Friday, 7 July 2017

Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

There are a multitude of reasons for this week’s post. Partly it has been inspired by Pride taking place in both London and Bristol this weekend, and partly it has come out of a number of interviews I have conducted and articles I have written recently about Pride and politics ahead of the publication of my forthcoming book, David Bowie Made Me Gay (SPOILER ALERT; lots of shameless plugs and paragraphs full of self-promotion ahead: you may wish to skip ahead to the music now!)

Yes, my new book, David Bowie Made Me Gay, is coming out soon, and people seem to like it. It’s ‘an excellent book’, according to Gay Star News, and ‘a comprehensive and compelling work, in terms of its extensive discussion of music, history and, of course, a human struggle for tolerance, acceptance and respect’ according to Nudge Books. Tom Robinson, who I had the good fortune to interview for the book, calls it ‘Lovingly detailed and exhaustively researched - easily the most readable and comprehensive guide I've seen to this fascinating hidden history.’ As I’m sure you can imagine, I’m pretty stoked!

Here’s an excerpt from the official blurb: ‘From Elton John to Little Richard, Bessie Smith to Dusty Springfield and Boy George to Sia – via lesser-known and cult musicians such as trans composer Wendy Carlos, Jobriath, and Divine – David Bowie Made Me Gay is a collection of hidden histories, pulling back the curtain on the colourful legacy that formed our musical and cultural landscape. Through new interviews and contemporary reports, David Bowie Made Me Gay uncovers the real story of LGBT music-makers, revealing the lives of the people who made the records, and witnessed first-hand the cultural revolution that they helped to create.’

Anyway, back to the music. I have spent the last year or so researching and writing about LGBT musicians, and on my travels I found much to admire. Sadly I also uncovered some terrible nonsense that should never have seen the light of day. And, naturally, it’s a couple of examples of the latter that I present for you today.

Anita Bryant was a beauty pageant queen, singer, actress and the spokesperson for Florida orange juice. She was also a terrible homophobe, the kind who equates homosexuality with child abuse. A perfectly passable singer, she had a few chart hits (her version of Paper Roses went Top 5 in 1960) but as she became more politically active her singing career all but dried up: her last charting 45 was in 1964.

I first came across Bryant when I read Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City in the late 1980s; Maupin’s character Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver talks about her in his coming out letter home to his parents. At the time the novel was set, Bryant was heading the political coalition Save Our Children, a right-wing Christian-led campaign to overturn local legislation that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation. Florida had long been opposed to LGBT rights: the city’s officials had been closing down bars and enacting laws to make homosexuality and cross-dressing illegal, and until 1975 the government was legally empowered to refuse employment to anyone thought to be homosexual. Established in 1956, the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (known as the Johns Committee) hunted down LGBT people in state employment and universities and in 1964 published Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida (a.k.a. the Purple Pamphlet), a highly inflammatory document that portrayed homosexuals as predators and a threat to children.

Bryant became the bete noir of the gay community, and protests against her and against Save Our Children saw her lose a lucrative TV series. In June 1977 more than 130,000 people marched to demand equal rights for LGBT people in the United States, with marchers bearing signs attacking the former singer. Peaceful demonstrations were also held in London, where around 1,000 turned out to march, and in Amsterdam 2,000 people marched through the city carrying banners that read ‘Against the American witch-hunt on homosexuals’. In San Francisco, according to police estimates, more than 100,000 took to the streets and the gay community received heavy support from predominantly heterosexual organisations.

Naturally a number of artists recorded songs both in support of and attacking Bryant and Save Our Children: you can discover many of those at JD Doyle’s excellent Queer Music Heritage website here, but for today I’ll leave you with one of the oddest, most confused and certainly NSFW of them, renegade country singer-songwriter David Allen Coe’s Fuck Aneta Briant, which appeared on his 1978 album Nothing Sacred and was also issued as the B-side to his single Cum Stains On The Pillow. You can also have a listen to Anita’s 1962 Top 20 hit Wonderland By Night, her vocal version of the Bert Kaempfert hit. I wonder if she knew that the song was originally the theme tune to a German ‘art’ film whose story included lurid (for the time) depictions of prostitution and lesbianism?   

Published in the UK on September 7, you can per-order David Bowie Made Me Gay here (UK) and here (US). We’re holding a launch event at the British Library on September 8, with music from k anderson and Drake Jensen, and a limited number of tickets for that event are available here. I’ll be touring the country in September and October to promote the book – if you would like to keep up to date with details I have a dedicated Facebook page set up here - and if you’re in the area it would be great to see you there.


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