Today is the release of Madonna’s 13th studio album, Rebel Heart.
It’s also the 33rd year she has been pushing out records, making political and social statements, and generally “causing a commotion” as one of her early tracks so aptly described it.
Part of that commotion was to challenge notions of sexuality and gender, and to battle social oppression. As her music evolved, so did her message, but I think you’ll see that in the 26 examples to follow, she has always been there for the LGBT community, more than any other artist of her caliber.
Said Madonna in an early interview for her 1992 documentary Truth or Dare (which is clipped in the video above):
“What I think to be a big problem in the United States and that’s homophobia – there’s a big section in [Truth or Dare] devoted to that….These things exist in life. I’m only presenting life to people. I’m not presenting anything that probably they’re not exposed to in everyday life but maybe they don’t want to deal with it. You know, if you keep putting something in somebody’s face eventually maybe they can come to terms with it.”
At the start of her professional career ten years earlier, the world was facing a new plague, and the devastation it would wreak in the years ahead was unfathomable. Madonna was deeply affected by it.
When I first came up, the whole AIDS epidemic was starting, and the gay community that I experienced from the beginning of my career was mostly — and overwhelmingly — concerned with staying alive. And, also, I felt really aware of the preciousness of life and time. The gay community and people who were HIV-positive were treated so badly, and I was very disturbed by things. But I also saw a lot of love and connection in the gay community at that time.
Like all progress that is made in all marginalized communities or groups, I think after time goes by and you earn certain rights or you break through certain barriers, you could sometimes, maybe, take it for granted what you have now that you didn’t have before. And then that would lead to a certain lack of community, in a way, caring in a way, that I saw before.
Madonna saw several of her mentors and friends (like Martin Burgoyne, pictured) fall to the disease and used her concerts and interviews as forums to combat the stigmatization and myths surrounding HIV and AIDS. So she spoke up. Many, many times.
Other times she fought homophobia by creating visibility for gay people in ways only she could — through performance and video, much of it driven by her understanding that to shock people was a way to generate headlines. Call it selfish, but it still had the end result of putting images in the media that were not there before — images of gay sexuality and power.
She has spoken about how her interest in combating oppression grew over the course of her career:
“I’m aware of sexism, I’m aware of racism, I’m aware of homophobia. I’m aware of all these things.When I started out I didn’t go ‘okay these are all these things, these subjects that I want to tackle, that I want to make a change about.’ But that’s sort of the way my life’s gone and it’s a responsibility that fell in my lap that I actually welcome.”
She also spoke about outing and the power of people coming out of the closet (see clip above):
“It’s an explosive issue. On the one hand I can see their point of view, the people that want to out people, in saying ‘If you people in powerful positions would come out and say that they’re gay then the masses or the people that don’t understand or the people who have prejudices against homosexuals would get rid of their stereotypes that gay people are perverts or whatever….On the other hand, the other side of the argument is I’ll come out when I’m ready to come out…People do have the right to say what they want to say. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more outspoken people on gay rights that are in powerful positions. And it’s unfortunate that saying somebody’s gay is such a frightening thing in the world today, that it’s such a frightening concept.”
Speaking up for gay rights is not just using the power of the microphone but showing and telling.
Madonna has done much of it over the course of her long and storied career.
Check out the moments that make her a gay rights icon,
AFTER THE JUMP…
When she became one of the most prominent public figures to speak out about the AIDS crisis and combat many of the early myths about the disease – including that it could be transmitted through casual contact – after her close friend Martin Burgoyne contracted HIV. It was the first time she spoke up about the AIDS crisis but not the last.
Madonna supported Burgoyne emotionally and financially and was with him the day he died in 1986.
There’s an original hand-drawn portrait of Burgoyne by Andy Warhol. There’s an original invitation to a fundraiser for Burgoyne by Keith Haring — a party written about in the New York Times in September 1986 as AIDS was devastating a generation of mostly young gay men, including Burgoyne. The story is heartbreakingly sad, not only because of its foreshadowing of Burgoyne’s death, but of prevalent attitudes in that era toward those with HIV and AIDS.
Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell noted in the story that “people could be in the same room with someone infected with the AIDS virus without contracting it.” Madonna was at that party, the Times noted.
“In This Life”, from Erotica, was written about Burgoyne.
When she attributed her initial impulse to pursue stardom to her gay ballet teacher, Christopher Flynn. “In This Life” was reportedly also about his death.
…the character that Richard E. Grant plays in the film I directed, Filth and Wisdom , is this blind professor who was based on my ballet teacher, Christopher Flynn. Growing up in Michigan, I didn’t really know what a gay man was. He was the first man-the first human being-who made me feel good about myself and special. He was the first person who told me that I was beautiful or that I had something to offer the world, and he encouraged me to believe in my dreams, to go to New York. He was such an important person in my life. He died of AIDS, but he went blind toward the end of his life. He was such a lover of art, classical music, literature, opera. You know, I grew up in the Midwest, and it was really because of him that I was exposed to so many of those things. He brought me to my first gay club-it was this club in Detroit.
I always felt like I was a freak when I was growing up and that there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t fit in anywhere. But when he took me to that club, he brought me to a place where I finally felt at home. So that character in Filth and Wisdom was dedicated to him and inspired by him.
I don’t know why I’m bringing all this up, but I guess it’s just coming from that world in Michigan and the trajectory of my life: after going to New York and being a dancer when the whole AIDS epidemic started and nobody knew what it was. And then suddenly, all these beautiful men around me, people who I loved so dearly, were dying-just one after the next. It was just such a crazy time. And watching the world freak out-the gay community was so ostracized. But it was also when I was beginning my career.
Basically, she said that without this gay man, there would be no Madonna!
When she donated all the proceeds from her July 13, 1987 concert at Madison Square Garden to amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research and handed out educational pamphlets in the former of comic books to concertgoers telling them how to help protect themselves against HIV and again, combating the many ugly myths surrounding AIDS.
Here are a couple pages from the comic book (click to enlarge):
When she spoke out against critics of the bisexual orgy shown off in her 1990 video for “Justify My Love”, directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. The clip was released as a video single and became the best-selling video of all time, going Platinum four times.
Said Madonna at the time: “Why are we willing to deal with the reality of violence and sexism and why aren’t we willing to deal with sexuality? If we’re going to have censorship, let’s not be hypocrites about this. Why is it OK for 10-year-olds to see someone’s body being ripped to shreds? . . . Why do parents not have a problem with that?”
When her 1991 documentary Truth or Dare showed off the lives of the gay dancers in her Blonde Ambition Tour and the devastation AIDS had wrought on the gay community at the time.
Writes P.H. Davies summarizes it nicely:
Truth or Dare also opened up a world of gay men and gay subculture to a twelve year old who knew he was gay but had absolutely no outlet for it. I grew up in a very small town and to me, Truth or Dare was a revelation. The film is as much about the dancers on her tour as it is about Madonna, a troupe of gay men who are glamorous, good looking, bitchy, sexually confident, and intimidating. They parade on stage half naked, they perform phenomenal dance moves to Vogue, two of them French kiss during a dare (the first proper man-on-man kiss I had ever seen and still truly sexy), they attend Gay Pride in New York City with transvestites and semi-naked disco boys, they introduce their mothers to Madonna, and they attempt to convert the only straight dancer, Oliver, who has a hard time with all the ‘fag stuff’. But the spectre of AIDS is also a shadow over the film; at the Gay Pride there is a moment of silence for all those who have died of AIDS which is broken by a mexican wave of applauding, Madonna tearfully pays tribute to her artist friend Keith Haring who had died that year, and tragically one of the dancers featured in the film, Gabriel Trupin (pictured above), died of AIDS in 1995 aged just 26.
When she dared the world to see her in every conceivable position in the SEX book in October 1992.
There are dozens of photographs too work-unfriendly to show you here but viewable with a quick Google search of Madonna (or her 1930s inspired alter-ego Mistress Dita) in sexual positions with Isabella Rossellini, Naomi Campbell, Tatiana von Furstenberg, and nightclub owner Ingrid Casares. The book sold more than 150,000 copies on the first day of its release.
A popular cultural artifact of such explicitness, same-sex or otherwise, had never before been produced by a star of her magnitude and celebrated sexual liberation in all its forms.
When she told Swedish TV that homosexuals should “absolutely” be able to adopt children.
When she kissed Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera at the VMAs in August 2003, igniting the most talked-about VMA moment of all time.
Audiences missed most of her kiss with Christina Aguilera because cameras cut away to Justin Timberlake, who Britney was dating at the time, for a reaction shot.
When she continued her AIDS advocacy in 2003 with a message condemning the stigmatization of and discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS.
When she scolded mega-producer David Foster about his intolerance. In Foster’s 2008 autobiography, The Hitman, Foster writes that when he expressed disgust at the sight of two men kissing in the presence of Madonna, she snapped back:
“Two men kissing should be looked at as normal! You represent everything I’m trying to change.”
When she featured an interpretation of “Forbidden Love” that ended with a steamy embrace in her Confessions Tour.
She later modified the dance to make a statement about Mideast conflict, painting her dancers’ bodies with the Islamic star and crescent and Star of David symbols.
When she told Romanians to fight discrimination against gays and gypsies while on tour in 2009:
“I’ve never been to Romania before and I am happy to be here. But I found out that there is a lot of discrimination against gypsies in Eastern Europe and that makes me very sad, especially because we believe in acceptance, gypsies, homosexuals, people that are different. Everyone must be treated the same, don’t forget that!’
She was booed.
When she condemned the conviction of gay Malawi couple Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, who were sentenced to 14 years in prison with hard labor for “gross indecency” and “unnatural acts” for having an engagement ceremony in December 2009:
“I am shocked and saddened by the decision made today by the Malawian court, which sentenced two innocent men to prison. As a matter of principle, I believe in equal rights for all people, no matter what their gender, race, color, religion, or sexual orientation. Today, Malawi took a giant step backward. The world is filled with pain and suffering; therefore, we must support our basic human right to love and be loved. I call upon the progressive men and women of Malawi—and around the world—to challenge this decision in the name of human dignity and equal rights for all.”
A photo of the couple being harassed by a mob in Malawi as they were taken to jail for sodomy:
When she spoke out against anti-gay bullying to Ellen DeGeneres.
“We talk a lot about the importance of not judging people who are different. Not judging people who don’t fit into our expected view of what’s cool and what isn’t. The concept that we are torturing teenagers because they are gay. It’s kind of like I said earlier. It’s unfathomable. It’s like lynching black people or Hitler exterminating Jews. Sorry if I’m going on a rampage right now but this is America. The land of the free and the home of the brave.”
When her “Girl Gone Wild” video offered a sexy take on gay male affection and confronted gender norms by featured Ukrainian-based synthpop band Kazaky dancing in stilettos.
When she told Parisians to fight for freedom for everybody:
“Remember the person standing next to you and remember that fighting for freedom just for yourself is a waste of time. Fight for freedom for everyone, okay? And that means that we treat everybody with human dignity. We treat everybody equally, right? So the next time that someone tries to put you down for your sexual preference, your religious beliefs, for the color of your skin, for whatever you believe in, you just say to them %$#@!”
When she told Facebook about her priorities when she is one day elected President:
“Gay marriage would be legal everywhere and accepted.”
When she wore her support on Instagram for HRC’s “Love Conquers Hate” campaign in support of LGBT people in Russia.
When she released her ‘SecretProjectRevolution’ film with Steven Klein intended “to help fight oppression, intolerance and complacency.”
“…all forms of discrimination drive me crazy. If you’ve seen my film secretprojectrevolution, it’ll help you understand. It’s really important. But when I was on tour, all these things were happening, with Pussy Riot, Malala being shot at, you know, gays being arrested for being gay in Russia. There were so many crazy things happening in the world at the time, like, the growing fascist movement that I perceived, that I witnessed while I was in Europe. All of these crazy things were happening, and it really freaked me out…there’s a lot of causes that get me going and that make me think, you know, ‘Let’s go. I’m ready to fight for all these people, for all people who are discriminated against for their religion that they choose, their sexual preference.’ All of these things. I really can’t take it. I feel personally wounded by it, and I feel like it’s my job as a human being, as an artist, as a mother, as a woman, to fight for all these people.”
When she dressed as a Scout to present Anderson Cooper with a GLAAD Award, making a visual statement against the Boy Scouts of America for their policies against gay scouts and scoutmasters, and delivering remarks admonishing the places in the world where homophobia still exists.
When she told her fans at a concert in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul to vote “no” on the anti-gay marriage amendment that would be on the ballot the following Tuesday.
Said Madonna: “Vote ‘no’ on the marriage amendment. Vote ‘no’ on the marriage amendment. Why? Why? Because we are a democracy and we should have the freedom to choose who we want to marry. Thank you very much. Did you hear what I said? Are you gonna vote no? Are you gonna vote no? Are you gonna vote no?”
Repeat – She. Helped. Ellen. Come. Out. As. Gay.
When she distributed pink wristbands to concertgoers in solidarity with oppressed LGBT Russians.
When she spoke out at a St. Petersburg, Russia concert in 2012, urging fans to “show your love and appreciation to the gay community” in the face of newly-enacted laws banning LGBT “propaganda”.
Months before, she had announced “I will come to St. Petersburg to speak up for the gay community and to give strength and inspiration to anyone who is or feels oppressed. I’m a freedom fighter. I don’t run away from adversity. I will speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity.”
For her actions, she was hit with a $17,000 fine and investigated by the Russian government.
2/6/14 When she introduced Pussy Riot at an Amnesty International concert in Brooklyn and prefaced her introduction with a speech about human rights abuses and anti-gay oppression in Russia and around the world.
When she helped marry 34 couples, gay and straight, with Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, and Queen Latifah at the 2014 Grammys.
What is your favorite gay Madonna moment?