How Gay Pop Music Shaped The World As We Know It

The story of how suppression and it's opposite led to the creation of everybody's favourite pop music.

By Museum of Youth Culture

A man dancing (1999) by Guy BakerMuseum of Youth Culture

Starting the Party

This exhibition explores the impact of LGBTQ culture - gay culture - on the wider youth cultures since the end of the second world war in 1945. We shall look at how the gay narrative has sat tightly alongside the bigger story of youth culture, occasionally at odds, usually in tandem, and in so many ways, actually being right there at the very start of the party, welcoming the first guests. Music, fashion, politics, activism, dancing, debauchery - all the essential components of a thriving youth culture; these things were practically invented by The Gays. 

Male style (1959) by Clare & Keith LaflinMuseum of Youth Culture

People attracted to their own gender, or to non binary genders ('men' and 'women') have existed since the dawn of time. But let's concentrate on the last 70 years or so in Great Britain.

Here we look at the gay clubs, the gay DJs, the gay languages, and the glorious, wonderful made-by-gays records.

Protestors - Anti Clause 28 demonstration (1988) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

The Vagrancy Act 1898 

In the UK homosexuality (for men at least) was illegal until 1967. To be gay meant living a shadowy life, using codes and secrecy. Nevertheless there was still something going on, albeit nameless.

Mod dancing at Caxton Mod Club, Westminster, London, 1960s. (1960) by Caxton Youth TrustMuseum of Youth Culture

A Coded Language

Polari is a language which was used by many sub cultures including gay men and women who needed to camouflage their sexuality when, by being gay, they were actually breaking the law.

It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words, including: bona (good) ajax (nearby), eek (face), cod (bad, in the sense of tacky or vile), naff (bad, in the sense of drab or dull, lattie (room, house, flat, i.e. room to let), nanti (not, no), omi (man), palone (woman), riah (hair), zhoosh or tjuz (smarten up, stylize), TBH ('to be had', sexually accessible), trade (sex), and vada (see).

Variations of Polari have existed in other sub cultures where discretion is essential, such as various drug based sub cultures.

Teenagers in London (1981) by Mark CharnockMuseum of Youth Culture

In the UK, many gay people gravitated to the bigger cities, perhaps believing they were more likely to meet other gay people, and maybe feeling more able to hide amongst a larger population. Or just to stop hiding.

Group of teenagers, London, 1960s. (1960) by Lee Harris ArchiveMuseum of Youth Culture

The First Moment of Decriminalisation

The law criminalising homosexuality was changed in 1967. Within a few years, gay people in Britain grew angry about how much prejudice was still levelled towards them, despite the recent change in law.

Gay Liberation Front banner (1971)Original Source: LSE Library

The Gay Liberation Movement was founded in the early 1970s, which led to passionate marches and turbulent protests,. This all sat well within the general feel of protest and rebellion in the air around the time.

The new openness around sexuality led to venues across the capitol became more openly gay. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was already a London landmark, popular for its high spirited drag performances and cabaret.

The 'pleasure gardens' behind the Tavern had been well known as a place where gay men could meet likeminded men for discreet encounters.

Many young gay men were still meeting each other via furtive glances in shadowy parks and public toilets.

For young people the gay bars were still daunting. Parks - 'cruising grounds' - afforded some hope of connection.

Willie Ninja (1990s) by Adam FriedmanMuseum of Youth Culture

The Rise of Disco

In the 1970s disco music was one of the most popular musical forms around. It had flourished in the black American gay bars and nightclubs, and proved irresistible to all sexualities and races.

a clubber poses for the camera at flesh the gay night in the hacienda by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

A new form of disco music, known as Hi-NRG grew from the disco seed, created to satisfy the demand for exciting fast tempo electronic records for the gay bars of the late 1970s.

Frankie Knuckles (1990s) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

House music also has it's origins in gay nightlife, created on the black gay dance floors of late 70s Chicago. Pioneering house DJ, Frankie Knuckles, was openly gay, and translated much of his personal soul searching and heartbreak to his music.

Skinhead man wearing Union Jack shirt (1980s) by Gavin WatsonMuseum of Youth Culture

There has been some crossover with the skinhead movement and gay culture. Gay skinheads were very much around in London in the 1980s, perhaps finding sexual expression in the hyper masculine uniform associated with skinheads.

This added to the general confusion that has buzzed around the skinhead movement which has, probably unfairly, been linked to right wing, racist, anti gay outlooks.

clubbers hang out backstage before a fashion show at flesh the gay night at the hacienda by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

In 1979 Heaven night club opened in Central London.

This was a significant moment in London's gay history, as the club was huge, and attracted gay men from all over the country.

The music played was the distinctive, blend of Hi-NRG, disco, made popular in leather bars like The Coleherne in West London, alongside the new house sounds being imported from America, and the new subversive synthpop sounds.

Soft Cell (1982) by Peter AndersonMuseum of Youth Culture

Taking Over the Charts

A gay sensibility flooded the UK pop charts in the early 80s. Still largely alluded to rather than shouted, Soft Cell, Culture Club, Buzzcocks, Erasure, Associates and others all brought an alternative view of sexuality to Top Of The Pops and beyond.

Bronski Beat (1984) by Peter AndersonMuseum of Youth Culture

Bronski Beat were less coy about their sexuality. Their 1984 debut LP featured a list of all the legal ages for homosexual consent in every country in the world .

Their first single and video Smalltown Boy chronicled the well worn story of a disconnected youth leaving his home town for the big city and it's promised freedoms. The gritty video featured homophobia and gay bashing in a municipal swimming pool.

Getting out (1987) by Clare & Keith LaflinMuseum of Youth Culture

In the early 1980s, with drag queens, nearly naked muscle men and openly gay people on Top of the Pops, it began to feel like the race towards freedom, visibility, and acceptance was almost run.

It seemed that prize was just a few more Top 10 hits away.

Aids Epidemic, Mark Charnock, 1987, From the collection of: Museum of Youth Culture
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Then reports of a new 'gay cancer' began filtering through. The AIDS crisis hit. It was apocalyptic.

Everything quickly returned to a stark grey and white.

Protestors, Peter Walsh, 1988, From the collection of: Museum of Youth Culture
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Introducing New Laws

Although the UK government at the time took relatively swift action in response to the AIDS crisis, the same Tory government introduced the Clause 28 legislation, which among other things, outlawed the 'promotion' of homosexuality in British schools.

Marchers (1988) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was enacted on the 24th of May that year, and stated that a local authority "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

This lead to the closure of many youth orientated groups; a number of lesbian, gay and bisexual student support groups in schools and colleges across Britain were closed owing to fears they were now breaking the law.

Celebrity Marchers (1988) by Peter WalshMuseum of Youth Culture

Sir Ian McKellan, star of the X-Men and Lord of The Rings films, joined the protestors marching against the act.

He is seen here with EastEnders actor Michael Cashman (now a member of the European Parliament) and Peter Tatchell, who, among other things, founded Outrage, a protest organisation committed to exposing public figures who were actively opposed to gay equality, despite being gay themselves.

Boy George and young fans outside 'Wogan' at the BBC (1987) by Marcus GrahamMuseum of Youth Culture

The legislation was met with outrage. Boy George released a single called No Clause 28 which reached number 57 in the charts.

Morrissey (1985) by Peter AndersonMuseum of Youth Culture

Meanwhile, Morrissey and The Smiths burst into view in 1983, and took sexual ambiguity and gender role reversal to new levels, exciting many a teenager who felt they might not be simply heterosexual or anything sexual, and who couldn't connect with the in your face glitter and dazzle of the new gay pop openness.

Teenagers (1984) by Mark CharnockMuseum of Youth Culture

"A boy in the bush
Is worth two in the hand
I think I can help you get through your exams
Oh, you handsome devil
Oh, let me get my hands
On your mammary glands
And let me get your head
On the conjugal bed"

Handsome Devil, The Smiths, 1983

Madonna in concert (1990's) by Simon NorfolkMuseum of Youth Culture

In the pop canon, Morrissey was soon joined by Madonna, who urged everyone to Express Yourself and soon became possibly the biggest gay icon the planet had seen.

Two drag queens at Mardi Gras in Finsbury Park, Tom Oldham, 2001, From the collection of: Museum of Youth Culture
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Across the nation, the Gay Pride phenomenon was growing huge, as people got more confident in demanding equality.

The Pink Pound was recognised, as companies realised attaching their name to the Gay cause translated into good business sense.

The rainbow flag became a ubiquitous of gay acceptance.

Male clubber wearing a very large colourful hat and feather boa Ibiza 1999, Dean Chalkley, 1999, From the collection of: Museum of Youth Culture
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In the 1980s and 1990s gay people began to disagree with each other as to what gay actually meant.

The word queer was reclaimed. Once an insult, it now became shorthand for an alternative view on sex and sexuality.

Wow! its a man dressed as a glitterball....UK (1990s) by Brian SweeneyMuseum of Youth Culture

Finding Your Identity

There was a mass rejection in some gay quarters against highly sexualised stereotypes of gay people, stereotypes often perpetuated by gay people themselves.

The Hi NRG look, known as The Clone, was derided and rejected by new movement of alternative queer people, who flocked to Duckie at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, Horse Meat Disco over the road at The Eagle Bar, The George & Dragon in Hackney, The Joiners Arms, also in Hackney, The Cock in Central London and many, many others.

HORSE MEAT DISCO by Tristan FewingsMuseum of Youth Culture

Indeed, to coincide with the annual summer Gay Pride marches and parties, Duckie began a counter movement, which they called Gay Shame.

Gay Shame was a gentle parody of all the cliched gay tropes that had gradually amassed into what was seen as a fetid fatberg of cliche and denial.

Boy George's bday party (1995) by Guy BakerMuseum of Youth Culture

One constant truth is that music has never stopped being deeply entwined with the gay narrative.

HORSE MEAT DISCO by Tristan FewingsMuseum of Youth Culture

Some of the world's favourite music has been made by gay people. We're thankfully beyond questioning this.

It is simply how it is.

A woman dancing at a rave wearing a polka dot hat (1987) by NormskiMuseum of Youth Culture

If we were to agree that youth culture centres around
1. Pop music
2. Dancing
3. Not being completely sober
then we have to recognise how much gay people have contributed to the template.

Two drag queens at Mardi Gras in Finsbury Park (2001) by Tom OldhamMuseum of Youth Culture

Tune In

High Energy , Evelyn Thomas, 1999
Can You Forgive Her?, Pet Shop Boys, 1993
A Little Respect, Erasure, 1988
Grace Kelly, Mika, 2007
Standing In The Way Of Control, Gossip, 2006

Credits: Story

Joe Egg is a DJ and stand by exotic dancer, who has promoted and played records all over gay London.

The Museum of Youth Culture is a new destination dedicated to celebrating 100 years of youth culture history through photographs, ephemera and stories. Launching in 2019, the Online Museum of Youth Culture has been developed by YOUTH CLUB, with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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