Being a music junky who is also a member or ally of the LGBT community can feel like being a vegan in a southern barbecue restaurant. But beggars can be choosers if what you’re begging for is a more nuanced musical critique of heteronormative culture than Lady Gaga’s.
While members of the queer community have embraced Gaga as an icon, others have criticized her for trivializing lesbian relationships, perpetuating the notion that gay rights are predicated on being “born this way,” and rejecting feminism. Gaga identifies as bisexual but considers herself more a supporter than an icon.
Here are some other queer women and gender nonconforming people whose progress in advocating for LGBT rights often goes unsung (no pun intended).
1. and 2. Tegan and Sara Quin
You can’t have a list of queer women in music without Tegan and Sara. The Canadian lesbian twin sisters have spoken out for LGBT rights both in interviews and in songs like “Proud,” in which they sing, “Freedom’s rough, so we take our stand and fight for tomorrow.”
The Australian pop singer, who has also written songs for artists including Beyonce and Britney Spears, first openly questioned her sexuality back in 2008, then later described herself as bisexual in a 2011 “It gets better” video and announced she was queer over Twitter in 2013. Sia received backlash from the LGBT community for collaborating with Eminem after his use of homophobic slurs, which she apologized for by donating proceeds from their song “Beautiful Pain” to the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center.
4. Khaela Maricich
Maricich’s indie pop band The Blow has taken several forms over the years, currently consisting of her on vocals and keyboard and her partner Melissa Dyne on synthesizer. The Blow’s lyrics openly describe lesbian relationships in songs like “Hey” and “Like Girls” but also address problematic heterosexual dynamics in songs like “Pile of Gold” and “What Tom Said About Girls.”
Maricich is also the creator of Woman Producer, a website that documents women in music production, and a writer whose work calls attention to sexism and homophobia. Oh, and she thinks some people probably need to get over Lady Gaga a little.
5. Angel Haze
Hip-hop artist Angel Haze is agender, pansexual, and outspoken about bigotry, religious extremism, and sexual violence. Haze is perhaps best known for rewriting popular rap songs to tell personal stories. Their powerful version of Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet” brought attention to rape culture, and their cover of Macklemore’s “Same Love” captures the pain of a teen whose community disapproves of their sexual orientation.
Haze has recently received media attention for dating model Ireland Baldwin, about which they acknowledged, “An interracial gay couple, I mean that’s just weird for America right now.”
6. Mary Lambert
Speaking of “Same Love,” Mary Lambert first gained acknowledgement for her vocal contribution to this track but is also a singer, songwriter, and poet in her own right. In “She Keeps Me Warm,” Lambert sings about overcoming the stigma of a lesbian relationship. She said she had “never seen a relationship like mine accurately portrayed in a music video” and aimed to change that with the “She Keeps Me Warm” video.
7. Bianca Casady
The freak-folk group CocoRosie, consisting of Casady and her sister Sierra, has been critically acclaimed as ecofeminist, inspirational, and revolutionary. Casady appears in drag in many performances, including in the video for “Rainbowarriors,” an homage to a “rainbow warrior of two spirits.”
“My sexuality is explored in my work,” the queer-identified singer told AfterEllen.
“[But it’s] more my gender than my sexual preference. It’s really not about being gay or ungay, it’s about being yourself in a patriarchal, heterocentric, heteronormative, monotheistic world. It’s always the changing question and answer, and it’s the forefront of my work.
Yet critics rarely discuss CocoRosie within the context of the queer or lesbian communities, Casady observed in the same interview. “Maybe we are still living in such a homophobic culture that people [who] like me don’t want to hear about it.”
8. Laura Jane Grace
Against Me!’s frontwoman was living as a man when she first founded the punk-rock band, but Grace began exploring transgender themes through the album Transgender Dysphoria Blues before her transition. When she first announced her decision to begin living as a woman, she told Rolling Stone, “However fierce our band was in the past, imagine me, six-foot-two, in heels, f—ing screaming into someone’s face.”
And that’s pretty much what she has been doing since. Transgender Dysphoria Blues’s eponymous track, for example, jolts listeners to awareness with candid lyrics like,
You want them to see you
Like they see every other girl.
They just see a faggot.
They’ll hold their breath not to catch the sick.
9. Ani DiFranco
This is a tough one because the singer-songwriter and guitarist was rightfully criticized for showing disrespect to people of color when she held an event on a former plantation, and some have found her brand of feminism simplistic. However, DiFranco has been challenging patriarchy and gender stereotypes since the 90s with songs like “Not a Pretty Girl” and “Little Plastic Castle.” And though she has identified as bisexual, she also detests labels – which she makes clear in the song “In or Out” when she sings, “tonight you can’t put me up on any shelf.”
10. Janelle Monae
Monae is an honorary addition to this list because she hasn’t actually identified as LGBT. When asked about her sexual orientation, she responded, “I keep my personal life very much to myself. I want everybody to focus on my music.” Around the same time, she announced on Twitter, “I am neuro-sexual. Don’t ask me again.” And that’s fine – she doesn’t owe us any information.
But regardless of how she identifies personally, I couldn’t leave her out since she has been such an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. In an interview with PrideSource, she admitted that “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a nod to drag culture and the queer community, explaining that as a black woman, she feels solidarity with all marginalized groups. Listen to the lyrics:
Hey brother can you save my soul from the devil?
Say is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?
And is it rude to wear my shades?
Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? (Maybe)
Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven?
Say will your God accept me in my black and white?
Monae also explained to PrideSource that the entire album Electric Lady, with its futuristic story arc starring an android, has a social justice theme: “You can parallel the android to someone who has been ostracized or discriminated against or marginalized, like you would of a gay man or woman.”