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Gay Culture on Music


Starting the Party

This exhibition explores the impact of LGBTQ culture – gay culture – on the wider youth cultures since the end of the second world war in 1945. We shall look at how the gay narrative has sat tightly alongside the bigger story of youth culture, occasionally at odds, usually in tandem, and in so many ways, actually being right there at the very start of the party, welcoming the first guests.

Music, fashion, politics, activism, dancing, debauchery – all the essential components of a thriving youth culture; these things were practically invented by The Gays. 

People attracted to their own gender, or to nonbinary genders (‘men’ and ‘women’) have existed since the dawn of time. But let’s concentrate on the last 70 years or so in Great Britain. Here we look at the gay clubs, the gay DJs, the gay languages, and the glorious, wonderful made-by-gays records.

The Vagrancy Act 1898 

In UK homosexuality (for men at least) was illegal until 1967. To be gay meant living a shadowy life, using codes and secrecy. Nevertheless, there was still something going on, albeit nameless.

A Coded Language

Polari is a language that was used by many subcultures including gay men and women who needed to camouflage their sexuality when, by being gay, they were actually breaking the law.

It was a constantly developing form of language, with a small core lexicon of about 20 words, including bona (good) ajax (nearby), eek (face), cod (bad, in the sense of tacky or vile), naff (bad, in the sense of drab or dull, lattice (room, house, flat, i.e. room to let), nanti (not, no), omi (man), palone (woman), riah (hair), zhoosh or juz (smarten up, stylize), TBH (‘to be had’, sexually accessible), trade (sex), and vada (see).

Variations of Polari have existed in other subcultures where discretion is essential, such as various drug-based subcultures. The First Moment of Decriminalisation

The law criminalizing homosexuality was changed in 1967. Within a few years, gay people in Britain grew angry about how much prejudice was still leveled towards them, despite the recent change in the law. In the UK,

many gay people gravitated to the bigger cities, perhaps believing they were more likely to meet other gay people, and maybe feeling more able to hide amongst a larger population. Or just to stop hiding.

The new openness around sexuality led to venues across the capital became more openly gay. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern was already a London landmark, popular for its high spirited drag performances and cabaret.

The ‘pleasure gardens’ behind the Tavern had been well known as a place where gay men could meet likeminded men for discreet encounters. Many young gay men were still meeting each other via furtive glances in shadowy parks and public toilets.

For young people, the gay bars were still daunting. Parks – ‘cruising grounds’ – afforded some hope of connection.

The Rise of Disco

In the 1970s disco music was one of the most popular musical forms around. It had flourished in the black American gay bars and nightclubs, and proved irresistible to all sexualities and races.

A new form of disco music, known as Hi-NRG grew from the disco seed, created to satisfy the demand for exciting fast tempo electronic records for the gay bars of the late 1970s. House music also has its origins in gay nightlife, created on the black gay dance floors of the late 70s Chicago.

Pioneering house DJ, Frankie Knuckles, was openly gay, and translated much of his personal soul searching and heartbreak to his music. There has been some crossover with the skinhead movement and gay culture. Gay skinheads were very much around in London in the 1980s, perhaps finding sexual expression in the hyper-masculine uniform associated with skinheads.

This added to the general confusion that has buzzed around the skinhead movement which has, probably unfairly, been linked to right-wing, racist, anti-gay outlooks.

In 1979 Heaven night club opened in Central London.

This was a significant moment in London’s gay history, as the club was huge, and attracted gay men from all over the country. The music played was the distinctive, blend of Hi-NRG, disco, made popular in leather bars like The Coleherne in West London, alongside the new house sounds being imported from America, and the new subversive synthpop sounds.

Taking Over the Charts

A gay sensibility flooded the UK pop charts in the early 80s. Still largely alluded to rather than shouted, Soft Cell, Culture Club, Buzzcocks, Erasure, Associates, and others all brought an alternative view of sexuality to Top Of The Pops and beyond.

Bronski Beat was less coy about their sexuality. Their 1984 debut LP featured a list of all the legal ages for homosexual consent in every country in the world.

Their first single and video Smalltown Boy chronicled the well-worn story of a disconnected youth leaving his home town for the big city and it’s promised freedoms. The gritty video featured homophobia and gay-bashing in a municipal swimming pool.

In the early 1980s, with drag queens, nearly naked muscle men, and openly gay people on Top of the Pops, it began to feel like the race towards freedom, visibility, and acceptance was almost run.

It seemed that prize was just a few more Top 10 hits away. Then reports of a new ‘gay cancer’ began filtering through. The AIDS crisis hit. It was apocalyptic.

Everything quickly returned to a stark grey and white. Introducing New LawsAlthough the UK government at the time took relatively swift action in response to the AIDS crisis, the same Tory government introduced Clause 28 legislation, which among other things, outlawed the promotion’ of homosexuality in British schools. Clause 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 was enacted on the 24th of May that year,

and stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”

This lead to the closure of many youth orientated groups; a number of lesbian, gay, and bisexual student support groups in schools and colleges across Britain were closed owing to fears they were now breaking the law. Sir Ian McKellan, star of the X-Men and Lord of The Rings films, joined the protestors marching against the act.

He is seen here with EastEnders actor Michael Cashman (now a member of the European Parliament) and Peter Tatchell, who, among other things, founded Outrage, a protest organization committed to exposing public figures who were actively opposed to gay equality, despite being gay themselves.

The legislation was met with outrage. Boy George released a single called No Clause 28 which reached number 57 in the charts. Meanwhile, Morrissey and The Smiths burst into view in 1983 and took sexual ambiguity and gender role reversal to new levels, exciting many a teenager who felt they might not be simply heterosexual or anything sexual, and who couldn’t connect with the in your face glitter and dazzle of the new gay pop openness.

“A boy in the bush

Is worth two in the hand

I think I can help you get through your exams

Oh, you handsome devil

Oh, let me get my hands

On your mammary glands

And let me get your head

On the conjugal bed”

Handsome Devil, The Smiths, 1983

In the pop canon, Morrissey was soon joined by Madonna, who urged everyone to Express Yourself and soon became possibly the biggest gay icon the planet had seen. Across the nation, the Gay Pride phenomenon was growing huge, as people got more confident in demanding equality.

The Pink Pound was recognized, as companies realized attaching their name to the Gay cause translated into good business sense. The rainbow flag became a ubiquitous of gay acceptance.


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