Using popular music for learning and teaching LGBT+ history

Thanks to David Ingledew (@Ingledew_j), Principal Lecturer in Education (History), University of Hertfordshire for putting together this music collection to help teachers teach LGBT+ history in LGBT+ history month or anytime. David gives us a short back story to 15 key tracks, provides a 40-track playlist and points us to the key Teaching History articles to read for ideas about how to use music in the history classroom.

Popular music is an invaluable resource in helping us learn and teach about LGBT+ history. It can provide an insight into LGBT+ lives, an expression of identity, the problems and challenges encountered and the prejudice and discrimination that has been faced. Popular songs by and about LGBT+ people can be used:

This post follows previous ones on using popular music as an invaluable resource for learning and teaching about black lives in USA (posted 11.6.20) and Britain (posted 7.7.20).For help with using popular music in history learning and teaching, you might also want to look at Evelyn Sweerts & Jacqui Grice and Steven Mastin’s articles in TH108 and Scott Allsop’s article in TH137.

Below is a list fifteen songs that I think are particularly useful in helping pupils learn about LGBT+ history and a brief outline as to why. It is not an exhaustive list, and I struggled to keep the list down to this number. Here is also an accompanying Spotify Playlist of 40 songs (you can see my difficulty here) to listen to, reflect and enjoy a fantastic range of songs. If you think I have made any serious omissions, please let me know.

Billy Wright – Blues for My Baby (1949)

Billy Wright (1932-1991) was born in Atlanta, Georgia and achieved moderate success performing blues and jump music (the precursor sound to Rock and Roll). A one-time female impersonator, Wright was a flamboyant artist who was nicknamed the ‘Prince of the Blues’. He was openly gay and a key influence on the sound and look of Little Richard. His recording career ended in 1959 but he continued to perform around the Atlanta area until his death in 1991.

Little Richard – Rip It Up (1956)

Little Richard or Richard Wayne Penniman (1932 – 2020) was a Rock and Roll legend, a dazzling and charismatic performer, whose songs, particularly in the early stages of his career, still sound fresh and urgent despite being nearly 70 years old. I have chosen Rip It Up but could easily have used Tutti Frutti or Long Tall Sally. One of my personal favourites, and a Northern Soul classic, from later in his career is Greenwood Mississippi. Little Richard struggled throughout his life with his sexuality, religion, relationships, drugs and alcohol but as a black male performer who wore make-up and openly flaunted his sexuality, he was much more than just a musical pioneer.

Dusty Springfield – You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (1966)

To me this is a beautiful, haunting song that it many ways captures the essence of Dusty Springfield. Born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien (1939 – 1999) is another music legend whose career spanned more than 30 years, with numerous hits, TV star with her own show and an inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It is important to note that one of her later hits was a duet with the Pet Shop Boys on What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1987). In 1970, she told Roy Connolly of the Evening Standard that: Many other people say I’m bent, and I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve almost learned to accept it … I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy. More and more people feel that way and I don’t see why I shouldn’t. At the time this was an incredibly courageous thing to say, and Dusty never denied being in a number of long-term relationships with women from the mid-1960s until the end of her life.

The Kinks – Lola (1970)

Lola written by Ray Davies was a track taken from the Kinks brilliant album Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. The single reached number two in the UK and number 9 in the US and is widely regarded as one of The Kinks’ most iconic and popular songs. It is suggested that the song is based upon the experiences of the band’s manager in Soho nightclubs. The song documents the meeting between a trans woman and man and is full of suggestion and ambiguities. Despite the song’s raucous sound and sing-along chorus, it is probably the first popular hit to deal with trans issues with sensitivity (contrast to the Who’s I’m a Boy).

Rod Stewart – The Killing of Georgie Part I and II (1976)

A song that can still make me cry. The Killing of Georgie Part I and II written and recorded by Rod Stewart and was released as a single from the A Night on the Town. It reached number 2 in the UK singles chart and the top thirty in the US. The song documents the story of an openly gay man, forced to leave home, who made his way in New York but is killed by muggers (although for me there is a suggestion that this is a homophobic attack). It is a deeply heartfelt and sad song that simultaneously celebrates Georgie for who he was while grieving at his loss

Sylvester – You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) (1978)

Sylvester James Jr. better known as Sylvester, was a proud and openly gay American singer-songwriter best known for the huge international hit You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), one of the best disco songs of all time. Known as the ‘Queen of Disco’ Sylvester was a prominent spokesperson and advocate of gay rights and was friends with Harvey Milk (portrayed by Sean Penn in the 2008 film Milk), the first openly gay elected public official in California. His activism continued right up to his death in 1988 at the age of 41, just before which he led the San Francisco Castro Street Gay Freedom Parade despite suffering from advanced stage AIDS.

Tom Robinson Band – (Sing if You’re) Glad to be Gay (1978)

(Sing if You’re) Glad to be Gay was released on the EP Rising Free following the success of 2-4-6-8 Motorway by the Tom Robinson Band and charted in the Top 20 despite effectively being banned by the BBC (who played other songs from the EP on the radio). The song is both a powerful demand for gay rights and attack on institutionalised homophobia (the law, the police, the media etc.). Tom Robinson, who was a prominent gay rights and anti-racist campaigner (the band were leading supporters of the Rock Against Racism movement), originally wrote the song for the 1976 London Gay Pride march and subsequently re-wrote the lyrics whenever performed to reflect the LGBT+ issues at the time.

Pete Shelley – Homosapien (1981)

Homosapien was written and performed by Pete Shelley as a solo artist after achieving success with the Manchester punk band the Buzzcocks. Originally written in 1974, the song is a proud declaration of Shelley’s homosexuality and a demand for tolerance and respect. The sound of the song is based around a synth pop sound which is in stark contrast to the harsher guitar sound of the Buzzcocks. Reputedly banned by the BBC for its explicit references to gay sex the song was a Top Twenty hit in the USA. Sadly Pete Shelley died in 2018.

Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy (1984)

Smalltown Boy was a track from Bronski Beat’s first album The Age of Consent and reached number 3 in the UK Top Twenty. The song documents the experiences of growing up gay in provincial Britain in the mid-1980s and is rightly regarded as an anthem. Bronski Beat were a synth pop trio whose songs often contained political commentary on gay-related issues. The lead singer, Jimmy Sommerville, went on to have further success in the late 1980s with Richard Coles as the Communards.

Petshop Boys – It’s a Sin (1987) and Being Boring (1990)

It is difficult to overestimate how big a band the Pet Shop Boys were in the 1980s and 1990s going on to sell over 100 million records worldwide and still recording and performing today. It’s a Sin and Being Boring were both huge hits but it was not until Neil Tennant, the lead singer, came out as gay that these songs took on a deeper meaning. In a 1993 interview Tennant said of Being that “For me it is a personal song because it’s about a friend of mine who died of AIDS, and so it’s about our lives when we were teenagers and how we moved to London, and I suppose me becoming successful and him becoming ill.” The video for It’s a Sin was directed by Derek Jarman, a prominent gay rights campaigner (and one of the nicest people I have ever met), who sadly died of AIDS in 1994.

Bruce Springsteen – Streets of Philadelphia (1994)

Streets of Philadelphia written and performed by Bruce Springsteen for the film Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, was a huge worldwide hit and won the Oscar for Best Original Song. The film was one of the first major Hollywood productions to tackle the AIDS crisis and is the story of a HIV positive lawyer taking his own law firm to court for discrimination and wrongful dismissal. The song is a honest and solemn account of the brutal and debilitating effects of AIDS at a time when many young men and women were dying of the disease.

George Michael – Outside (1998)

Outside was George Michael’s first single after he was arrested for engaging in a lewd in public that prompted him to come out as gay which had been rumoured for some years but never publicly confirmed. Michael was a huge start in the 1980s and 1990s, first as part of the duo Wham and then as a solo performer, and the song is proud declaration of who he is while mocking the circumstances around his arrest. Great song to dance to.

Gossip – Standing in the Way of Control (2006)

Standing in the Way of Control was written by Gossip’s lead singer Beth Ditto as a response to the Federal Marriage Amendment which would have banned same-sex marriage in the United States. Ditto is openly lesbian and is well known for her outspoken support of (LGBT), feminist and body-positive issues. The song is useful for comparing and contrasting with that listed above by Dusty Springfield.

Lady Gaga – Born This Way (2011)

Lady Gaga describes Born This Way as her freedom song which discusses the empowerment of minority groups including the LGBT+ community. An instant classic, the song reached number 1 in over 25 countries including the UK and US, becoming one of the best-selling singles of all time. Combined with Janelle Monae Make Me Feel (2018) and Christine and the Queens Girlfriend (2018) these songs provide a really useful contrast and shift from the implicit sexuality of Little Richard to an explicit expression of being LGBT+. They are also great dancing songs.

Lil Nas X ft. Billie Ray Cyrus – Old Town Road (2019)

Old Town Road is an indication of the progress made by the LGBT+ community but also reflect the prejudice and hatred still prevalent today. A song by an openly gay African American rapper featuring a country music legend best known for Achy Breaky Heart, is not a likely success. The musical mash-up of the song, labelled ‘country rap’, has been a huge mainstream hit across the world but was subject to a large amount of social media abuse, particularly homophobic, from both traditional country music and hip-hop fans. Yet, the song works, it is great, showing the how far we have come since Billy Wright, also from Atlanta like Lil Nas, and the battles still to be fought.


Simon Butler ‘What’s that stuff you’re listening to Sir?’ Rock and pop music as a rich source for historical enquiry TH111

Robert Philips Making history curious: using Initial Stimulus Material [ISM] to promote enquiry, thinking and literacy, TH105

Andrew Wrenn Equiano – voice of silent slaves? TH107

Evelyn Sweerts & Jacqui Grice Hitting the right note: how useful is the music of African Americans to historians? TH 108

Steven James Mastin “Now listen to Source A”: music and history TH 108

Scott Allsop ‘We didn’t start the fire’: using 1980s popular music to explore historical significance by stealth TH137

(All the links to these are in text.)

Update! #OBHD in action – @ingledew_j  and @danlyndon swapped tweets and Dan has generously shared this work in progress set of resources:

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