During the early to mid-70s, gay rights advanced more quickly than it had during the prior two decades combined; in many states, sodomy laws were repealed, and in many cities in the United States, civil rights protections for gay people were adopted. In addition, for the first time lesbians and gay men who were open about their sexual orientation succeeded in being elected to public offices. During the entire era, the driving beat of disco music was the soundtrack for a new era in gay awareness (Roscoe.) As a result, the subculture that derived from the discotheques of the 1970s must be recognized as some of the greatest proponents of civil rights for the gay and lesbian community.
As a form of music, disco represented an anthem that allowed game and to celebrate the triumphant struggle against self-hatred and denial of their sexual identity. Above all, the culture of disco represented a gay fashion style that allowed the gay community to resist conforming to the stereotypes that had excluded them for decades. The disco style which included a certain flair and customs allowed game and to develop a self-image that emanated from a combination of fantasies in addition to dreams. During some of the birth of many early disco clubs in New York City, now considered almost holy by true disco connoisseurs, the music was only one part of the significant aspect of that era. Because such clubs were established after the 1969 Stonewall riots, the argument could be made that the birth of disco actually pivoted around the repeal of the New York laws that criminalized two or more men dancing together (Mattera, 2012.) In hindsight, it is clear that although many of the clubs were characterized by people dancing together while high on drugs, their actual significance remains as crucial a player as any gay liberation rally or group of protesters for gay rights. These settings were places where differences between people were not merely tolerated, but were celebrated. Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” typified the disco theme of freedom to express oneself through dance which allowed people to express and acceptance their uniqueness and value as goals of same-sex relationships.
Clearly, the emergence of disco in the 1970s had a tremendous cultural influence in the United States, and was exemplified by artists from Donna Summer to the Village People, both of them were extremely popular in the urban gay culture in New York City (Falconer, 1973.) The music itself came at the ideal time for a wide variety of people who had been on the margins, young people from the working-class, many disenfranchised groups, and as described, the gay community. The vibrant sound and energetic dance moves of disco centered on something deeply romantic, the “need to move, to dance, and the need to be who you’d like to be” (Falconer, 1973.) Although disco was ultimately a reviled form of music, when it surged out of the gay underground clubs in New York in the early 1970s, the music represented the sound of people who wanted to dance, dance, dance, and blot out everything but their bodies in the beat (Robinson, 2010.) The music reinforced the self acceptance and pride of the newly emerging gay rights movement, when musicians helped to develop the settings for new clubs that had strobe lights, were driven by freedom to express sexual gestures and couplings, and driven by people high on amyl nitrate.
Analyzing the relationship between sexuality and the 1970s disco culture is a fascinating examination of the interplay between various social forces and pop culture. The gay culture formerly had been frequently ridiculed, yet was often progressive in driving contemporary innovations in the culture, in particular in the arts. During the disco era, for example, the gay community actively utilized DJs, remixing, and used the practices of social dancing and sound systems, all of which emerged as a predominantly gay males subculture which was ultimately co-opted, commodified, and translated into the street culture by movies like “Saturday Night Fever” (Lawrence, 2011.)
In essence, disco provided an effective and social experience regarding the body that went beyond normative stereotypes of both straight and gay sexuality; this was particularly evident in downtown New York City, where disco “queerness” was arguably the most pronounced, although the scope of the culture ultimately became international as well. Prior to the advent of disco, the social dance forms that came before it, such as the Waltz, the Twist, and the Foxtrot, were to large degrees both heterosexual and patriarchal. This was demonstrated by the manner in which participants only took the dance floor if they were accompanied by an opposite sex partner in addition to the fact that in all of those dance forms, the men assumed the lead (Lawrence, 2011.)
The intersection of disco with the gay-rights subculture is a significant factor in understanding the freedom of self-expression and acceptance that accompanied this movement. When men were able to dance together openly to the beat of disco artists such as Donna Summers and Sylvester, this was a tremendous demonstration of a new willingness to openly celebrate one’s identity through a vibrant and physical dance with a same-sex partner or partners. Although disco ultimately entered the mainstream culture as well, for gay-rights advocates, it remained and remains a driving force in a movement that was finally able to openly and publicly celebrate its existence.
- Falconer, D. (1973). The rise of disco. Retrieved from Teach Rock.org: http://teachrock.org/lesson/the-rise-of-disco/
- Lawrence, T. (2011). Disco and the queering of the dance floor. Cultural Studies, 230.
- Mattera, A. (2012, February 26). How disco changed music forever. Retrieved from the Guardian.com: http://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/feb/26/disco-changed-world-for-ever
- Robinson, L. (2010, February). Boogie nights. Retrieved from Vanity Fair: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/02/oral-history-of-disco-201002
- Roscoe, W. (n.d.). Disco fever and respectability. Retrieved from Soundsf.org: http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_1970s:_Disco_Fever_and_Respectability