The accidental history of pride anthems

Walk into any LGBTQ pride event during the month of June, and you’ll probably end up dancing to Diana Ross’ 1980 iconic release “I’m Coming Out.”

But Ross herself did not intend it that way, Nile Rodgers, the producer on the record, told Billboard in 2011. Unbeknownst to Ross, Rodgers and co-producer Bernard Edwards originally wrote the song to rally Ross’ fans in the LGBTQ community after seeing three drag performers impersonate Ross at the GG Barnum Room, a New York club.

Ross questioned whether to release it after a DJ who heard an early version of the song hated it.

“She asked us point blank if this was a gay record and if people were going to think she was gay. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever lied to an artist. I looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘Are you kidding?’” Rodgers told Billboard.

The song would make its way through the club scene, reaching Morgan Royel, a drag entertainer who performs as Diana for audiences at the New York drag club Lips every Sunday. Royel heard “I’m Coming Out” first in a club as a teenager. She remembers thinking, “Oh my God, somebody understands me.”

“[The song] helped us as individuals,” she said. “Anything that was hiding inside of us, we had a moment to be proud about it and come out.”

Behold, the early history of pride anthems: empowering and sometimes accidental.

The era spanning the 1960s to 1980s brought a wave of new songs and musical acts that served as a point of common ground for the burgeoning modern gay rights movement.

These songs and their aura of overt confidence, such as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (1977), provided an important outlet at the time for LGBTQ people who were closeted in their public lives, according to OUT senior editor Jason Lamphier. Summer herself was accused of making anti-gay remarks at a 1983 concert, which she vehemently denied in an interview with The Advocate.

Nonetheless her music resonated with the LGBTQ community, Lamphier said.

“This woman [was] singing very confidently about sex,” he said. “I think a lot of gay men at the time couldn’t really exude that sort of sexuality and confidence in everyday life. They had to go to these spaces and live out their realities there.”

Queer people of color pioneered the beginning of disco, laying the ground for later pride anthems, DJ Maegan Wood, a founder of the First Ladies DJ Collective, said in an email. DJs like Frankie Knuckles, David Mancuso and Larry Levan were important in helping develop that scene, she said. Levan’s SoHo club Paradise Garage formed an important community during the 1970s and 1980s, becoming one of the most influential clubs in LGBTQ music history, DJ Bil Todd said.

These songs and DJs also played an early role in fostering a sense of community — a tradition that continues in queer dance spaces today, according to Ebony Dumas, who works as DJ Natty Boom. “Queers in this country often meet in clubs. And clubs often become community centers of sorts,” she said via email.

While early pride anthems often focused on the idea of survival, their modern counterparts tend to focus on acceptance and euphoria, Lamphier said. He pointed to artists like Lady Gaga, whose lyrics often speak directly to a queer audience. In “Born This Way” (2011), Gaga sings, “No matter gay, straight or bi / Lesbian, transgendered life / I’m on the right track, baby / I was born to survive.”

The best pride anthems make people feel welcome and affirmed, Alex Douglas-Barrerra, who works as DJ Alex DB, said.

“People have their individual tastes, but I know for Pride I love a rallying cry. I think it’s important people feel wanted in the space when at a party, that their presence and their identity matter,” he said via email.

Music is important to pride events “as a soundtrack for the fun, weird, and still somewhat revolutionary act that is thousands of LGBTQ people gathering together in one space,” Wood said.

To celebrate Pride month, we’ve put together a selection of favorite pride anthems from DJ Alex DB, DJ Natty Boom, Morgan Tepper, Meagan Wood, Tommy Cornelius, Baronhawk, Bil Todd and Jason Lamphier: