How often have LGBTI people been told they need to ‘tone it down’ if they want mainstream success? What about those instances when they didn’t tone it down? Or when something aimed at gay audiences crossed over? Below are just a few examples.
Tom of Finland
Tom of Finland was the pseudonym of Finnish artist Touko Laaksonen (1920-1991). Laaksonen began drawing his homoerotic art as a private hobby. He began to send it off to underground gay magazines and physique publications in the late 1950s, using his chosen nom de plume.
His images of sexy, smiling, bikers, lumberjacks and soldiers proved immediately popular.
Laaksonen’s beautiful drawings depicted a hyper-realized, masculine ideal. His men often had super-enlarged penises and muscles. They presented a happy, carefree, unashamed portrayal of homosexuality that many gay men had not seen before.
They were also uninhibited in their depiction of men having sex with one another.
Laaksonen relocated to the US later in life. He died in 1991, but his fame has continued to grow. In 2014, his home country of Finland celebrated his worldwide appeal by issuing a set of stamps featuring his artwork. What better signifier of establishment approval?
Although some Christian groups in Finland complained, the stamps went on to be the best selling set in the Finnish Post Office’s history.
See also: David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings.
Julian and Sandy
Julian and Sandy was a recurring comedy segment on the hit BBC radio show Round The Horne. The sketch, which ran between 1965 and 1968, featured the characters Julian and Sandy (played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams).
At a time when homosexual activity between men was illegal in the UK, it may now be hard to understand how two camp, gay men bantering with one another could prove so popular with mainstream audiences. However, they became the best-loved characters of the show.
The actors, both of whom were gay, and writers, were also careful not to make the figures seem tortured or tragic (unlike the 1961 Dirk Bogarde film, Victim).
Julian and Sandy talk to each other in snatches of polari, the secret gay language used by some British gay men at the time. They brought words such a ‘bona’ (good), ‘eek’ (face), ‘naff’ (bad or drab) and ‘fantabulosa’ (wonderful) out of gay bars and into British living rooms.
The audiences knew the characters were gay, even if they never actually said so. ‘Naff’ continues to be widely used British slang today, even if those who utter it are unaware of its polari origins. It began life as an acronym of ‘Not Available For Fucking’.
See also: Camp comics Larry Grayson and Frankie Howerd
The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Written as a stage musical by Richard O’Brien, the Rocky Horror Picture Show made its first appearance at London’s relatively modest upstairs theatre at the Royal Court in 1972. It was both a product of the ‘free love’ hippie counterculture of the times and an homage to the science fiction and horror b-movies of the 1950s.
The show proved a hit in London and Los Angeles. It arrive at the same time as glam rock and the Gay Liberation Front, when gender roles were already beginning to blur.
A film version, starring O’Brien, Susan Sarandon and Tim Curry as the bisexual, ‘sweet transsexual’ Dr Frank’N’Furter arrived in 1975.
In it, Frank’N’Furter plays a demented scientist who builds himself a man (‘Rocky’) and seduces the straight-laced young opposite-sex couple who seek refuge as his mansion house one rainy night.
The movie initially flopped at the box office. However, it became a staple at late-night film screenings, when fans took to dressing up and acting along to key scenes. Movie screenings continue to this day, while stage productions have continued to tour the world.
Laverne Cox starred as Frank-N-Furter in 2016 TV movie adaptation.
O’Brien has said he’s explored gender and identity throughout his life, revealing in 2013 he’d been taking estrogen for the previous ten years, stating himself to be 70% man and 30% woman.
See also: David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Village People came together in New York in 1977. Vocalist Victor Willis sang on the disco album Village People, created by French producers Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo.
The name came from Greenwich Village, one of NYC’s gay hotspots. The album was successful enough for clubs to start demanding live performances. The trio decided to put a band together to accompany Willis.
Given the music’s appeal to gay guys, the idea of using men dressed as macho fantasies was born. Hence, the cowboy, the leather man, etc.
Village People may have remained a disco footnote were it not for 1978 single, Y.M.C.A. A coded ode to the joys of hanging out at the Y.M.C.A (popular for gay cruising), the song became a global hit.
At a time when being openly gay was still not possible, Village People awkwardly avoided the issue – despite the fact most were gay (Willis is straight). Further hits followed. Then came the extravagantly camp 1980 movie, Can’t Stop The Music. In it, Village People star alongside Steve Guttenberg and a pre-transition Caitlyn Jenner.
To many viewers today, the clip below will seem bizarre. However, it represents the moment as the 70s turned into the 80s when gay culture threatened to tip over into mainstream acceptance.
However, just as Village People were about to hit the big screen, two things derailed their career. Firstly, disco fell out of fashion. Secondly, AIDS was just around the corner. Promoting anything deemed remotely ‘gay’, especially in the US, became difficult as the world recoiled in fear.
The hits dried up for Village People, but various formations of the band continue to tour today.
See also: Disco legend Sylvester. And Miquel Brown’s ‘So Many Men, So Little Time’
Many people appreciate that vogue, the dance, originated on the New York ballroom scene. However, the world would possibly be none the wiser were it not dragged (no pun intended) into the mainstream by Madonna.
Harlem’s ballroom scene has been traced back to the 1960s, when LGBTI youth – primarily black and Latino – began to congregate at underground dance events.
A feature of these events were dance offs and catwalk shows where self-styled ‘houses’ pitted members against one another to show of their best looks and moves. ‘Vogue’ literally meant posing as starring in a photo shoot in the legendary fashion magazine.
The scene was perfectly captured in Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary, Paris Is Burning. The movie showcased the skills of key figures such as Willi Ninja. It played to great acclaim at film festivals around the world.
Outside of the community, one of the first people to pick up on the ballroom scene was the UK’s Malcolm McLaren. He had a minor British hit with his 1989 track, Deep in Vogue, which featured Ninja.
However, a year later, voguing topped the charts when Madonna released her classic, Vogue, complete with vogue dancers in the video – directed by acclaimed movie director David Fincher.
See also: The 2018 Ryan Murphy-produced TV show, Pose. The video for Sam Smith and Calvin Harris hit, Promises.
kd lang on the cover of Vanity Fair
Canada’s Kathryn Dawn Lang began her career in her native Canada in the mid-80s. However, it was 1988 album, Shadowland, that really began to earn her a global following. Not least among LGBTI listeners, who were quick to pick up on her androgynous style.
She came out in 1992 in an interview with The Advocate. In the same year she released her mainstream smash album, Ingénue, and the global hit, Constant Craving.
In 1993, she graced the cover of Vanity Fair. The iconic photo was shot by Herb Ritts and features lang, sat in a barber’s chair, appearing to be shaved by supermodel Cindy Crawford. It was an all-too-rare, unashamedly queer image on the cover of one of the world’s biggest fashion magazines.
Although her career has not hit the same mainstream highs, lang has continued to record and tour to a devoted following.
See also: Sandra Bernhard playing gay character Nancy Bartlett on Roseanne from 1991-97.
The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert
The Australian set comedy drama was the creation of gay screenwriter and director Stephan Elliot. The 1994 movie tracks the journey undertaken by two drag queens and a middle-aged trans woman as they travel from Sydney to Alice Springs to perform a run of drag shows.
The trio travel in an old bus they name Priscilla. The leads were taken by Terence Stamp, Huge Weaving and Guy Pearce. Actors briefly considered beforehand included Tony Curtis, Rupert Everett and Jason Donovan.
The film proved a hit around the world, with audiences won over by the queer trio. For one, US critic Roger Ebert, Stamp’s Bernadette was the film’s key figure. In his review he stated, ‘the real subject of the movie is not homosexuality, not drag queens, not showbiz, but simply the life of a middle-aged person trapped in a job that has become tiresome.’
Whatever the appeal, it has endured. The movie spawned a stage musical, which debuted in 2006. It has since been produced in around 20 countries, including London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. It’s currently still running in Italy, with further touring productions in the works.
See also: To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar
When RuPaul’s Drag Race first appeared on Logo back in 2009, it was a niche, queer reality show that most people presumed might last a season or two. Not even Mama Ru could have predicted the entertainment juggernaut it would become.
It switched from Logo to VH1 in 2017, and is now gearing up for its eleventh season. It has scooped numerous Emmy awards, including for RuPaul himself in the category of Outstanding Host.
RuPaul Andre Charles’ was born in 1960 in San Diego, but moved to Atlanta when he was 15 to study performing arts. His drag queen persona was born in the 1980s (you can spot him in the 1989 video for Love Shack by the B-52s).
He first tasted mainstream success with his dance hit, Supermodel, in 1993. He’s released numerous albums since then, but it’s the success of Drag Race that has eclipsed his previous career highs.
Early seasons of the show can now be watched via Netflix, which can be streamed in most countries around the planet. This has brought RuPaul to a global audience previously unheard of for a drag queen.
In 2017, he was included in the Time list of 100 most influential people in the world. He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame earlier this year.
A UK version of Drag Race, hosted by RuPaul, is due to air in early 2019, while director JJ Abrams is reportedly working on a biopic series called Queen about Ru’s early career.
See also: British drag queen Lily Savage graduating from the gay scene to TV stardom in the UK.
Janelle Monáe – Pynk
When Janelle Monáe’s revealed to Rolling Stone magazine this year that she is pansexual, she brought the subject of pansexuality into the mainstream. Searches of the term ‘pansexual’ on Google shot up and it topped the Merriam-Webster online dictionary search.
Monáe’s sexuality had long been the subject of speculation. The singer herself has not been shy of bringing a queer sensibility to her work.
The video for Pynk, released shortly before her Rolling Stone interview, features Monáe and other women dancing in vagina-inspired outfits and celebrating woman-on-woman love. There’s not a single man in sight.
The song’s parent album, Dirty Computer, subsequently debuted in top ten in the US, UK and Canada.
Time will tell if Monáe truly achieve the crossover success she, and her record label, desire. However, the Pynk video remains a glorious moment of queerness on the pop landscape.