accepted - think of Lil Nas X for example - there is still a need for us to make our voices heard for those who are voiceless. As we celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee choose to celebrate those musical artists who, throughout her reign, have championed justice and brought light to inequality around the world.

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