As a music lover growing up in the ‘90s who happened to be queer, there appeared to be little intersection between my worlds – and certainly not in the pages of Smash Hits or on Radio 1, so I sought out the closest approximations: Madonna and Prince. The former for her proximity to, and allyship of, the queer community (she made it feel like being queer, in every sense of the word, was very cool) and the latter for his gorgeously ambiguous androgyny that existed effortlessly on both the masculine and feminine spectrum. But while both megastars blurred the lines of identity and sexuality, they were mostly, if not wholly, heterosexual.
It took an awful lot of undoing of my own internalised homophobia to fully appreciate the musical brilliance and individual bravery of the LGBTQ+ artists that did exist during my formative years. I fled far from k.d. lang, Sylvester, Erasure, Elton John and, one of my absolute favourites now, Bronski Beat.
Yet in 2021, should I want to listen to people singing about same-sex love, I have more than a handful of options. In fact, it is staggering how many out, loud ‘n’ proud LGBTQ+ musicians have flooded the charts since the beginning of the millennium – and over the last decade in particular. Can you imagine that prior to 2010 there was no Frank Ocean, Mykki Blanco, Kim Petras, Hayley Kiyoko, Syd, Kehlani, Arlo Parks, Romy Madley Croft, Troye Sivan, MNEK, Olly Alexander or Sam Smith? Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus were barely born. Johannesburg had yet to create queer collective FAKA, Korea’s only openly gay k-pop star, Holland, didn’t exist and down in Nashville, Karen and the Sorrows, Lil Nas X, Orville Peck, and Brooke Eden had yet to make country music so fantastically queer.
'I am pretty – ahem – proud to work with a platform for whom representation goes beyond tokenism and which seeks to create meaningful connections and conversations with traditionally underrepresented communities.'
In the UK alone there are a number of excellent emerging queer musicians including Joesef, Darkoo, Hope Tala, L Devine, and my new favourite, London’s Loraine James whose excellent album Reflection, is released on Hyperdub this month. With so much output from so many names, are we seeing this reflected on radio, both in terms of what is being played and who is playing it?
Over on Apple Music Radio [Apple Music 1, Apple Music Hits and Apple Country], I’d venture to say we are. Full disclosure: since 2019 I have hosted Proud, a queer radio show on Apple Music 1 where I interview musicians about the songs that have shaped their journeys through life. I’ve spoken with k.d. lang, Billy Porter, Janelle Monae, Ricky Martin and Ben Platt alongside Girl In Red, Serpentwithfeet, Romy, L Devine and Arlo Parks. The music we play is almost exclusively by queer musicians or allies, both established and emerging.
And I am not the only gay host in the Apple Music radio village. My peers include Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles as well as Ellie Prohan, Nicole Albino of Nina Sky and my Proud pal MNEK, who hosts his version of the show over on Apple Music Hits and Hunter Kelly who heads up Proud on Apple Country. More visibility comes courtesy of artist-fronted shows from Elton John, St Vincent and Young M.A. Apple’s Pride month content is similarly comprehensive with exclusive DJ mixes, guest-curated playlists and Pride Talks, a video iteration of my show. I am pretty – ahem – proud to work with a platform for whom representation goes beyond tokenism and which seeks to create meaningful connections and conversations with traditionally underrepresented communities.
There’s a similar story to be found via other broadcasters too. On 6 Music, Tom Robinson, The Blessed Madonna and Amy Lame all front weekly shows while Rostam and Honey Dijon recently featured on the Lose Yourself series. NTS is reassuringly inclusive; hosts on the station include drag queen and ‘confrontation popstar’ Cindy Lee, pop star Clairo and electronic guru Yaeji. After Pride with John Atherton is just one show I'd recommend listening to on NTS this month. You can also listen to Hooversounds with Hooversounds owners Naina (also of Apple Music 1) and Radio 1’s Residency host Sherelle, who has also just set up a brand new platform, BEAUTIFUL designed to cultivate new music and scenes within the Black and LGBTQ+ music community. ‘I want to use BEAUTIFUL’s influence to create something for the better. BEAUTIFUL will plan to connect many Black electronic artists from in and around Europe and also the World via the label, building our fan-base and workshops,’ said Sherelle via a press release. ‘BEAUTIFUL will also move into the ownership of space. BEAUTIFUL will be looking to own clubs globally that prioritise Black, LGBTQI+ nights and culture. We want to create more spaces for the communities to thrive and I want the security of knowing that Black & LGBTQI+ nights will continue to cultivate the amazing scenes that we already have. But will also break the glass ceiling above us. BEAUTIFUL will put music of Black origin as the focal point. BEAUTIFUL will make it easier for future generations and help protect and grow the scene into something beautiful.’
I mean, how beautiful is that?
It is of course Pride month and 6 Music is nearing the end of ‘Loud and Proud’, its month-long LGBTQ+ series of programming that has included a fascinating deep dive on , curated shows from Ezra Furman and John Grant, takeovers from Sleater-Kinney and Ru Paul's Drag Race UK finalist Bimini and much, much more. ‘We put this special series of shows and mixes together to support and shine a light on the LGBTQ+ community during Pride month. As a queer person myself I know how important it is to see and hear people like me in music and culture and we wanted to celebrate those voices,’ says Camilla Pia, Assistant Commissioner, 6 Music.
'Having more LGBTQ+ commissioners, producers, hosts and DJs across radio – as we see at stations like Apple Music 1/ Hits/ Country, 6 Music, NTS and community radio such as Margate Radio and Brighton’s BTN1 – ensures a much higher level of representation and true diversity.'
Pia and their team are mindful that it’s about sustained and long-term support of the queer community rather than chucking out a quick bit of content during June. ‘By devoting shows in daytime, evenings, overnight and over the weekends we hoped this would make a real impact,’ they continue. ‘All of the artists we reached out to were thrilled to be asked, I think because we give so many of them a platform all year round and they are core artists for us so it didn’t feel tokenistic. In many cases we have played an integral part in helping to build their careers.’ 6 Music has been mindful to reflect a diversity of voices as well as experience; it’s not always about aiming solely for the more recognised names. ‘It was important to balance those icons that the 6 Music audience already know and love with newer voices who we thought our listeners would be into, [to] champion the incredible work they have been creating, whether that’s from the worlds of fashion, dance and drag to club DJs who give the community a safe space to be themselves.’
While independent and online broadcasters are proving to be increasingly far-reaching in their coverage of queer content, are we seeing the same across mainstream radio? It’s wonderful that two drive time shows on Radio 1 are fronted by gay male hosts – Nick Grimshaw and Scott Mills – and Adele Roberts is the station’s Weekend Breakfast host. There’s also guest mixes from Jodie Harsh although, as far as I can see, there’s just one ‘Pride Month Special’, via BBC Introducing which is highlighting ‘the best from the LGBTQ+ community from the Introducing Dance world’.
Current playlists don’t fare much better, particularly when you consider we are in the middle of Pride. Of the 41 tracks across Radio 1’s A-C list the only discernibly queer artist I can see is L Devine with her latest single, Girls Like Sex. Radio 2 managed to pop Joan Armatrading on their C-list although she’s also, again, the only discernible LGBTQ+ presence among the 27 acts featured. Heart handpicks Sam Smith, Jess Glynne and Miley Cyrus for their current favourite songs (Smith features twice, on their own track Dancing With A Stranger and alongside Calvin Harris on Promises). Lil Nas X, Becky Hill, Years & Years, Yungblud and Troye Sivan (who features on You alongside Regard and Tate McRae) are playing on Capital at the moment. Once again, it’s up to 6 Music to seek out lesser-known voices: they currently have Mykki Blanco, Sleater-Kinney, Ezra Furman, John Grant, Honey Dijon, Self Esteem, Du Blonde and Rostam on regular rotation. All artists far outside the mainstream.
'More often than not, it’s the disruptors and independents that fast track conversations around sex, identity, race, religion and class. But it must not be left to them.'
It takes those with an interest in the queer community (i.e., other queer people) to shine a light on these lesser-known voices. One of my other jobs is over at Vogue where I regularly spotlight emerging queer musicians or highlight new queer songs set for release.
Having more LGBTQ+ commissioners, producers, hosts and DJs across radio – as we see at stations like Apple Music 1/ Hits/ Country, 6 Music, NTS and community radio such as Margate Radio and Brighton’s BTN1 – ensures a much higher level of representation and true diversity. And these folk too must represent the variety of voices and experiences within the queer community: non-binary, trans, POC and the differently abled.
In 2020, BBC radio Wiltshire presenter Shivani Dave used their show to come out as non-binary during a Pride special on the station. ‘The presence of non-binary representation in mainstream media like the BBC is virtually non-existent,’ they said in a statement after coming out live on the show. ‘In coming out so publicly I hope to show other non-binary people that they should be proud to embrace who they are.’
It’s indicative of contemporary culture that we are seeing huge strides in some ways and a step back in others. More often than not, it’s the disruptors and independents that fast track conversations around sex, identity, race, religion and class. But it must not be left to them.
Sherelle, it seems, has the right idea – create what doesn’t exist so that others can be what they see.