Pandemic Playlist: Top 5 unapologetically gay tracks that honor the memory of Stonewall Riots
The riots ushered in a new era for the gay liberation movement and many artists documented their experiences through their music
The Stonewall riots were a series of demonstrations by members of the LGBT community against police brutality that began on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan, New York City. These riots are often thought to be one of the most pivotal moments in the gay liberation movement, paving the way for modern LGBTQIA++ rights movements in the United States.
During the '50s and '60s, very few establishments welcomed gay people. The Stonewall Inn, owned by the Mafia, was one of the few places that catered to marginalized sections of society, and its patrons included butch lesbians, effeminate young men, drag queens, male prostitutes, trans people and homeless youth. Such establishments often faced police raids, but tensions between New York City police and the gay community came to a head in the late '60s and by the time the Stonewall riots erupted, the community had had enough. This unrest gave rise to more movements that pushed for equality as well as songs that, for the first time, were pointedly and openly about gay love and rights. Here are five such songs.
Madeline Davis: 'Stonewall Nation'
Madeline Davis began her career in the '50s, performing as a folk soloist at her university and in coffee houses across Buffalo, New York City, Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto. She also fronted the jazz-rock band The New Chicago Lunch and later formed The Madeline Davis Group. In the mid-'60s, Davis began writing gay and lesbian-oriented music, putting out the 'first gay anthem' titled 'Stonewall Nation' in 1971 and later featuring it in a collection of original lesbian music titled 'Daughter of All Women'. 'Stonewall Nation' was the first explicitly gay liberation song and was written following Davis' participation at a gay march in Albany in 1971. It captured her feelings about the gay liberation movement that had been growing since she witnessed the unrest of the Stonewall riots. Davis was so moved by the experience that she began writing the song on her way home, in addition to a poem titled 'From the Steps of the Capital 1971', which is on the reverse side of the original recording of 'Stonewall Nation'.
Davis would go on to compose 45 largely gay and lesbian-themed songs, become president of the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, be elected as the first openly lesbian delegate to a major national political convention, co-create and teach the first course on lesbianism at the State University of New York, in Buffalo, and co-author the book 'Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold' with Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, which documents the history of the lesbian community in Buffalo. Listen to Madeline Davis introduce and then perform 'Stonewall Nation' HERE.
Roberta Flack: 'Ballad of the Sad Young Men'
Three years before the Stonewall riots, three young men decided to have a drink at Julius' Bar in Manhattan's West Village, the oldest gay bar in NYC at the time. The men were members of the Mattachine Society and had hoped their actions would make history since it was during a time when regulations allowed bars to refuse service to gay people under the guise of 'disorderly conduct'. Called a 'Sip In', it turned out to be a small but pivotal moment for the gay rights movement. The New York Times ran an article about them titled '3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars'. To many, this incident marks one of the first planned acts of civil disobedience for LGBTQ+ rights. While the laws wouldn't change dramatically till many years later, the 'Sip In' led to the New York City Commission on Human Rights declaring that gay people had a right to be served and thus served as a catalyst for more gay rights protests to be launched, including ones that enabled the opening of private clubs for gay people — such as the Stonewall Inn.
The song 'Ballad of the Sad Young Men' wasn't originally written specifically for a gay audience, but it evidently had them in mind. Originally sung by Anita O'Day in 1962, this song was covered by Flack on her 1969 debut album, 'First Take'. At a time when gay bars were soon becoming the primary haven for male patrons, this song struck a chord as it spoke to the painful backdrop against which these comforting safe spaces sat. Flack's hard-hitting rendition of the song allows you to feel the struggle of men who spent their time at bars while having to miss the opportunity to enjoy the gifts of life, simply because society deemed their existence a crime.
Charlie King: 'Thank You, Anita'
As the push for gay rights continued in the wake of the Stonewall riots, many counter-movements, particularly from conservative religious groups, gained traction. One prominent name to come out of these was Anita Bryant, a singer, former Miss America and commercial representative of the Florida citrus industry. Prior to Stonewall, LGBTQ+ people had very few rights. When the push came for equality, conservatives like Bryant began to vocalize their fears that their children would be "recruited" by gay couples because of their apparent inability to have biological children. She founded the 'Save Our Children' campaign in the late '70s and managed to push back against ordinances that were introduced to make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal. She then expanded to other states, trying to pass the 'Briggs Initiative' in California which would have made it illegal for gay people to become teachers in addition to allowing for the immediate dismissal of anyone who attempted to paint homosexuality in a positive light in schools.
Bryant was eventually defeated, but not before a few artistes wrote songs about her. One such song was King's 'Thank You, Anita' which thanked Bryant for bringing the gay community together like never before, stating, "But you and your colleagues pushed me from the closet / Now I lift up my head and I sing from the sky." Listen to 'Thank You, Anita' here.
The Kinks: 'Lola'
As one of the most influential bands to come out of the British Invasion, many might find it hard to believe that The Kinks were actually refused work permits for years by the American Federation of Musicians in the '60s, which meant the band would no longer be able to tour the US and their music would no longer chart. But instead of returning with music that would be 'approved' of, the band stayed true to form and put out 'Lola', a folk-rock song about a blossoming love between a countryman and a trans woman who helps him accept himself. Set in a post-Stonewall era, this song embraced the beauties and joys of a queer relationship. The song faced backlash and criticism for its themes, with many places fading the song out before implications of 'Lola's sex were revealed. The song was also banned by the BBC due to the lyrics featuring 'Coca-Cola', which went against their product placement policies. But for the gay rights movement, the song was historic, with many including critic Dave Marsh referring to it as "the first significantly blatant gay-rock ballad".
Labi Siffre: 'It Must Be Love'
A jazz guitarist, singer-songwriter and poet based in the UK, born to a Nigerian father and Barbadian-Belgian mother, and an openly and unapologetically gay man who boldly advocated for gay rights against the backdrop of apartheid and racial violence, Siffre lived his truth in a time when most of the views he held were not just unpopular but were violently shot down by the larger society. He wrote 'It Must Be Love' amid all this turmoil, yet the sweet pop gem about the rush of young romance would lead anyone to believe it was written during a time of total peace. The song details that wonderful feeling of new love that is so intense it frightens you and makes you feel like you've got butterflies in your stomach. Siffre's songs have been covered and sampled numerous times by everyone from Olivie Newton-John to Kanye West. 'It Must Be Love' was covered by ska/pop band Madness in 1981, and was featured in the 1989 movie 'The Tall Guy' starring Jeff Goldblum, Rowan Atkinson and Emma Thompson. The movie also featured a cameo from Suggs, the lead vocalist of Madness.
While not as active musically, Siffre continues to engage with politics and power through his poetry and writings, and thus, his artistry and bold stances on social issues continue to live on. Listen to 'It Must Be Love' here.