The Northwest music scene has long benefited from the creative spirit and expressive talents of innumerable LGBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender) artists. From pop singers and jazz players necessarily shielding their true natures during more-repressive earlier decades, up into the Gay Liberation era when country pickers and rock 'n' rollers could finally break free, and onward through the recent grunge and hip-hop eras, time and again queer musicians have energized the community's nightlife action -- and positively impacted the evolution of this region's musical arts. Regardless of whether they were publicly "out" or not, many of these musicians' life-paths were not particularly easy ones, and thus it is inspiring to ponder the challenges they faced and the achievements they accomplished along the way.
In recent times it has been a perfectly common experience for mainstream Seattle-area citizens to enjoy music performed by openly LGBT musicians. Indeed, the city is home to both the popular Seattle Men's Chorus and the Rainbow City Band. The Seattle Men's Chorus was founded in 1979 and as of 2015 it is "the largest gay men's chorus in the world with over 350 singing members" ("About Us"). The chorus is established as a treasured part of Seattle culture, tours widely, records often, and has performed high-profile gigs with the Seattle Symphony. Also active locally is the Rainbow City Band, which was founded in 1998, and is an "organization consisting of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and straight members from all around the Puget Sound area" ("About Rainbow City").
With all the social progress affecting gay rights that has been forged in the modern era, it may not always be realized that, not so long ago, certain prominent Northwest musicians led public lives in which their true sexuality and/or gender were closeted. And if the truth was revealed, their reputations and/or careers were often negatively impacted by the bigotry of the times.
Sometimes We Cry
Consider Johnnie "The Cry Guy" Ray (1927-1990), the androgynous bisexual pop singer from Oregon who skyrocketed to status as the biggest international vocal sensation to arise in the decade between Sinatra's bobbysoxers and Elvis's empire. With early successes like 1951's No. 1 hit "Cry" and No. 2 hit "The Little White Cloud That Cried," Ray's remarkable career was nearly derailed by negative publicity after he was busted for soliciting an undercover male vice-squad detective at a burlesque club that same year. Ray's marriage to a woman the following year was overly publicized by his managers, but his showbiz peers were already well aware that he also maintained a circle of boyfriends, and rumors insisted that this marriage was a sham. Divorced in 1954, Ray was arrested again in 1959 and, hounded by lurid gossip-magazine headlines, his damaged career never recovered. Ray's singing talents, however, are still revered and he has even been name-checked in songs by artists ranging from Dexy's Midnight Runners ("Come on Eileen") to Billy Joel ("We Didn't Start The Fire"), Van Morrison, and Tom Jones ("Sometimes We Cry").
Another troubling case was that of Billy Tipton (1914-1989) -- an obscure jazz lounge pianist who worked out of Spokane for 40 years. Obscure, that is, until his death, when it was revealed that the musician had actually been a woman. Turns out that Tipton had masqueraded as a man for five decades -- reportedly fooling even his wife and adopted kids. This tortuous lifestyle surely caused considerable personal anxiety, just as its public revelation sparked international headlines, academic gender-identity debates, and finally a sympathetic salute in the 1990s from an all-woman Seattle group: the Billy Tipton Memorial Saxophone Quartet.
But even eras earlier than the heydays of Johnnie Ray or Billy Tipton saw some LGBT artists who lived openly without noticeable torment. One prime example: the composer John Cage (1912-1992). He arrived in Seattle (along with his wife Xenia) in 1938 to accept a teaching position at the Cornish School. By 1939 the radically experimental music pioneer was collaborating in local performances with various leading local artists -- including Centralia-born modern-dance genius Merce Cunningham (1919-2009). In time, Cage's marriage dissolved and he and Cunningham proudly commenced a half-century-long romantic partnership and an artistic collaboration whose pioneering mixed-media performances, like many of Cage's other radical innovations, profoundly influenced subsequent artists in many genres.
Out in the Country
It was during the 1970s that the Gay Liberation movement took significant leaps forward locally. In 1972 a Seattle performer named Larry Fox recorded his "Crazy" single for a local label -- and also bravely revealed to his booking agents at Far-West Entertainment that he was gay. In 1973 Seattle got its first gay-oriented discotheque, with the creation of Shelley's Leg (75 S Main Street) in Pioneer Square, and in 1974 the Seattle Pride organization emerged.
Also in 1973, Gay Community Social Services of Seattle released an LP of gay-oriented country songs by a local band, Lavender Country. Ignored at the time, that Lavender Country album -- with its anthems like "Come out Singing" and "Back in the Closet Again" -- was reissued in 2014 by a North Carolina-based label, a move that surprised bandleader Patrick Haggerty, who reflected, "The culture has really shifted. ... It's a statement about how far we've come" ("40 Years Later ..."). In the mid-1970s a Seattle-based country-rock band, Rose and the Dirtboys, was fronted by lesbian singer Annie Rose De Armas -- who went on to lead a popular 1980s soul-revival band, Annie Rose & the Thrillers. Then at the turn of the century came Seattle's hillbilly jump band, Jo Miller & Her Burly Roughnecks.
And, as the 1960s rolled into the '70s and musical styles progressed into disco, glitter/glam rock, and then into the punk and New Wave eras, many musicians began feeling freer to just be themselves. Among the first, and most legendary, Seattle bands to risk flaunting their homosexuality were certain members of the Ze Whiz Kids -- a comedic theatrical drag troupe/rock group that, from 1969 into 1972, faced skeptical booking agents but nevertheless rose through the ranks of bands and scored gigs opening concerts for the likes of Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls.
Various members of Ze Whiz Kids went on to form subsequent punk bands, most prominently Tomata Du Plenty (David Harrigan, 1948-2000), co-founder of Seattle's Tupperwares, an ensemble that regrouped in Los Angeles and gained some fame as the Screamers. Perhaps the most liberated gay singer around was Charles "Upchuck" Gerra (d. 1990), frontman for the Seattle band Clone, which cut one single, "Jacuzzi Fluzzi." Upchuck went on to lead the Fags, a Seattle band that moved to New York in 1984 and was embraced by everyone there from Andy Warhol to the Ramones and even Madonna, who chose them to appear in her danceclub scene in the hit 1985 movie Desperately Seeking Susan.
Following in their wake came more Northwest-based musicians -- or punk/new wave/grunge/post-grunge/queercore/homocore/riot grrl and hip-hop bands -- with one or more out LGBT members. Those bands and performers included Student Nurse, TKO, the Neoboys, Randy & the Randies, the Debbies, Solger, the Shivers, Mondo Bando, Visible Targets, Concordia disCors, the Features, Mondo Vita, the Fartz, Variant Cause, the Attachments (whose bassist Chris Freeman split for San Francisco where he helped found the Panzy Division, pioneers in the queercore movement), the Neumatics, the Life, 5 Sides Collide, 10 Minute Warning, Girl with 100 Heads, 66 Saints, Common Language, Ondine, Barbie's Dream Car, Heatmiser, Sleater-Kinney, Team Gina, Vicci Martinez, Gossip, the Need, Team Dresch, Sera Cahoone, the Lovers, Noddy, Parini, THEESatisfaction, Magic Mouth, Crydaddy, Telepathic Dream Army, the Mukilteo Fairies, and Gaytheist.
Additional measures of general progress being made on the cultural front are two more-recent examples of local musicians whose sexuality and/or gender politics have not been a detriment to their careers and artistic successes. First there is Ravensdale's folk-rock singing star Brandi Carlile (b. 1981), whose recordings have met with substantial commercial success. Carlile was included as one of Rolling Stone's "10 Artists to Watch in 2005 and her Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony album from 2011 reached the No. 14 slot on Billboard's Top Rock Albums chart.
Lastly, there is the success and impact that Seattle hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis enjoyed in 2012 with their "Same Love" single. Aware of the issues facing LGBT communities, as well as the fact that hip-hop culture historically had not been sympathetic to those communities, Macklemore -- Ben Haggerty (b. 1983) -- said in an interview: "Misogyny and homophobia are the two acceptable means of oppression in hip hop culture. It's 2012. There needs to be some accountability" ("Macklemore's Gay Anthem"). Toward that end, Macklemore, Ryan Lewis (b. 1988), and lesbian singer/songwriter Mary Lambert (b. 1989) of Everett co-wrote "Same Love." The song featured Macklemore's rap, which included the lines, "If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me. Have you read the YouTube comments lately?" It also included a memorably sweet melodic vocal line -- "My love: she keeps me warm" -- sung by Lambert.
The whirlwind timing behind, and socio-cultural impact of, "Same Love" was almost like magic. Recorded in February and released as a single in July 2012, the song was quickly adopted by the campaign for Washington's Referendum 74 -- an effort to legalize same-sex marriage. It raced up to No. 11 hit status on Billboard's charts; and then in November, Referendum 74 passed. Later, in the summer of 2013, Lambert scored again by sampling her line from "Same Love" and creating a new song, "She Keeps Me Warm," that became a Top-40 hit. And finally, on January 26, 2014, Lambert and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performed "Same Love" at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards, where the tune was also honored with a Song of the Year nomination.