The Erased LGBTQ Roots of Disco

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Music, Time, and Place II: American Popular Music

May 10th, 2019

When people today hear the word “disco,” it conjures up images of outlandish outfits complete with an excess of polyester and platform shoes, wild drug abuse, flashing lights, and John Travolta twirling around in his Saturday Night Fever regalia. Though this word association is not necessarily inauthentic, it belies the underground queer history and aftermath of disco as a genre and a cultural phenomenon. From disco’s beginnings in the early 1970s at David Mancuso’s gay house parties in the New York apartment he called The Loft, to the commercialized phenomenon of The Village People, disco has always been primarily by and for the LGBTQ community, especially the LGBTQ community of color.

On the dance floor, queer and heterosexual people alike had agency to explore their bodies, their presentation, and their sexuality through the medium of music while they moved to the throbbing, repetitive rhythm and the sultry voice of Donna Summer. Clubs like Studio 54 and The Paradise Garage hosted drag queens, gay DJs, gender-bending singers, and same-sex couples all beneath the same roof in a time where the LGBTQ community had just thrown the first bricks at Stonewall. Disco asserted, “we’re here, we’re queer, and we’re allowed to enjoy our lives.” As Arwa Haider writes, “Disco enabled female, gay, black and Latin artists to define their identities in increasingly fluid ways.”[1] While disco was highly commercialized and catered to the heterosexual, indulgent aesthetic of Saturday Night Fever by the late 1970s, it was made by and for the LGBTQ community. Heterosexual rock fans attempted to destroy it not because of commercialization but because of homophobia and racism. The first disco clubs emerged as a space for same-sex couples to dance freely, many disco artists were queer, women, and people of color as opposed to the rock artists of the 1970s. Finally, the “death” of disco, Disco Demolition Night in Comiskey Park, Chicago, was explicitly racist and homophobic.

Disco bloomed out of the social movements of the 1960s. While rock music provided the underscore of events like the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution, the LGBTQ community was still being actively persecuted in comparative silence. As Gillian Frank states in “Discophobia,” “The rise of disco music directly related to the transformations that took place in rock music and the more general cultural upheavals of the 1960s and set the stage for conflicts over gender and sexuality in the late 1970s.”[2] After the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York City, the LGBTQ community was actively seeking safe spaces to congregate, express themselves, meet friends and partners, and organize. Gay clubs themselves were often “controlled by organized crime”[3] so “gay men often congregated at private parties, where records were often the main source of musical entertainment”[4]. One of these private parties was curated by David Manusco in his New York City apartment called The Loft, known by many “as ground zero for the start of disco, gay or otherwise.”[5] The Loft was not exclusively for gay people or for people of color, but it was a private party without judgement, causing many gay men, lesbians, drag queens, and women to flock to the party to listen to upbeat music and dance. Manusco strove to create a heterogeneous space where people of all walks of life could congregate. The Loft was a club that hadn’t existed before and wouldn’t have been facilitated without the development of disco in conjunction with the space.

Prior to the 1970s, though dance was slowly evolving past the confines of partner dancing, 1960s dances like the Twist still mandated by social practice that “participants could only take to the floor if accompanied by a partner of the opposite sex.”[6] In fact, into the early 1970s, the heterosexist traditions of partner dancing extended into law: “New York State law continued to assert that male-male dancing was illegal, and discotheques were accordingly required to contain at least one woman for every three men.”[7] This issue led to disco to thrive in house parties like Manusco’s Loft, but also meant that lesbians and straight women flocked to early gay discotheques like The Sanctuary to fill the male-female quota and avoid the straight male attention prevalent in other nightclubs. Though the New York ban on male-male dancing was lifted in 1971, disco culture had already been incubated as a sanctuary separate from straight, white, patriarchal society. Unlike previous popular music genres in the United States and abroad, disco was focused less on live performance and more on dancing. Disco was the music for dance floor experimentation and hedonism, which allowed even heterosexual people to explore the breadth of their bodies and experience. In “This Side of Midnight,” Brock Webb details that the Paradise Garage was, “focused primarily upon the music, the experience, and the community, of dancing at the club rather than the spectacle of celebrity”[8]. This focus on community and experience, though not a characteristic of every single discotheque, was one of the main reasons disco was a home for queer people, especially queer people of color, in a time when discrimination based on race and sexuality was blatant and ubiquitous. One could find a home on the dance floor. In When Disco Ruled the World, Michael Fesco, the owner of the Flamingo club, stated that “The Flamingo…was a who’s who of the gay world,” and another interviewee stated, “People used to call The Gallery ‘church’”[9]. Disco clubs were liberated, which was exactly the kind of space that the queer community needed in conjunction with the gay liberation movement of the 70s.

The sanctuary that discotheques provided created a legacy of dance floor liberation that has extended into the modern day. As Joshua Glazer writes for Vice, “It was, seen through the hazy filter of history, as clear a view of dance music’s roots as one will ever see. A subculture that, as the first rays of gay rights began to shine out of the closet, gave birth to the dance music culture that now goes around the globe”[10]. House music and other electronic genres have given a home to the ballroom crowd, the drag scene, and countless other people in the queer community. Though dance music has shifted through aesthetics and expressions since the 70s, it is important to note that dance and electronic music as we know it, from sampling to festivals, would not exist without the influence of disco. For example., if not for Larry Levan cutting his teeth as a disco DJ around a community around other gay men of color, he would not have pioneered Chicago house music. If Chicago house hadn’t been developed, much of the pop music that we enjoy would not be what it is today. Prior to the 1970s, as mentioned above, same sex dancing was either explicitly or implicitly banned. In addition, dancing as an individual as opposed to dancing in a partnership was just coming into the cultural mainstream with 60s dances like the twist. Disco bridged the gap between the individual liberation of the 1960s and the modern clubbing era that continues to this day. The club space has been integral to not only meeting and organizing, but to having fun in a space separate from the oppression of the outside world. Without the gay community creating disco spaces, popular culture would not be the same.

Apart from the dance floor patrons, disco artists pushed the boundaries of gender and sexuality and were some of the first to be openly gay in the music business. In addition, because many disco singers were women, gay men could more easily insert themselves into the narratives that the lyrics depicted. The most obvious reason for this was the male pronoun being used as the subject in the lyrics. However, the lyrical content was less specific and allowed room for inclusion into the romantic and sexual narrative of the song. Though rock and disco are both based in the same source, black music, the eroticism, placemaking, and textures of disco distinguish it as more sexually fluid and ambiguous music, as opposed to rock, which Richard Dyer, the revered disco scholar, refers to as “indelibly phallocentric”[11] Now, though disco primarily bloomed from the gay male club scene in particular, the phallocentric contexts of disco music are far queerer, as opposed to the strict heterosexuality of most rock and roll, especially in the mid-70s. Disco is also music with a romantic auditory palette. Sweeping strings, pulsating basslines, swells and climaxes — these all place romance and intimacy on the pillar where sex stands alone in rock music. To quote Dyer again, he states, “No wonder [Diana] Ross is (was?) so important in gay male scene culture, for she both reflects what that culture takes to be an inevitable reality (that relationships don’t last) and at the same time celebrates it, validates it.”[12] This supports the notion that, because women were also so prevalent in disco, their unique voices and experiences in sex and love aligned more with the experiences of gay men than straight men, giving gay men space to express their romantic longing, sexuality, and experiences through disco. As Gillian Frank says in “Discophobia”, “When gay men danced to these songs and sang along with them, they viewed disco as their own music”[13]. The fact that disco provided a vehicle for talented musicians to play music that was less focused on pointed listening and lyrics and more focused on experience is what created the place for the increasingly fragmented movements coming out of the 1960s far away from the predominately white, heterosexual locus of rock.

One of the distinguishing features of disco as queer music is the fact that disco was the medium of openly gay stars and openly gay aesthetics, as well as for women and men who bent expectations of gender and sexuality. The first star to focus on is Sylvester, an openly gay vocalist who dressed femininely and sang primarily in a breathy falsetto. Sylvester, who died in 1988 at the age of 41 from AIDS, has been swept beneath the rug of disco history, even though his song “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” was one of the most famous songs of the era. Sylvester was out and proud but also believed that an artist’s sexuality should not have bearing on the reception of their work in general. However, despite his beliefs, “his penetration of the disco market, as an openly homosexual man with a tendency to dress in outrageous costumes of ballgowns and boas, is significant in that it epitomized disco’s mantra of celebrating personal expression and suggested that even commercial disco held elements that transgressed the gender and sexual system that had traditionally structured society”[14]. As both a talented artist and a gay man, Sylvester broke boundaries and firmly planted the aesthetic roots of the gay community while making the music legitimate as a skilled performer, a diplomatic celebrity, and a gifted vocalist who could use his voice to portray masculinity and femininity. This is important because it laid a framework for future artists, from Elton John and Freddie Mercury early on, to artists like SOPHIE and serpentwithfeet, to come out as queer. Sylvester influenced “camp” gay fashions as well and, as one can see from the recent Met Gala, continues to influence LGBTQ fashion trends to this day. Disco initiated this space to empower queer musicians, artists, and designers to find a place in mainstream society without shame.

Another important aspect of the gay aesthetic in disco music is The Village People, a culturally divisive and wildly popular disco supergroup that exemplified the extremes of “macho” and “camp” gay culture, while also playing as comedic and commercial to non-insiders. Like Sylvester, they have been pushed aside by history, but not for the same reasons. The Village People were created out of the commercial era of disco, and their songs are still played at proms and wedding receptions as the joke songs or the song that everyone drunkenly line dances to at the end of the night. However, as Diana Mankowski states, “Whether or not they were the worst mainstream disco had to offer aesthetically should not matter as much as what they meant to disco culture in terms of their representations of gender and sexuality”[15]. The Village People brought elements of gay culture into the mainstream and normalized the gay presence while also being able to cater to inside jokes and gay culture that the heterosexual world was not privy to. In fact, their hit song “YMCA” is explicitly about the homosexual cruising scene that had popped up in the NYC YMCA, where young gay men ended up congregating and meeting in relative secret. Additionally, the outfits that the members of The Village People donned distinguished the concept of the “macho clone” in gay culture, reinforcing the power of gay masculinity and celebrating the sexuality tied to the clothing, subverting the cultural stereotype that gay men are necessarily effeminate. To quote Mankowski one more time, for she put it so well, “That they could be read as everything from a gay pride group, to a cartoonish caricature of the gay male world, from the epitome of macho, to a tongue-in-cheek ridicule of America’s macho mythology — that they were a multiracial group that challenged concepts of what it meant to be a ‘man’ in America — is what made them so popular and what makes them iconic of mainstream disco.”[16] The Village People cemented gay culture’s impact on mainstream society, and, as such, has been lampooned by the mainstream partially because of their ties to macho gay culture. However, what the Village People did for gay visibility is no joke, and also allowed gay men to see themselves as attractive and acceptable to the mainstream, while also being able to enjoy inside jokes laid into the structure of the songs.

As a final aspect of the queer culture of disco performance, attention turns to female divas and the alteration of gender expectation and presentation in disco music. As stated before, gay men identified with the lyrics of female disco divas, especially black women, because they sang of romanticism, sexuality, and oppression in terms that were more attuned to their experiences. Though there were female-fronted rock bands in the 1970s, no genre was as full of women as disco, and certainly no genre celebrated female sexuality and agency like disco. Women were allowed to have long, simulated sexual escapades underscored by music. Moaning for a long span wasn’t that controversial when George Harrison or John Lennon did it, but when Donna Summers released “Love to Love You Baby,” many were up in arms about the song being indecent. It’s not difficult to see that this prejudice against female expressions of sexuality would be relatable to the gay community as a whole. Their sexuality, too, was repressed and seen as indecent, while heterosexual, white male rock stars could casually sing explicitly about rape a-a-la Rolling Stones’ “Midnight Rambler” or, like Led Zeppelin in “D’yer Maker,” moan childish lyrics about sex over a repetitive beat and be hailed as virtuosic. Divas like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor gave a voice to the gay community, especially with Gloria Gaynor’s powerhouse cover of “I Am What I Am” from La Cage aux Folles. Turning an intense Broadway ballad into a danceable club hit celebrated what it means to be gay, and the triumph of the gay community in turning decades upon decades of oppression into positive expressions of art and found family.

All good things must come to an end, and disco went down in a flurry of homophobic and racist flames, propagated by rock radio DJs, televangelists, and its own rapid descent into the destructive force of commercialization. In the summer of 1979, disco was at the top of the charts and at the peak of its popularity. In a post-Saturday Night Fever craze, disco had become increasingly elitist, fashion-oriented, and had begun to be a bit of a capitalist joke, with parodies like “Disco Duck” (a song in which Donald Duck of Disney fame quacks about sex) being put out. Disco was so popular that rock bands and other artists tried to branch into the genre, and radio stations began to shift to a disco-only format, angering many radio DJs and inciting vitriol among the spurned rock DJs. One of these spurned DJs was a man by the name of Steve Dahl. Dahl was 24 when he was fired from a Chicago radio station when it went all-disco, and even though he promptly got hired at another rock station, he took out his anger at being fired by destroying and lampooning disco records on-air during his shows. Rock fans — predominantly white, heterosexual, and male — loved Dahl’s show and tuned in to many other anti-disco broadcasts across the country. Many tend to forget that there was a large anti-disco movement among die-hard rock fans because Dahl’s anti-disco actions rose to notoriety, culminating in what is commonly referred to as “The Night Disco Died.” Disco Demolition Night took place at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 12th, 1979. Baseball spectators could get in at a reduced price if they brought in a disco record to destroy on field during halftime. People came out in droves with thousands of records, chanting the epithet, “disco sucks!” As Tim Lawrence writes in “In Defense of Disco (Again),” “The ‘disco sucks’ slogan evoked the way in which disco drew dancers into its seductive, beguiling rhythms as well as the sucking action favoured by so many of its queer participants, and while Dahl claims to have been more concerned by disco’s superficiality and artificiality than the identity of any of its dancers, these terms had, by the late 1970s, become euphemisms for ‘gay’”[17]. “Disco sucks” was not a choice of words made by mistake. It was a pointed, derogatory insult just that came just short of using a more recognizable anti-gay slur. When Disco Demolition Night was originally broadcast, the signs emblazoned with the slogan were censored for vulgarity. If the intention of Disco Demolition was not rooted in homophobia, then why not just use a slogan that doesn’t imply genital stimulation characteristic of the targeted group?

Steve Dahl vehemently denies that Disco Demolition Night was homophobic. In his interview with Red Bull Music Academy regarding Disco Demolition Night, he states, “People say that it was racist and homophobic — but it wasn’t. I had no issue with anybody with respect to that.”[18] However, as contextualized in the above paragraph, “disco sucks” was directly a homophobic euphemism used to belittle queer dancers. Vince Lawrence, an usher at Comiskey Park who later became a successful house DJ, remembers Disco Demolition Night as explicitly racist and homophobic, stating in his interview with NPR, “I was in the crowd, and that was the mentality of the person who was coming. If Steve Dahl says he wasn’t calling those people out…funny how they came.”[19] Dahl himself admitted to being intimidated by disco, stating, “There was a lot of intimidation and disenfranchisement, especially if you were a male”[20] which is a funny thing to say for someone who, time and time again, states that Disco Demolition Night was in no way homophobic, racist, or sexist. In addition, As Gillian Frank states in “Discophobia,” “For many participants the Disco Demolition was fun precisely because it was so clearly violent”[21]. The fact that the crowd at Comiskey became so violent — escalating to the point of a riot on the field, causing the cessation of the game — shows that they were certainly riled up and feeling the anti-disco sentiment.

Whether or not Disco Demolition was directly homophobic or not, the fact of the matter is that, after the incident at Comiskey Park, disco dropped to the bottom of the charts. The violence of Disco Demolition empowered violent anti-disco sentiments across the United States, and disco fans backed off after witnessing the sheer vitriol of the anti-disco movement. As Gillian Frank says, “The violent backlash against disco in 1979 transformed disco from a socially acceptable form of music and culture to one that was highly stigmatized. However, the backlash was directed not simply at a musical genre but at the identities linked to disco culture”[22]. Discotheques began to close, and disco divas fell out of popularity. Many of the dancers at discotheques — those who could actually keep a record of disco’s history — died of AIDS during the crisis of the 80s and 90s, a time in which there was little care given to homosexual people who didn’t know that they too needed protection for intercourse. However, disco did not die. Disco was reborn as house music in Chicago, with Larry Levan using his skills as a disco DJ to create a whole new kind of musical safe haven for queer people in the Paradise Garage. The aesthetics of disco have been revived multiple times, playing an integral role in the evolution of pop music and continuing to be a constant in pride parades and gay clubs. Today, disco is often reflected upon in the context of Saturday Night Fever, hedonism, drugs, and polyester. While those things were part of disco, the LGBTQ roots cannot and should not be forgotten, nor should the part that homophobia, sexism, and racism played in the destruction of disco.

While disco was commercialized, eventually catering to the heterosexual, hedonistic, Travoltian aesthetic, disco was created by and for the LGBTQ community and its annihilation spawned out of the homophobic and racist sentiments of a working class, puritanical post-1960s America. As Arwa Haider puts it, disco “gave a powerful platform to artists of color who were often female or gay–perhaps that’s why it attracted such hostility”[23]. Disco as a music lead to a bloom that would define both queer and heterosexual spaces: house, techno, hip hop, and even modern-day pop and EDM all owe their roots to disco. If it hadn’t been for gay men like Larry Levan spinning disco records, we would never have the practice of DJing become such an integral facet of music and club culture. Disco fashion that spawned from the drag scene is often credited as the precursor to today’s streetwear. Sylvester, who didn’t get the accolades he truly deserved in life, paved the way for queer musicians to come out and celebrate their identities without as much fear as before. Disco brought queer culture to the mainstream, for better and for worse, and played a colossal role in the gay liberation movement. It created a platform for female artists to shine, drag queens to perform, and dancers to explore the capabilities of their bodies. Disco was (and is) so much more than polyester leisure suits, cocaine, and elitist clubs. Disco is a celebration of survival. Disco is indulgence in the face of sorrow and strife. Disco is queer culture and queer culture is disco.

Works Cited

Academy, Red Bull Music. September 21, 2016. “The Note Episode 4 | Disco Demolition: Riot to Rebirth.” YouTube. Accessed February 25, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiDYGlSJY1E.

Dyer, Richard. 1979. “In Defense of Disco.” Out in Culture, 1979, 407–15. doi:10.1215/9780822397441–025.

Frank, Gillian. 2007. “Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash against Disco.” Journal of the History of Sexuality16, no. 2 (2007): 276–306. doi:10.1353/sex.2007.0050.

Glazer, Joshua. June 06, 2014. “Dance Pride: The Gay Origins of Dance Music.” Vice. Accessed February 25, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/aeqxwz/dance-pride-the-gay-origins-of-dance-music.

Haider, Arwa. April 10, 2018. “Culture — Why Disco Should Be Taken Seriously.” BBC News. Accessed February 25, 2019. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180403-why-disco-should-be-taken-seriously.

John, Derek. July 16, 2016. “July 12, 1979: ‘The Night Disco Died’ — Or Didn’t.” NPR. Accessed February 25, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2016/07/16/485873750/july-12-1979-the-night-disco-died-or-didnt.

Lawrence, Tim. 2011. “Disco and The Queering of The Dance Floor.” Cultural Studies25, no. 2 230–43. doi:10.1080/09502386.2011.535989.

Lawrence, Tim. 2012. “In Defence of Disco (Again).” Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World, doi:10.5040/9781501329203–0009042.

Mankowski, Diana L. 2011. Gendering the Disco Inferno: Sexual Revolution, Liberation, and Popular Culture in 1970s America. Place of Publication Not Identified: ProQuest, Umi Dissertation, PDF.

Transnoodle. February 15, 2018. “When a Loudmouthed DJ Tried to Kill Disco, the Homophobic and Racist Implications Were Impossible…” Timeline. Accessed February 25, 2019. https://timeline.com/disco-sucks-movement-racist-homophobic-2d4e63b43a0e.

VH1. 2005 “When Disco Ruled the World” YouTube. Accessed February 25, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8YgPG8Ikg2g.

Webb, Brock F. May 2013. “THIS SIDE OF MIDNIGHT: RECOVERING A QUEER POLITICS OF DISCO CLUB CULTURE.” https://etd.ohiolink.edu/!etd.send_file?accession=bgsu1363615857&disposition=inline.

[1] Arwa Haider, Why Disco Should be Taken Seriously (BBC News: 2018)

[2] Gillian Frank, Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash Against Disco (2007), 283

[3] Gillian Frank, Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash Against Disco (2007), 284

[4] Gillian Frank, Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash Against Disco (2007), 284

[5] Joshua Glazer, Dance Pride: The Gay Origins of Dance Music (2014)

[6] Tim Lawrence, Disco and the Queering of the Dance Floor (2011), 231

[7] Tim Lawrence, Disco and the Queering of the Dance Floor (2011), 232

[8] Brock F. Webb, This Side of Midnight: Recovering a Queer Politics of Disco Club Culture (2013), 36

[9] VH1, When Disco Ruled the World (2005)

[10] Joshua Glazer, Dance Pride: The Gay Origins of Dance Music (2014)

[11] Richard Dyer, In Defense of Disco (1979), 105

[12] Richard Dyer, In Defense of Disco (1979), 106

[13] Gillian Frank, Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash Against Disco (2007), 284

[14] Diana L. Mankowski, Gendering the Disco Inferno: Sexual Revolution, Liberation, and Popular Culture in 1970s America (2011), 402

[15] Diana L. Mankowski, Gendering the Disco Inferno: Sexual Revolution, Liberation, and Popular Culture in 1970s America (2011), 390

[16] Diana L. Mankowski, Gendering the Disco Inferno: Sexual Revolution, Liberation, and Popular Culture in 1970s America (2011), 421

[17] Tim Lawrence, In Defense of Disco (Again) (2012), 131

[18] Red Bull Music Academy, The Note Episode 4: Disco Demolition: Riot to Rebirth (2016)

[19] Derek John, July 12, 1979: The Night Disco Died — Or Didn’t (2016)

[20] Transnoodle, When a Loudmouthed DJ Tried to Kill Disco, the Homophobic and Racist Implications Were Impossible to Ignore (2018)

[21] Gillian Frank, Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash Against Disco (2007), 300

[22] Gillian Frank, Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash Against Disco (2007), 278

[23] Arwa Haider, Why Disco Should be Taken Seriously (BBC News: 2018)

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