Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address

By submitting my information, I agree to receive personalized updates and marketing messages about WMX based on my information, interests, activities, website visits and device data and in accordance with the Privacy Policy. I understand that I can opt-out at any time by emailing privacypolicy@wmg.com.

LGBTQ+ Musicians: 20 Pioneering Artists You Need To Know
Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

LGBTQ+ Musicians: 20 Pioneering Artists You Need To Know

From androgynous icons to convention-flouting rulebreakers, these pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians helped give the community a voice.

Back

Whether standing firm against adversity, fighting for rights and medical research, or providing a platform for those whose voices were hitherto unheard, these pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians have added their own splash of colour to the walls of popular music’s everlasting corridors.

Listen to the 50 greatest Pride songs here, and check out our 20 most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians, below.

20: Ezra Furman (1986-)

Beginning her career with The Harpoons, Ezra Furman went on to release five studio albums, including 2018’s impressive Transangelic Exodus, establishing herself as one of the most notable LGBTQ+ musicians of her generation. Drawing likenesses to the noisiness of Ramones and New York Dolls, Furman’s trademark is a consistent fusion of abrasive sections with delicately arranged, authentic alt-pop. Not only is the Chicagoan more than comfortable constructing original and interesting material through concept albums, but she published a book on Lou Reed’s Transformer album as part of the 33⅓ series, as well as supplied the soundtrack for progressive UK comedy-drama Sex Education.

Must hear: Driving Down To LA

19: Pete Burns (1959-2016)

Dead Or Alive frontman Pete Burns made waves with his heavily androgynous appearance in the video for the band’s breakthrough single, You Spin Me Round (Like A Record). Known for his glamorous appearance and distinctive voice, Burns enjoyed a career spanning three decades, and appeared in numerous TV shows, most notably the fourth series of Celebrity Big Brother. Despite being one of the UK’s most prominent LGBTQ+ musicians for most of his life, the singer felt the need to clear up certain misconceptions in his biography, Freak Unique, rather innocently stating, “Am I gay, bi, trans or what? I say forget all that… I’m just Pete.”

Must hear: You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)

18: SOPHIE (1986-2021)

Scottish-born Sophie Xeon was a jack of all trades. Eccentric and experimental, Xeon was praised for her unique touch on contemporary pop, as well as her impressive background in producing records for big acts, namely Charli XCX, Flume and Madonna. But with her own work, listeners found something uncompromising and agile: a kind of victorious beacon of hyperactive soundscapes. After her tragically young death in January 2021, aged just 34, her only album, OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES, will forever provide a beautiful glimpse into the exquisite world Xeon created.

Must hear
: It’s Okay To Cry

17: Frank Ocean (1987-)

“By the time I realised I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless.” Forever the romantic, Frank Ocean took to Tumblr in 2012 ago to speak about his experiences with intimacy. Not that it was ever completely under wraps – his tongue-in-cheek line on Odd Future’s Oldie says it all: “I’m high and I’m bi – wait, I mean I’m straight.” Paving the way for male LGBTQ+ musicians in R&B, Ocean has very coolly crafted his own amorous and introspective world with huge releases, including channel ORANGE and Blonde, the latter of which contains Nights, a track often said to feature one of the greatest beat switches of all time. His music provides a soundtrack to those who feel their love lives (or lack thereof) play out like a film, and Ocean himself certainly has a director’s touch. His visual album, Endless, is pristine in its black-and-white glory, teeming with influences from classic R&B to The Beach Boys.

Must hear: Nights

16: Christine And The Queens (1988-)

By 2016, Chris was already considered by Vanity Fair to be the most powerful and influential French person in the world. Since then, she’s released an eponymous sophomore effort (which The Guardian ranked the best album of 2018), appeared in the BBC’s 100 Women series and performed on the 11th season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race. One of the most celebrated LGBTQ+ musicians of recent years, it seems that Chris will continue to find success wherever she goes; she’s won numerous awards, and her electronic, “freakpop” mastery – influenced by the transgender community, T. Rex and Björk – draws the attention of almost three million monthly listeners on Spotify.

Must hear: People, I’ve Been Sad

15: Jermaine Stewart (1957-1997)

We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off remains Jermaine Stewart’s crowning achievement. Despite a general (and perhaps undeserving) lack of commercial success, Stewart’s magnum opus is larger than life and celebrates everything flamboyant about the mid-80s. “Larger than life” would also be an apt way to describe the Ohio singer, who learned his trade as a soul-music dancer in Chicago and later worked closely with Culture Club. Remember him this way, as opposed to another harrowing statistic due to AIDS, which cut his life unfairly short at just 39.

Must hear
: We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Of

14: Jimmy Somerville (1961-)

Jimmy Somerville is most famous for forging grandiose floorfillers, from The Communards’ magnificent Don’t Leave Me This Way to the ethereal Smalltown Boy, which appeared on Bronski Beat’s seminal debut album, Age Of Consent. Having been set in 1967, the age in question for male same-sex intercourse was then 21, much to the dismay of groups like Lesbians And Gays Support The Miners, an LGBTQ+ organisation who stood with Welsh miners in 1984 in their fight to keep jobs and improve working conditions. Somerville joined the effort, too, playing a benefit concert in December that year in Camden Town; the group’s battle and Somerville’s assistance is documented in the 2014 film Pride.

Must hear: Smalltown Boy

13: Cyndi Lauper (1953-)

When She’s So Unusual hit the shelves in 1983, young women the world over suddenly had one hell of a role model – but it almost didn’t happen. A lawsuit following her first band’s commercial bomb forced Lauper into bankruptcy. Thanks to her rebellious roots and her defiant demeanour, Cyndi helped sway what it meant to be a woman in pop and diminished impossible standards created by the likes of MTV; in 2019, her stellar debut album was considered significant enough to be preserved in the National Recording Registry. Her leadership qualities extend outside her music: as one of the 80s’ most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians, Lauper has been a fierce advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in the US for decades.

Must hear
: Time After Time

12: Neil Tennant (1954-)

The Guardian have declared Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls to be the greatest UK No.1 single of all time – a fair decision. The best Pet Shop Boys songs (among them Domino Dancing, What Have I Done To Deserve This and Suburbia) provided musical context to 80s Britain. Behind them is Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant, the latter of whom holds one striking portfolio: synthpop hero, Smash Hits assistant editor, patron of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and leading contributor in obtaining code-cracker Alan Turing a long-overdue posthumous pardon.

Must hear: West End Girls

11: kd lang (1961-)

The “Canadian Cowpunk” that is kd lang is something of a heavyweight among LGBTQ+ musicians, having collaborated with legends ranging from Roy Orbison to Madeleine Peyroux. She’s also been inducted into The ArQuives: Canada’s LGBTQ2+ Archives, a non-profit organisation whose goal is to preserve key work among LGBTQ+ individuals. lang publicly came out in 1992 and has strongly supported gay rights causes, as well as animal rights and research into AIDS, before she was made an Officer Of The Order Of Canada in 1996. And yet it’s her music that inspires most. Her most popular song, Constant Craving, embodies everything great about her: vulnerable when she wants to be and yet unafraid of who she is.

Must hear: Constant Craving

10: Rob Halford (1951-)

The “Metal God’” (as he is known) is nothing short of a hard-rock icon. Halford fronts Judas Priest, who, along with Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, are celebrated as pioneers of British heavy metal. Despite his famous stage persona and suggestive outfits throughout the 80s (apparently, bursting onto stage in leather and chrome gear on a motorcycle before bursting into Hell Bent For Leather wasn’t clear enough), Halford struggled with shielding his sexuality for years. Coming out to The Advocate in 1998 was “the greatest thing I could have done for myself”, he said, and his fears of backlash were settled thanks to countless messages of support from fans. Metal tends to be a LGBTQ+ tolerant genre as it stands, but Halford’s hallowed position only cements that further.

Must hear: Living After Midnight

9: Michael Stipe (1960-)

“What was the best kiss of your life?” “Allen Ginsberg.” When Michael Stipe wasn’t smooching veteran Beat poets, he was the enigmatic frontman of R.E.M., perhaps America’s greatest rock band. His mysteriousness, genius and particularly elusive writing style resonated with millions of listeners, helping R.E.M. graduate from their college rock, jangle-pop early years into a gigantic stadium act. Perhaps Stipe’s most recognisable asset was his blue “goblin” stripe mask he donned around the early 2000s, most notably during the band’s performance at 2005’s Live 8. Like other LGBTQ+ musicians – Pete Burns and Janis Joplin among them – Stipe rejected a pigeonholing of his sexuality, telling gay magazine Butt in 2004: “I think there’s a line drawn between gay and queer, and for me, queer describes something that’s more inclusive of the grey areas.”

Must hear: Electrolite

8: Elton John (1947-)

Sir Elton is perhaps the most decorated of all LGBTQ+ musicians. Active since 1967, the lifelong fan (and intermittent owner) of Watford FC has sold over 250 million records, earned a knighthood and raised over £350 million for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The entertainer has tirelessly advocated for LGBTQ+ rights around the world, including Russia, where, in 2013, he asked President Vladimir Putin if he would like to know about various citizens who have been penalised under Russian anti-homosexual legislation. Sir Elton’s philanthropy and humanitarian stance has garnered him many friendships, including Eminem, who he helped get sober in the mid-2000s. Eminem returned the favour; as revealed on The Graham Norton Show, he purchased two diamond-encrusted sexual enhancers for John and his husband, David Furnish. John declared they have “remained unused”.

Must hear: Tiny Dancer

7: Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

One of the best female singers of the 60s, the electrifying Janis Joplin epitomised the free spirit and “wild child” nature of the decade. Misunderstood from the get-go due to her appearance and love for black music (namely, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey), Joplin remembered being ostracised for her interests as early as high school. However, she went on to become the voice of a generation, leading up to one of the most defining moments of the era: her Woodstock performance in 1969, backed by a full-band ensemble (her previous group, Big Brother And The Holding Company, had split by this time). Joplin had relationships with both men and women, and remained unfazed by rumours and the press speculating about her sexuality, instead embodying the bohemian notion still synonymous with her name.

Must hear: Piece Of My Heart

6: George Michael (1963-2016)

Few singers have had a career quite like George Michael. His humble and high-spirited beginnings in Wham! later developed into mature, time-stopping moments on his first two legendary solo albums, Faith and Listen Without Prejudice Vol.1. The latter became a key aspect of his 1994 court case with Sony, over feelings that the label had “punished” the singer by failing to properly promote his album. Now an icon among LGBTQ+ musicians, Michael was dealing with internal issues at the time and felt that Sony pushing the “sex symbol” persona on him had backed him into a corner. This, paired with losing partner Anselmo Feleppa to AIDS in 1993, made for dark times, but there was little to stop Michael’s charitable and altruistic exploits, volunteering in soup kitchens and campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights and AIDS research until his sudden passing in 2016.

Must hear: Father Figure

5: David Bowie (1947-2016)

There was always something about David Bowie that was difficult to put a finger on – appearance-wise, not quite male, but not quite female, either. Perhaps glam rock’s greatest champion, Bowie’s archetypal androgyny and alter egos metamorphosed from decade to decade, securing his place as one of the most unpredictably brilliant artists of the 20th century. His sexuality, while still debated, is besides the point; no one else quite reflected the confusing and exciting times of young people in 70s England, and no song summarises it quite like Rebel Rebel: “You’ve got your mother in a whirl/She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl/Hey, babe, your hair’s alright/Hey, babe, let’s go out tonight.”

Must hear: Rebel Rebel

4: Freddie Mercury (1946-1991)

Rob Halford once joked, “If Freddie hadn’t have been gay, Queen would’ve been a totally different band.” Apart from the fact it’s probably more appropriate to consider Freddie bisexual, Halford is right; Mercury was the quintessential performer, full of life and energy, and with one of the greatest voices of all time to boot. Be it performing in drag in the music video for I Want To Break Free, or commanding tens of thousands live at Wembley, he gave everything 100 per cent and appeared (for the most part) wholly unashamed of his true self. Following his death, The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert For AIDS Awareness featured performances from gargantuan acts, including Elton John, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Liza Minelli (a gay icon in her own right). Mercury’s status as one of the most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians continues to send ripples through pop culture. It’s a legacy that’s unlikely to ever be topped.

Must hear: Killer Queen

3: Bessie Smith (1894-1937)

Closely mentored by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith honed her craft well, and her brooding recording of Down Hearted Blues sold over one million copies. Before assuming the nickname “The Empress Of The Blues”, Smith toured the US via club circuits, performed on Broadway and made in a single film appearance in 1929. Before long, she became the highest-paid black artist of her time, penning songs that tackled themes ranging from social injustice to female sexuality and ambiguity, paving the way for female LGBTQ+ musicians to follow. Her death, a result of two serious car collisions, saw her funeral attended by thousands of people, but she was buried in an unmarked grave until 1970, when a certain Janis Joplin paid to have a tombstone erected in her honour.

Must hear: Down Hearted Blues

2: Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992)

A Renaissance woman, Marlene Dietrich did it all: boxer, lover, singer, drag-ball punter, film star, radio personality and fashionista. Revered for her endlessly glamorous portrayals in cinema and also her compassionate work during World War II, Dietrich still stands as one of the most recognisable and talented women in Hollywood. Her singing career, which spanned six decades, is filled with hidden gems that tend to hark back to dark cabaret clubs in Berlin, especially Lili Marlene, in which Dietrich somehow sings sombre German with the cool sensuality of French.

Must hear: Lili Marlene

1: Ma Rainey (1886-1939)

If there has to be some genesis of the LGBTQ+ icon, Ma Rainey is likely the best choice. Prove It On Me Blues alone is a startlingly open portrayal of Rainey’s comfort with cross-dressing and her preference for women: “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends/They must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men.” Topping our list of the most pioneering LGBTQ+ musicians of all time, Rainey truly walked the walk and talked the talk, defying social norms and battling stigmas – after all, this was a black, LGBTQ+ woman stating, in 1928, that she’ll “Talk to the gals just like any old man.” Decades ahead of her time and a maestro of deeply affecting blues, Rainey is celebrated as a motherly figure in rock’n’roll and influenced countless cherished artists, from Dinah Washington to Louis Armstrong.

Must hear: Prove It On Me Blues

More Like This

Best 70s Albums: 20 Great Masterworks Of The Decade
List & Guides

Best 70s Albums: 20 Great Masterworks Of The Decade

From fearless folk outings to hard-rock missives, the best 70s albums rescued the decade with a courageous ear and a progressive ambition.

Best Iron Maiden Album Covers: 20 Of Eddie’s Finest Moments
List & Guides

Best Iron Maiden Album Covers: 20 Of Eddie’s Finest Moments

Gory but glorious, the best Iron Maiden Album covers, starring the band’s undead mascot, Eddie, are among heavy metal’s most iconic images.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up