Beyond Skittles and Glitter, What Pride Means to Us
LGBTQIA+ pride month, which transpires every June, has been both lauded and criticized in recent years. On the one hand, pride is an opportunity to celebrate the progress of this community, which has shifted rapidly even in the last decade. On the other hand, pride’s increased commercialization has been the subject of much criticism; giant corporations donning rainbow flags for the month of June has been seen less as a symbol of progress and more as an attempt on the part of apathetic conglomerates to be on the right side of history. Their efforts, on the whole, have come off as disingenuous, but there’s also a case to be made for the importance of visibility. Whether or not Skittles Pride or Lego Pride Sets reflect genuine concern for the LGBTQIA+ community is maybe beside the point, because the fact remains that rainbow flags are now normalized parts of our daily experience, and on the whole have been integrated into our cultural consciousness.
This certainly wasn’t the case in the 1960s & 70s, when artists like Elton John and Freddie Mercury were in the midst of their superstardom. While Elton John eventually came out in 1992, Mercury never publicly disclosed his sexual orientation, and he eventually died from complications due to AIDS in 1991. As far as gender identity is concerned, such a topic was rarely discussed in the public, which is why artists like Grace Jones were so revolutionary in expressing their gender so freely.
Mercury’s history with his sexuality is well-documented and complex. Of the four Queen band members, one could argue that his outrageous camp and theatrical performance style is what elevated the group to international superstardom. Mercury is an interesting case study, in that he appealed to a sizeable straight, male fanbase, while physically expressing his queerness with no reservations.
In the ‘80s, Mercury was known for his tight white vests and mustache – his take on the Castro Clone look that originated in San Francisco’s gay district and became popular in the gay underground, but which was less familiar to mainstream music fans. But for fans with knowledge about the gay underground, there were always nods to it in Queen’s music. On their 1978 hit “Don’t Stop Me Now,” Mercury sings that he wants “to make a supersonic woman of you” and “a supersonic man out of you”. In the video, he wears a T-shirt from Mineshaft, a popular New York BDSM gay bar of the time. Even the band’s name, Queen, can be seen as a winking allusion to its frontman’s identity.
Effectively hiding in plain sight, Mercury was almost a covert-agent for the LGBTQIA+ community, dropping little seeds of queer culture into the largely heteronormative culture of the Reagan eighties.
Which isn’t to say that Mercury didn’t suffer at having to hide who he really was. Disparaging rumors about his sexuality frequently circulated the press, and things hit a head when Queen was set to perform their Live Aid set in 1985. Regardless of the bad press, Queen at Live Aid has gone on to be one of the most legendary live performances of all time, and once Mercury played the opening notes to Bohemian Rhapsody at Live Aid, the band resurrected as one of the most significant performing acts of the 20th century.
Mercury’s death has been a focal point in the history of HIV/AIDS, because he was one of the first international superstars to suffer from the disease. Given Mercury’s worldwide reverence and respect, his death created a surge of national reckoning for the seriousness of the disease, which was often dismissed and derided because of the rampant homophobia at the time. Either way, it is a testament to Mercury’s power and legacy that he remains undefined by his death.
Though it’s hard to recall a time when Elton John was in the closet, much of the world was shocked when, In 1976, the “Tiny Dancer” singer told Rolling Stone that, "there’s nothing wrong with going to bed with somebody of your own sex. I think everybody’s bisexual to a certain degree. I don’t think it’s just me. It’s not a bad thing to be. I think you’re bisexual. I think everybody is." Even though the “Rocket Man” singer wore sparkly hot pants in concert and was followed to Manhattan gay clubs, the public was scandalized by this confession, and many believe that John’s 1984 marriage to sound engineer Renate Blauel was an attempt to cover up his sexuality.
John and Blauel divorced in 1988, and in 1992, at the age of 45, John told Rolling Stone that he was “quite comfortable being gay,” which was a monumental statement for its time. In a 2019 interview with Terry Gross, John went great lengths to express the agony he felt over the truth of his sexual identity, and also the terror. John claims that the only reason he didn’t contract AIDS is because he wasn’t sexually active at the time the virus was spreading, out of fear of confronting who he really was. Even so, while the AIDS epidemic was at its worst in the mid-eighties and early-nineties, John went to great lengths to raise awareness and garner funds for the disease, which killed many of his friends, Mercury among them.
Today, John and his partner David Furnish have been together for more than 26 years. They were one of the first couples to register for a civil partnership in the U.K. on the same day that the Civil Partnership Act became law. Nine years later, they married on Dec. 21, 2014, just months after same-sex marriage became legal in the U.K.
Elton’s pride and his activism has transformed him into an elder statesman of the LGBTQIA+ community. “Be proud of who you are,” John said to Variety magazine in 2019–“There are so many wonderful diverse people in the world — straight people, gay people [and] transgender people. We’re all God’s kids. People who should know better in places of responsibility [and] attack gay people, transgender people … they claim to be close to God, [but] they couldn’t be further away from God if they tried.
It’s quite remarkable how much has shifted in the culture from the time John stepped onto the scene in the late sixties to today. John is still active in the music industry, championing young artists such as Dua Lipa, and Elton John tickets continue to sell-out worldwide. Like Mercury, John’s talent and superstardom is such that defining him by his sexuality is an arguably reductive take, but the progress he has made on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ community is remarkable and worth celebrating.
While gay, white men have historically garnered the most air-time within the LGBTQIA+ community (a fact that can be attributed to living in a largely white, cisnormative world), other queer identities (specifically black, trans, and lesbian ones) have had to fight to gain as much recognition within queer spaces. While Grace Jones, the Jamaican singer, model, and actress who rose to fame in the late eighties, does not identify strongly with labels, she expressed genderfluidity at a time when it was unheard of.
In a 1985 interview, Jones was asked if she was feminine or masculine, to which she cooly replied, “I like being both actually…it’s not being masculine, it’s an attitude really. I just act the way I feel.” The interviewer went on to ask Jones if she found women attractive, to which she replied, “I mean, I find myself attractive, so I must find women attractive.”
While these responses didn’t overtly state a preference for one gender or sexuality, Jones’ response challenged the overarching narratives of the time, which still carry into today. It’s the idea that one must choose between being masculine and feminine, that the two cannot coexist, that being a masculine woman must automatically indicate that said woman is interested in other women. Jones’ response actually illuminates a deeper truth that doesn’t neatly fit into societal categorizations, which is that all of these identities can coexist at once, that one doesn’t have to choose.
In Jones’ 2015 autobiography, she stated that “I never ask for anything in a relationship, because I have this sugar daddy I have created for myself: me. I am my own sugar daddy. I have a very strong male side, which I developed to protect my female side. If I want a diamond necklace I can go and buy myself a diamond necklace.”
Jones always expressed freedom in her body and style, having posed nude for Playboy in 1985 with then-boyfriend Dolph Lundgren. In 1996, Jones married her boyfriend Atila Altaunbay, whom she divorced in 2004. Though Jones’ sexual preference would indicate that she’s straight, she never once publicly labeled her sexual orientation.
Such is the complex nature of pride– while queerness should mean being able to exist as oneself, the many labels within the LQBTQIA+ umbrella lead people to believe that they have to choose a title to be seen as legitimate. While embracing labels is imperative for spreading love and acceptance for certain identities, people like Grace Jones remind us that sometimes, it’s okay not to choose. It’s okay to simply exist as yourself, which is oftentimes the most powerful thing of all.
Blog Written By Jude