Before Lady Gaga and before Beyoncé, there was (and is) Madonna. She was the first mega-star to vocally support her LGBTQ fans, to represent non-traditional sexualities and to speak out against homophobia and the stigma surrounding HIV/Aids.
While today LGBTQ themes have gone almost mainstream, in the 80s and 90s just a suggestion of queerness represented a spark of hope for many of us coming to grips with our desires and identity. Young queers especially had no frames of reference for what it meant to be gay or lesbian.
Madonna was, and remains, one of our most visible allies and icons. As she turns 60 this month, we celebrate some of her most gay-affirming songs and videos.
Express Yourself (1989) Express Yourself urges women to affirm their self worth and to stand up for their needs and desires in relationships, but there’s no doubt that it’s equally empowering and meaningful for Madonna’s gay fans. “Express yourself, respect yourself,” she sings. The video features a squad of homoerotic shirtless hunks. Gaga went on to blatantly rip off the video (and others from Madonna’s work) for her own Alejandro clip.
Forbidden Love (1994)
This sensual R&B track from the Bedtime Stories album is ambiguous as to its references (as the best pop music always is). While it could refer to a range of ‘taboo’ or doomed relationships, many a gay listener will have related to the words, “Love without guilt, love without doubt”. Madonna goes on to sing: “I don’t, don’t care if it’s not right to have your arms around me. I want to feel what it’s like to take all of you inside of me.” Gulp!
Justify My Love (1990)
The video for Justify My Love was so scandalous when released it was banned by MTV. Madonna quipped at the time: “Why is it that people are willing to go and watch a movie about someone getting blown to bits for no reason at all, and nobody wants to see two girls kissing and two men snuggling?” She promptly released it as a VHS (look it up) video single and fans flocked to stores to buy it. Justify My Love is Madonna’s most overtly sexually ambiguous clip. As rumours about her sexuality swirled, the singer was shown passionately kissing another woman. And it wasn’t just for show: This year, the model that Madonna snogged in the video, Amanda Cazalet, put up for auction one of the handwritten love letters Madonna wrote to her, begging her to take things further.
In This Life (1992)
This emotional track was a tribute to two of her close gay friends who died of Aids; singer Martin Burgoyne and Christopher Flynn, her influential dance teacher. Referring to Flynn, Madonna sings that he “taught me to respect myself, he said that we’re all made of flesh and blood”. She goes on: “Why should he be treated differently, shouldn’t matter who you choose to love.” The song is a plea to end the homophobia that the gay community faced because of the HIV/Aids crisis in the 80s and for people to simply love and take care of each other.
Open Your Heart (1986)
Today we could see this song as being kind of stalkerish: “I’ve had to work much harder than this, for something I want, don’t try to resist me,” Madonna insists. The song was actually pretty subversive; it was unusual to have a woman be so forceful and aggressive in pursuing a lover. The video too was acknowledged for “subverting the male gaze”, and includes a brief, undeniably homoerotic shot of two sailors in uniform holding each other. In 2014, Madonna sang Open Your Heart at the Grammy Awards when Queen Latifah married 33 gay and straight couples on live television in a celebration of diverse love.
Girl Gone Wild (2012)
A much too short stomper all about ‘girls’ wanting to have fun and letting loose. Madge made it clear in the video that by girls, she also meant us, her gays. The clip features a bevy of almost nude male models grinding against each other and the star dancing with Ukrainian group Kazaky, known for their gender queer routines in high heels.
A classic, and undoubtedly Madonna’s gayest track and video, full of gay drama and sensibility. The theme, the power of finding yourself on the dancefloor, is a common one in Madonna’s work. Of course, the ‘voguing’ in the song and video reference New York’s black and Latino LGBTQ underground ball scene in which the “vogue” dance style was created. Voguing was seen as an escape and liberation from the “pain of life” through self-expression and by embodying Hollywood glamour. “It makes no difference if you’re black or white, if you’re a boy or a girl, if the music’s pumping it will give you new life, you’re a superstar, yes, that’s what you are, you know it,” Madonna sings. Damn right!