Disco Was Always for the Gays

When you hear the word disco, what do you think of?

For me, the answer to that question is mirrorballs, bright lights, glitter, bell bottom pants, afros, and bodies that never seemed to stop moving. The parade of celebrities partying at Studio 54. My mom teaching me how to do “the hustle” in our kitchen when I was a teenager. But there’s so much about genre that many of us probably don’t know.

Just in time for Pride, PBS is releasing the three-part documentary series Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution over the next three weeks. The series tracks the rise and fall of disco over the course of the 1970s. In a matter of several years, it went from an underground art form to a global phenomenon. And while many of us remember it merely as a relic of a time long time, the hearts of the people who lived it still beat in its syncopated rhythm.

I love music, and I realized that even though I knew the most popular disco songs, I knew next to nothing about disco as a genre. Everything has to start somewhere, but it feels like disco was like a comet — it came out of nowhere, burned brightly for a little while and then exploded and disappeared. That is kind of the truth, but it’s because the origins of disco came from marginalized communities: mainly, Black folks and gay men. For both of these communities, music and dancing are a fundamental part of their identity. It’s how they find community and connection. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they would be the creators and tastemakers of a cultural movement like disco.

The late 1960s are important periods of transition for both the Black community and the LGBTQ community. After spending most of the decade fighting for civil rights, we were on the precipice of a new Black renaissance. Gone were the respectability politics — Black Power and Black is beautiful were in, and Black musicians were making music to reflect that. The queer community was on a similar path. In 1969, the Stonewall Riots were a turning point in the destruction of the closet we had been forced into, and we weren’t going back in. By the early 1970s, these paths converged in underground dance clubs, also known as discotheques. But that was a mouthful to say, so these spots were then called discos. At discos, people were free to be whoever they wanted to be — all that mattered was their ability to follow the beat.

Disco at its heart was and still is about community. In those clubs, there was an intermingling of people and cultures that didn’t always happen on the other side of its doors. When it was still dangerous to be Black or Latinx or queer, those dance floors provided a safe space. No one had an agenda, they just wanted to have a good time and dance. Dance floors were one of the spaces where community organizing happened. The Gay Activist Alliance had dance parties in their office, an old firehouse, to fund the activist work they were doing, like zaps of Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. Dancing, and venues where you could dance, offered freedom and hope to the queer community, which they used to fuel the fight for equality.

There are so many details I can give from this series. It was incredibly informative and did a really great job exploring the intersections of the cultures that contributed to disco. What’s more, they really made an effort to talk to the people who were integral to disco, from DJs like Nicky Siano to artists like Gloria Gaynor and Candi Staton. But they also made a point to talk to queer activists like Allen Roskoff and music critics and writers as well. As a whole, I would have liked to see more Black queers, but it didn’t ruin the experience for me. Black queer people were integral to the popularity of disco, as Black queers are often the trendsetters for things like clothing, speech, and music and dance. It would have been interesting to see how disco influenced the underground ball culture of the 1980s and 90s, but honestly, that could be its own documentary.

One thing Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution did that I especially appreciated was giving credit to the Black women who made disco what it was. Much of the show’s second episode focuses on the Black women who defined the genre. So many genres of music were male dominated back in the 70s, but disco was led by Black divas. Women like Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, Thelma Houston, and Anita Ward wailed, bringing their church choir backgrounds to the dance floor. As one white male former critic explained, “Gay men were ostracized from the church. Black women became our preachers.”

Along with the aforementioned women, the show did dedicate time talking about disco icon Sylvester. He was one of the few men who have a space in the disco parthenon, but he was also called a “disco diva.” Sylvester was a Black, androgynous out gay man, and likely one of the earliest out gay singers. Because he sang disco, he could be visibly gay in a way that many of his listeners envied. Disco was a safe space for gay men and queer artists — they were able to put it front and center on album covers. Unlike The Village People, Sylvester’s queerness wasn’t a costume or a trope, and that’s what made him so lovable. The outsider had become the insider.

But as we all know, when marginalized people become too mainstream, it’s only a matter of time before the straight white majority comes in to shut it all down. By the early 80s, disco was queen, and the white cishet men who were not part of the community were resentful as hell. They believed that rock music was the only acceptable thing, and so they began to form the “Disco Sucks” movement to create backlash. It’s a tale as old as time. On July 12, 1979 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, approximately 50,000 people, mostly white men, gathered to demolish disco records in an effort to declare disco “dead.”

While many involved would deny that racism or homophobia played a part in their decision to initiate backlash against disco, what else could it be? It’s clear that the white men who loved rock music were threatened by the Black and queer artists who were dominating the Billboard charts.

I could go on and on about all of the things I learned watching Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution, but I do want to highlight some fun facts I learned.

  • “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor was a B-side, which means it was not intended to be the huge hit it became.
  • In 1971, New York City legalized same-sex couples dancing together, and a group of gay men and lesbians went to the famed Rainbow Room to see if the law would be upheld. An article about the incident was published by the New York Post with the headline “Gays Win A Waltz.”
  • One major component to the Stonewall Riots was a desire by its patrons to be able to dance freely. It was one of the only gay bars at the time to have a jukebox.
  • Disco was a precursor for house music, which was started in Chicago at famed night spot The Warehouse

If you’re curious about disco, or you just want to have a good time, I made you a playlist!


Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution premieres this Tuesday on PBS. It can now be streamed in full on PBS.com

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Sa'iyda Shabazz

Sa'iyda is a writer and mom who lives in LA with her partner, son and 3 adorable, albeit very extra animals. She has yet to meet a chocolate chip cookie she doesn't like, spends her free time (lol) reading as many queer romances as she can, and has spent the better part of her life obsessed with late 90s pop culture.

Sa'iyda has written 128 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. I’ve had falling out arguments with people over disco. When I’ve pushed back against “disco is cheesy”, they have no answer as to what makes it cheesy.

    The irony of course is that while these straight white men were going off about disco being gay (read also: black celebrating, women celebrating), their rock “stars” were make up wearing, hip bone showing, hairsprayed to oblivion men whose whole stage gimmick was being “sexy”. The antagonism of their projection completely demonstrated why their opinion wasn’t and still isn’t worth a damn. As a music historian, there’s also something to be said of black dominance in music (rnb, soul, funk; the parents of disco) and musical movements that those straight white men were sick of and disco was very much the straw that broke the camel’s back. Because disco not only centered black excellence (again the culmination of successive music movements that were music changing), but championed black women and queerness too?! How dare. It’s also why /true/ Chicago House was kept in the underground afterwards — having another black gay man (Frankie Knuckles) pioneer a whole genre was too much. Sampling brought it mainstream, as did House finding a home in Europe, but of true Chicago House it was not embraced by mainstream contemporaries. It had to be watered down.

    Unfortunately it also meant that we are yet to have any resurgence of an era’s defining music genre that spanned all groups of society that is “femme” coded. Pop music of the 90s doesn’t count because it definitely is not respected within the mainstream as genre busting music.

    Disco is such a huge passion for me because it was such a beautiful, eclectic space. Then as usual, people outside of the community became threatened for no reason other than their norms being challenged, and destroyed its ability to grow forever. It’s the perfect example of how those outside a community will do anything to destroy something beautiful a community makes over nothing but ignorance and bigotry. Disco is an important subject to study because of the intersection of so many marginalised groups coming together to make something incredible, and how those who are against those groups being happy will stop at nothing to put them in their place. Something as innocent as a type of music made to make you dance and rejoice isn’t off limits, for no reason other than to oppress.

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