There have been many musicians over the years who have openly identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in classic rock. The first bisexual rock star was Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a rock and roll pioneer.
Many lesbian, gay, bi, and trans rock musicians were in the closet for years or even decades before coming out. Many of these musicians are people you’ve heard of.
Classic rock is for all to enjoy, no matter your sexual orientation. I am writing this post from Ireland, where people voted on a referendum for marriage equality. This is a huge step in the right direction. Thank you to all of the people who voted yes. In honour of that I want to talk about my favourite LGBT musicians from the 60s and 70s.
Note: I have since updated this post to include LGBT musicians from the 80s. There has been quite a bit of demand for it, so I will deliver. This is the most popular post on the blog and I am very proud of this post! Thank you for reading! Enjoy!
Alice de Buhr – lesbian – Drummer for the band Fanny.
Billy Preston – gay – R&B and soul singer and session musician. He grew up listening to gospel music and that had an influence on his singing. As a kid, he played organ backing gospel singers Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland. He was a Christian and that made it hard for him to come out of the closet and he didn’t come out until right before his death. He released his debut album when he was 16, 16 Year Old Soul. It was released on Sam Cooke’s SAR Records. He did session and touring keyboard work for The Beatles (and later on George Harrison), Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones, Little Richard, and Ray Charles. He was signed to the Beatles’ Apple Records in 1969 and recorded two albums on that label: That’s The Way God Planned It and Encouraging Words. In the 70s, he got a few big hits: “Outa-Space”, “Will It Go Around In Circles”, “Space Race”, and “Nothing From Nothing”.
Boy George – gay – Lead singer of 80s new wave band Culture Club. He is one of the biggest icons of the New Romantic movement of the early 80s, a subculture known for flamboyant fashion and heavy makeup inspired by glam rock and historic fashion. Culture Club were a multicultural band with band members of Irish, Black, and Jewish descent. In 1982, the band got their first #1 hit in the UK, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”. Within the next few years, they got top 10 hits with “Karma Chameleon”, “Church of the Poison Mind”, and “The War Song”.
Chuck Panozzo – gay – Bassist for the band Styx. He started the band in his hometown of Chicago. He still tours to this day with Styx part time. Styx are a hard/prog rock band best known for the songs “Lady”, “Renegade”, “Come Sail Away”, and “Mr Roboto”. The band released their first album in 1972. He came out in 2001 as gay and said he has AIDS. Of this he says “What the band has taught me psychologically is that I need to go out and be with my band as they continue their legacy in the rock n’ roll world forever. How could that not help me in my recovery process? I have a band that is willing to make sure that I stay healthy.” Of his sexuality and being closeted in the 70s at the peak of Styx’s popularity he says “I was one of those closeted, clandestine type of guys. We would tour like crazy, and my initiation into the gay scene was stifled by the fact that I wasn’t out publicly. When I was on the road with Styx—I’m the bass player—sometimes I would separate from the band and I’d find a bar.” He is a big supporter of LGBT rights and AIDS awareness.
Dave Davies – bisexual – Member of The Kinks. He mainly played guitar and sang in the band. He started the band with his brother, Ray, and friend Pete Quaife. The Kinks were a major part of The British Invasion, touring the world with bands such as The Yardbirds and The Honeycombs. They continued to release albums into the 80s. However, they were banned from touring the States in 1965 because a complaint was filed with a musicians union in the US for apparently misbehaving on stage. Their influences range from the blues to skiffle to British music hall. My favourite songs of theirs include “You Really Got Me”, “All Day And All Of The Night”, “A Well Respected Man”, “Victoria”, “Waterloo Sunset”, and “Lola”. Dave Davies opened up about his sexuality in his autobiography. Dave Davies now tours solo.
David Bowie – bisexual – Got his big break in the music business with “Space Oddity” in 1969. Since then he changed his image many times from the androgynous “The Man Who Sold The World” era to the glam rock “Ziggy Stardust” to “The Thin White Duke”. He was well known for his stage personas and loved to act as those characters. As well as his image changing, his music has changed a lot as well. There’s something for everyone in his discography. He and his wife in the 70s, Angie, were bisexual. David Bowie’s inspirations included American rock and roll, skiffle, and Bob Dylan. He was also inspired by contemporaries: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and Marc Bolan. He got to work with Lou Reed and did some vocals on the album Transformer. He was on Marc Bolan’s 1977 show, Marc, performing with Bolan. He came out as bisexual in the 70s. He was well known for the songs “Changes”, “Queen Bitch”, “Starman”, “Rebel Rebel”, “Heroes”, “Let’s Dance”, and “Under Pressure” (with Queen).
Debbie Harry – bisexual – Got famous in the 70s and 80s as the lead singer for the band Blondie. Blondie’s best known songs are “Heart of Glass”, “One Way Or Another”, “Call Me”, and “Rapture”. Before Blondie she was in a band in the 60s called The Wind In The Willows, was a go-go dancer, and was a Playboy Bunny. As well as being a musician she is an actress. She came out in a 2014 interview with the Daily Mail. She also refused to perform in the Sochi Olympics due to homophobia in Russia. Of her sexuality she says “Sure, I was in a relationship with a man for almost 20 years and I’ve had other relationships with men, but I’ve also had them with women. I find it very strange that people are less willing to accept that you’re bisexual if you’ve had long-term relationships predominantly with men.”
Dee Palmer – transgender and intersex – Member of Jethro Tull from 1977 to 1980, but she did play a part in their albums from 1969-1976, providing orchestral arrangements. Besides working with Jethro Tull, she arranged other classic rock bands music in an orchestral style, such as Queen, The Beatles, Genesis, and Yes.
Dusty Springfield – bisexual – English blue eyed soul singer. She started her career in the 50s singing in holiday camps. In the 60s she was one of the best known British female singers. Her first solo single was released in 1963, “I Only Want To Be With You” and it was a success. She wrote a few songs, but her biggest hits were covers and songs written by other songwriters. In 1964 she released “Wishin’ and Hopin'”. In 1968 she released “Son of a Preacher Man”, one of her biggest hits. She was a big fan of Motown and her sound was influenced by musicians from that record label. She even hosted a Ready Steady GoI special featuring Motown artists such as The Temptations, The Miracles, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder. This is part of the early beginnings of Northern Soul. She worked with musicians like Kiki Dee and Elton John. She came out as bisexual in 1970, which took a lot of bravery.
Elton John – gay – Went from playing piano at pubs to being one of the best selling musicians ever. The third best selling musician in the United States, only behind Elvis and The Beatles. He played music that had anything from an R&B sound to a more progressive rock sound. He even enjoyed playing classical music. He is best known for being in a songwriting team with Bernie Taupin. In the 70s he played at famous British venues such as The Marquee Club, The Speakeasy, and The Twisted Wheel. He even performed with John Lennon at his last concert. He originally came out as bisexual in 1976, but later came out as gay in 1988. He started the Elton John AIDS Foundation in the early 90s. He got the record for best selling single in 1997 with a remake of “Candle in the Wind”. Elton John did the music for Billy Elliot. Well known songs of his include: “Your Song”, “Daniel”, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, “Tiny Dancer”, and “Philadelphia Freedom”. I really enjoy the album Tumbleweed Connection.
Eric Emerson – bisexual – Actor, dancer, and musician who was part of the Andy Warhol Factory scene. He was the lead vocalist of the glam punk band The Magic Tramps. If you like The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, you’ll like The Magic Tramps. I like the songs “Ode to Jimmy Dean”, “Warriors of the Rainbow”, “Magic in the Moonlight”, and “My Reflection”. When his father found out he was bi, he said to him, “What he don’t understand is that my generation can swing both ways.”
Felipe Rose and Randy Jones – gay – Members of The Village People. Before joining The Village People Felipe Rose was a dancer at a club in New York. He is Native American and he is seen in performances and music videos dressed in Native American regalia. He supports AIDS charities and Native American charities. Felipe Rose is not the only gay member of The Village People, his bandmate Randy Jones, the cowboy is also gay.
Fred Schneider – gay – Lead singer and one of the founding members of the B-52s. He is known for his trademark spoken delivery, known as sprechgesang (seriously German has some pretty awesome words to describe things that don’t have an English word. I really should learn German). He wrote the band’s debut single, which launched the band into stardom, “Rock Lobster” with bandmate Ricky Wilson. This song is a very good example of Fred Schneider’s vocal style.
Freddie Mercury – bisexual – Frontman for Queen. Before joining Queen, he went to the same art school as Pete Townshend, Ealing Art College. He joined a band called Smile with Brian May and Roger Taylor. All of the band members wrote songs that became hits for the band, but Freddie wrote a good amount of them. He had a wide range of influences from 50s rock to progressive rock to hard rock to disco. As a singer he was very versatile. As well as singing he played guitar and piano and played piano from a young age.
Genesis P-Orridge – transgender/third gender – Experimental musician from England. They were born in England in 1950 and their interests were the occult and the avant-garde. They changed their name to Genesis P-Orridge at the age of 21. They founded the counterculture art collective COUM Transmissions and later on formed the industrial band Throbbing Gristle in the mid 70s. The band are widely regarded as the founders of industrial music, which was inspired by Krautrock, art pop, and noise music. They played bass, violin, and vibraphone and did vocals for the band. After the breakup of Throbbing Gristle, Genesis P-Orridge founded the band Psychic TV in 1981. They retired from music in 2009.
George Michael – gay – Half of singing duo Wham! In the 80s, he believed he was bisexual, before later coming out as gay. Wham! had a few hits in the 80s with “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”, “Young Guns (Go For It!)”, “Bad Boys”, and “Careless Whisper”.
Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes To Hollywood – gay – Frankie Goes To Hollywood were most famous for the 1983 hit “Relax”. The song was controversial and banned by the BBC because of its sexual themes. The music video for the song took place in a gay S&M club. Other well-known songs by the band include “Two Tribes”, “The Power of Love”, and “Welcome to the Pleasuredome”.
Jane Wiedlin – bisexual – Guitarist of all-girl new wave band The Go-Gos. She is mixed, of German and Lebanese descent. Her biggest influences are The Beatles and The Monkees. She co-wrote the song “Our Lips Are Sealed” with Terry Hall of ska band The Specials.
Janis Ian – lesbian – A folk singer who started her career in the mid 60s. She was inspired by Joan Baez. She released her first single at the age of 14, a song she wrote at the age of 13. She was not afraid to write about social issues and this song, “Society’s Child”, was about an interracial relationship. Her first album released in 1967 was #29 in the US. It wasn’t until 1975 that she would get a top 10 hit with “At Seventeen”. She got success in 1975 with her album Between The Lines reaching #1 in the US. Her follow up album Aftertones did well also, reaching #12 in the US and #1 in Japan. She came out as lesbian in 1993 and married her wife 10 years later in Toronto, Canada.
Janis Joplin – bisexual – Singer-songwriter best known for being the frontwoman of Big Brother and the Holding Company and later on known for her solo career. She was originally from Texas and she was inspired by blues music when she was in high school. She moved to San Francisco when she was 20 and worked with Jorma Kaukonen, who would later be in Jefferson Airplane. She moved back to Texas a couple of years later. She joined Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1966 and came back to San Francisco. She played at various festivals and events like the Mantra-Rock Dance, Monterey Pop Festival, where she made her breakthrough, and at Woodstock. Her best known songs are “Piece of My Heart”, “Ball and Chain”, and “Me and Bobby McGee”. She died at the age of 27 in 1970.
Jayne County – transgender – Lead singer of punk band Wayne County & the Electric Chairs and involved in the Warhol Factory scene. She was also a DJ at Max’s Kansas City in New York. She is the first openly transgender singer. Her band moved to London and they signed to Safari Records, releasing albums like Storm The Gates of Heaven and Things Your Mother Never Told You. The band are known for their profanity-filled lyrics and campy image.
Jobriath – gay – Released his first album called Pidgeon in 1969 before he was known as Jobriath. Very similar to David Bowie and Peter Gabriel in the way that he wore very odd costumes on stage. Many consider him the first gay rock star. He released his first album as Jobriath in 1973, a self-titled debut. It had a glam rock sound with some classical music influences. He died of AIDS in 1983 and was one of the first famous musicians to die of AIDS.
June Millington – lesbian – Member of all girl group Fanny. She’s the lead guitarist of the band. She was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States with her family in 1961. She has been playing in bands with her sister since the mid 60s. Fanny released their first album in 1970 and they played on the same bill as The Kinks and Procol Harum. She left Fanny in 1973 and started a solo career. She was part of the Women’s music movement in the 70s. Recently she’s been working on an autobiography, Land of a Thousand Bridges, and does work with the Institute for the Musical Arts, which supports women interested in playing music. The organisation organises summer camps, workshops, and has a recording studio.
Kate Pierson – bisexual – One of the singers of the B-52s. Her vocal harmonies with Cindy Wilson were a key part of the B-52s sound. She was born and raised in New Jersey. The band were formed in Athens, Georgia in 1976. The band went to a Chinese restaurant, had some drinks and after that they had a jam session. The band’s name comes from southern slang for a beehive hairstyle. True to the name, the band have a very retro aesthetic, a throwback to the 60s, but with a more modern sound. In 2003, Kate started dating Monica Coleman. In 2015 they got married. She has described herself as a “late-in-life-lesbian”. In an interview with Al Jazeera, she said this about her stance on transgender rights: “Well, I’m bisexual, and I was always with men, and now I’m with Monica for 11 years, going on 12, and so this is an issue that I care a lot about.” “Roam” is one of the band’s biggest hits and features some great vocals from Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson.
Keith Strickland – gay – Originally the drummer of the B-52s, but after Ricky Wilson’s death, he became the guitarist. He came out as gay in 1992, after the band scored major hits like “Love Shack” and “Roam”. He is the main composer of the band, writing the music. In 2012, he retired from touring.
Laura Nyro – bisexual – Singer-songwriter whose music style took diverse influences from jazz to gospel to r&b to show tunes. Her best known albums are Eli and the Thirteenth Confession and New York Tendaberry. Fans of her work include Todd Rundgren, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Bette Midler, and Elton John. She released her first album in 1967 when she was 19. Songs from that album went on to be covered by other musicians such as Blood, Sweat & Tears, The 5th Dimension, and Barbra Streisand. She identified as a feminist and said that both the feminist movement and peace movement influenced her songwriting. She died of ovarian cancer in 1997 at the age of 49.
Lesley Gore – lesbian – Singer known for the songs “It’s My Party” and “You Don’t Own Me”. “It’s My Party” was a #1 for her while she was still in secondary school. She performed on the TAMI Show, a concert film from 1964. She was discovered by Quincy Jones. As well as being a singer, she wrote songs and acted. Her music was relatable to young people. In university she realised she was lesbian, but didn’t come out until after the peak of her career.
Long John Baldry – gay – A blues singer. He was known as “Long John” because he was 6’7″. He sang with Blues Incorporated, Cyril Davies R&B All Stars, and Steampacket. He released his first solo album in 1964, which had covers of “I Got My Mojo Workin”, “Hoochie Coochie Man”, and “Dimples”. He publicly came out as gay in the 70s.
Lou Reed – bisexual – Singer for The Velvet Underground. He wrote most of their songs. He also had a successful solo career with well known songs such as “Satellite of Love” and “Walk on the Wild Side”. He wrote and sang a song called “Kill Your Sons” based on his father making him go to shock therapy sessions as a young adult. He moved to New York City in 1964 and then met John Cale and he got in touch with Sterling Morrison to start The Velvet Underground. The band were not commercially successful at the time, but they were still influential and people easily recognise The Velvet Underground And Nico album cover that Andy Warhol did. Andy Warhol were very important and mentored the band and they were part of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Lou Reed left the Velvet Underground in 1970 and had a solo career. He was known for having a unique sounding voice. Some Velvet Underground songs I recommend are “Sunday Morning”, “Heroin”, “I’m Set Free”, “Sweet Jane”, and “Rock & Roll”.
Morrissey – may be bisexual, but he doesn’t like labels – Singer of Manchester indie band The Smiths. He and Johnny Marr wrote the songs for the band. In the 70s, Morrissey would visit gay bars and clubs. In his autobiography he said that his first relationship was with a man. Songs like “This Charming Man”, “Handsome Devil”, “What Difference Does It Make”, and “Hand in Glove” have references to homosexuality.
Neil Tennant – gay – Singer and one half of The Pet Shop Boys, the most successful British pop duo. He met his bandmate, Chris Lowe, in London at an electronics shop and they got along because of their interest in electronic music. He was raised a Catholic and wrote the hit song “It’s A Sin” to describe his strict upbringing. He came out as gay in the 90s. The Pet Shop Boys are best known for the songs: “West End Girls”, “Rent”, “Heart”, and “Domino Dancing”.
Nickey Barclay – bisexual – Keyboard player for the all-girl rock band Fanny. She came out a few years after she left the band.
Pete Burns – can be described as bisexual and androgynous, but he did not like labels – Singer of Hi-NRG and synthpop band Dead or Alive. They were best known for the 1985 hit “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”. Pete Burns was from Liverpool. He worked at a record shop and was in a short-lived goth band called Nightmares in Wax, which only recorded a few songs and later on, after a lineup change, became Dead or Alive. He was known for his androgynous appearance and big hair. before their biggest hit “You Spin Me Round”, they had a minor hit, a cover of KC and The Sunshine Band’s “That’s The Way (I Like It)”. After those two songs, the band didn’t have any hits that matched that success.
Pete Townshend – bisexual – Guitarist and primary songwriter for The Who. He and Roger continue to tour to this day. He was behind genius albums such as Tommy, Quadrophenia, and Who’s Next. He taught himself guitar. He dropped out of art school in 1964 because he was making more money than his own professors by playing gigs. He joined The Detours with John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey. The Detours became The Who and Keith Moon later joined the band. Pete Townshend suggested that they call themselves The Hair. Pete Meaden discovered them and changed their name briefly to The High Numbers. They went back to being The Who, being managed by Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. Here’s their first single “I Can’t Explain”.
Peter Straker – gay – Played the part of Hud in the musical, Hair. Also was well known for working with Freddie Mercury, who produced one of Straker’s albums, This One’s On Me. He shared lead vocals with Jaki Whitren on the song “Some Other Time,” on the Alan Parsons Project album I Robot.
Ricky Wilson – gay – Original guitarist of the B-52s. He was a member of the band until his death in 1985. Two years before his death he found out he had AIDS and he kept his illness a secret from the rest of the band. He was one of the main songwriters of the band and would often collaborate with Fred Schneider and Keith Strickland. His guitar sound added to the quirkiness of the band. He was the first member of the band to come out as gay. Every member of the B-52s was gay or bisexual, except for Ricky Wilson’s sister, Cindy.
Rob Halford – gay – Lead singer for hard rock band Judas Priest. He wrote or cowrote a lot of the band’s hits. The band’s influences include Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple. They released their first album, Rocka Rolla, in 1974. The band reached major success in 1979 and were famous throughout the 80s. You might know the song “Breaking The Law” because of Beavis and Butthead. Of coming out of the closet he says “It’s a wonderful moment when you walk out of the closet. Now I’ve done that and I’ve freed myself.”
Shona Laing – bisexual – This Kiwi singer-songwriter got famous at the age of 17 with the song “1905”, released in 1972. The song reached #4 in her home country. Two follow up singles she released that year were successful: “Show Your Love” (#4 in the New Zealand charts) and “Masquerade” (#11 in the New Zealand charts). She had a comeback in the 80s with the songs “(Glad I’m) Not a Kennedy” and “Soviet Snow”. The most famous band she collaborated with were Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. She contributed vocals to some songs on the album Somewhere in Afrika. She came out as bisexual at a concert in 1996.
Sylvester – gay – Disco musician best known for the song ‘You Make Me Feel Mighty Real”. He was known as “Queen of Disco”. He started off singing gospel music in church. He was also influenced by blues and jazz singers like Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker. He started The Disquotays as a teenager in the 60s with some friends he met at gay clubs. He was known for his androgynous dress sense. He moved to San Francisco in the 70s. Some other songs he made were “Dance (Disco Heat)”, “Do Ya Wanna Funk”, “Down Down Down”, and “Over and Over”.
Wendy Carlos – transgender – Best known for composing the scores for A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. She plays keyboard and synthesiser. She is also one of the first famous people to come out as trans, coming out in 1979 in an interview with Playboy Magazine. She also released albums that combined electronic and classical music like Switched-On Bach and The Well Tempered Synthesizer, from 1968 and 1969, respectively.
Not musicians, but were important to their careers:
Andy Warhol – gay – Manager and producer of The Velvet Underground. He was mostly known for his art and the Factory scene around it. The Factory scene had many drag queens, trans women, and LGBT celebrities and popular icons. He was one of the most famous openly gay people before the gay liberation movement took off.
Brian Epstein – gay – Manager of The Beatles. Born to a Jewish family in Liverpool. Found out about The Beatles when they recorded “My Bonnie” with Tony Sheridan. He was in charge of the record department of the NEMS music store. The Beatles all frequented the shop. He was influential in creating the image of the band. Besides managing The Beatles, he managed Gerry & The Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas.
Kit Lambert – gay – Managed The Who. Came across them when they were known as The High Numbers and started to make a film about them with Chris Stamp as an up and coming unsigned band. He was also a producer for the band at one point. He and Chris Stamp were fired in 1974.
Richard O’Brien – transgender (possibly non-binary) – Actor and TV presenter best known for writing the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show. All songs in the musical were written by him. The film version came out in 1975. You might know songs like “Dammit Janet”, “Time Warp”, “Sweet Transvestite”, and “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me”.
Stacia – bisexual – Dancer for 70s space rock band Hawkwind. Joined the band at the age of 19. She was known for dancing while nude with body paint and being 6’2″ tall. In a 1974 interview with Penthouse, she said she was bisexual.
I hope you enjoyed this post on The Diversity of Classic Rock. Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments section below. Thank you!