It’s Capital Pride week in D.C. once again. A time for reflection on the accomplishments of the past year, to celebrate who we are, revel in our triumphs, commiserate our struggles, and contemplate all of those who gave so much to put our community where we now find ourselves: watching progress moving forward faster than we ever could have imagined, and yet, in many ways, still frustratingly slow, with false starts and stumbles along the way (see Illinois).
Music connects and expresses these feelings like nothing else. Pride is a time for celebration and music, and there are certain tracks that convey those feelings and memories that, at least for me, exemplify what Pride is all about.
There are dozens and dozens of songs that could have been chosen, but these ten stand out to me as essential listening during Pride week. Everybody has their stories. I remember clearly my first trip to Capital Pride in the mid-90s. I was just out of college, and had moved to Virginia from a rural area in West Virginia. I had very limited experience in the city, but I had been reading gay magazines that I picked up at Tower Records (R.I.P), and was determined to see Pride. I got on the metro and headed downtown. I was intimidated by Washington, DC, and amazed at all the sights and sounds and the spectacle of it all. And yet I was also alone; I saw all of these people having fun with their friends and lovers, and here I was, walking alone through the festival, knowing nobody and completely clueless how to jump into this world that I never could have imagined only a short while before. That was 18 years ago. Things have changed for me. But there are still people every year that come to Pride, like I did so many years ago, to finally feel part of a community after years of being shunned. It’s an important event for them, and for all of us.
Pet Shop Boys – “Liberation”
Any number of Pet Shop Boys tracks could have fit in this slot. There is the bittersweet beauty of “Being Boring”. The surreal AIDS nightmare of “Dreaming of the Queen”, or the shocked response to the AIDS epidemic at the height of the crisis in “It Couldn’t Happen Here”. “The Survivors”, exhausted but uplifting. Their wistful take on “Go West”. Perhaps no other major pop act has written so brilliantly about gay issues over the last 25 years as the Pet Shop Boys. But for me, coming out in the early 90s and coming to terms with my gayness, “Liberation” was a call to a hopeful future. Unrelentingly positive and upbeat, about sharing love, and through that love the freedom to be who you truly are. A beautiful song and an assurance to a young gay man trying to find his way that happiness is, indeed, possible.
Erasure – “Hideaway”
“The Circus”, 1987
In some ways, despite my rural upbringing, it was easier for me than for many others. My parents were immediately accepting. My parents were huge music fans, and my mother in particular loved Erasure. She knew and listened to songs like “Hideaway” and understood what they meant. I’m sure they knew I was gay from an early age. One time we were watching Boy George “Behind the Music” and she looked at me and said, “I don’t think people choose to be gay. I think they are born that way, and there’s nothing wrong with it.” It was her way of telling me... it’s okay. “Don’t be afraid… you don’t have to Hideaway”. Songs like this speak to the young people listening on headphones in their bedrooms, dreaming of a world where they can be open and love who they were destined to love. It’s a powerful affirmation. Be who you are, and love yourself. Erasure, of course, is still going strong, and have been one of the leading gay artists over the last 25+ years, with an outstanding catalog of work - - all the while being defiantly, flamboyantly, gay. Perhaps that hurt them commercially in the US, where they were only able to score a few crossover hits: “A Little Respect”, “Chains of Love” and “Always”. But they still have a large devoted following here (mostly gay), and they still score hits in the UK and Europe, while being true to themselves.
Bronski Beat – “Smalltown Boy”
“Age of Consent”, 1984
Yeah, of course, this is an obvious choice. And yet, it’s clearly essential. Keep in mind this was 1984. The notion of gay marriage was so patently ridiculous as to not even be contemplated. AIDS was building and spreading and young gay men not only had to deal with the stigma of their orientation, but the fear of catching a deadly plague. “Smalltown Boy” was unflinching in its look at the struggles of a young gay man, urging him to run away to a better future. So many listened, so many did. But so many are still stuck in terrible situations. Living in a major urban center that is generally seen as one of the most gay-friendly cities in the nation, it can sometimes be easy to forget the real struggles that gay people all over the country still go through, especially young people in rural areas. This song still resonates. It’s a call to take control of your life, take control of your future. Nothing exemplifies PRIDE more than that.
Tori Amos – “Taxi Ride”
“Scarlet’s Walk”, 2002
Tori Amos has a large gay following, a fact which she acknowledges and cultivates. She is vocally supportive of gay issues, and while she has rarely touched on them directly in her music, she did so in an incredibly powerful way on “Taxi Ride” from 2002’s superb “Scarlet’s Walk” album. Written after the death of a close gay friend, make-up artist and photographer Kevin Aucoin, “Taxi Ride”is the story of the aftermath and the betrayals. Who is there when the need is the most dire; and who is there at the very end. The song takes place after the funeral, when all the friends of the deceased are emotionally and physically drained, contemplating both the betrayals, and the kindnesses. "Evan a glamorous bitch can be in need; this is when you know the honey from the killer bees." It’s a melancholy and bittersweet song, but it’s also about people coming together to help a loved one when others won’t. It’s a slice of real life, and a vision we might not want to face or consider – but it’s part of the human reality of being gay and, sometimes, without family support, you end up knowing very quickly indeed who your true friends are. Pride is a time for celebrating our friends and loved ones and reminding ourselves to be there for each other, especially at those desperate times we will all face at one time or another in our lives.
Heather Small – “Proud”
“I step out of the ordinary. I can feel my soul ascending. I’m on my way, can’t stop me now. And you can do the same.” Some of my friends know the story about how watching “Queer as Folk” on Showtime – in which this song was featured in a key scene – led to me finally trying to connect with the “gay world” in a more meaningful way, and eventually led to me meeting my husband. We’ve been together 12 years and counting, and without this song it might not have happened. The power of music. It’s an anthem that is as uplifting and inspiring now as it was at the dawn of the new millennium when it was released, and former M People vocalist Heather Small delivers an amazing vocal.
Boy George – “God Don’t Hold a Grudge”
“Cheapness & Beauty”, 1995
“Father hold your fist, cause I will never be
an image of yourself, no perfect family
Father it’s too late to make a man of me
I love against the Gods, but I don’t scare too easily”
Through Culture Club and as a solo artist, Boy George brought gayness straight into the mainstream of American pop culture. In 1995 he released the brilliant and underrated “Cheapness & Beauty”, which featured this slice of glam rock. No apologies here. No shame, only defiance in the face of family abuse and turmoil. Strong enough to take pride in who he is and to stand up for himself. No apologies.
Melissa Etheridge – “Mama I’m Strange”
Artists brave enough to come out of the closet are courageous, and an example to all of us. Yeah, sometimes we may have a lot to lose, and everybody’s situation is different. It’s hard to judge until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes, and nobody knows what others are going through. Melissa Etheridge was out loud and proud. She first released an album titled "Yes, I Am" that was her big breakthrough (guess she was tired of answering all those questions), and later she released the sardonic “Mama I’m Strange,” a hidden gem from her 1999 album “Breakdown” that deserves a wider audience.
Queen – “I Want to Break Free”
“The Works”, 1984
Perhaps no other gay artist, apart perhaps from Elton John, appealed to such a widely straight audience as Freddie Mercury of Queen. Often (as hard as it might be to believe now), unknowingly. I mean, everybody loved “Bohemian Rhapsody”. And what macho sporting event didn’t feature their duel anthems “We Will Rock You/We are the Champions”? Then there was the lithe funk of “Another One Bites the Dust”, and playful rockabilly of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” - - both number 1 singles. It always strikes me as ironic, looking back, that so many how might use derisive language about gay people also stomp their feet and sing along to songs written and performed by artists who are, in fact, very gay. With songs like “I Want to Break Free”, Freddie Mercury allowed what was barely beneath the surface for all to see (if they so chose) to bubble through in a very obvious way. Astonishingly enough, there were still those surprised to later learn he was gay, even after the band dressed in flamboyant drag in the video for this 1984 single from their album “The Works”.
George Michael – “Outside”
“Ladies & Gentlemen – The Best of George Michael”, 1998
Yeah, we need a call to debauchery here. George Michael was in the unique position of being a major heartthrob in the 80s, especially during the “Faith” period (although – in retrospect – how can one look at videos for Wham! tracks such as “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”and “Bad Boys” and not realize that he was very obviously family). So yeah, you get busted cruising for sex in the men’s room in a park. What does he do? Instead of crawling away in shame, he defiantly turns the incident on its head, and creates a party ode to outdoor sex. Another part of Pride, celebrating our sexuality and embracing it. And hey, outdoor sex can be fun. So I’ve been told.
R.E.M. – “Walk Unafraid”
In the final analysis, isn’t this what it all comes down to? “Walk Unafraid”.
“How can I be what I want to be?
When all I want do to is strip away these stilled constraints
And crush this charade
Shred this sad masquerade
I don’t need no persuading
I’ll trip, fall, pick myself up and walk unafraid”.
Obviously this list could go on and on, and there are many obvious classics that could be mentioned. Diana’s “I’m Coming Out”. Some of the great disco anthems. Madonna should be in there somewhere. "Born This Way". How about the elaborate romanticism of Rufus Wainwright? Cyndi Lauper's gorgeous "True Colors." The fact is, there are countless sources of inspiration, stories of struggle and perseverance, tales of coming out and coming to terms with being gay, and choosing to be proud and to walk unafraid. Music speaks to us as a listener and is also a catharsis for the artist… and we connect through our shared experiences. Pride means walking unafraid, and choosing not to allow those who hate us for who we are and who we love to have power over our lives.
Happy Capital Pride to all of you, and spend some time coming up with your own lists of songs that speak to Pride for you, and how they impacted you along the way in your journey forward. It’s a good way to reflect on what came before us, where we are now, and hope for what lies ahead.