In recent interviews, rising pop star Mika has refused to disclose whether he is gay or straight — a topic about which there has been much speculation in the gay press — even while actively courting gay audiences. His stance has resulted in a flurry of both positive and negative reactions from gay fans and critics, renewing public interest in the choices male musicians make regarding publicly discussing their sexual orientation.
In a world where image is everything, what are the career consequences for successful musicians who either refrain from speaking about their sexuality, or who openly label themselves from the outset? Are there really still serious drawbacks that go along with being labeled a “gay” musician?
AfterElton.com surveys the experiences of gay and “gay-seeming” rock artists over the last several decades, and concludes with a look at the current generation of gay male musicians, discussing whether the times have changed, or whether the “gay musician” label is still something artists like Mika are wise to avoid.
From Styx to Stipe: a history of gay men who rock
Openly gay musician Chuck Panozzo is bassist and founding member of the multi-platinum rock band Styx and author of the new book The Grand Illusion: Love, Lies and my Life with Styx (Amacom Books). Told with disarming honesty, the book relates Panozzo’s decades-long struggle to reconcile his public “straight rock star” life with his inner, authentic gay self.
Panozzo spent many years in the closet because he was afraid his gay sexuality would offend family, friends, bandmates and fans. His sense of shame and self-denial continued even after he became HIV-positive in 1991.
Before I was ‘out’,” Panozzo tells AfterElton.com, “I had become more and more withdrawn within my professional career. Here I was, stuck in this touring band, and not really being myself. The idea of connecting eye to eye with the audience became almost impossible for me to do.”
Panozzo finally came out in 2001 at age 53. Doing so changed everything, especially his ability to relate to audiences.
“I was never so much afraid of being ‘outed’,” he says, “as I was afraid that someone would rob me of the opportunity to out myself. Coming out publicly created a 180-degree change in my life and my psyche. Now when I perform onstage, there’s a real reduction in the fear factor. My performing now is so much more exhilarating, my involvement so much more fun.”
British heavy metal god and Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford came out publicly in 1998.
"I absolutely think it would have been more difficult for me to have come out in the ’70s or ’80s," Halford told Decibel magazine in 2006. "I was aware of the fallout and damage that could have occurred because of the reaction from some fans and labels and media, but most importantly to my bandmates.” Though not an activist by his own admission, Halford is breaking ground in a hyper-masculine music culture not usually identified with gays.
Halford reunited with Judas Priest in 2005, and being out has done little to alienate his fans. Lesbian rocker Otep Shamaya relates in Decibel, “ It was pretty amazing watching thousands of screaming metalheads at Ozzfest 2004 roaring every note of every Judas Priest song without one person screaming any homophobic rhetoric at Rob Halford.”
Coming out did not go down as well for frontman/bassist Doug Pinnick of the critically acclaimed power-pop trio King’s X, which was marketed as a Christian rock band in the 1990′s. When Pinnick came out publicly in 1998, neither the band’s record label nor their Christian fan following were much amused.
Pinnick reflected on his decision in Decibel. "I just felt like a hypocrite hiding it, especially in the Christian music scene," Pinnick stated. "We never wanted to become associated with ignorance and intolerance.”
Many Christian bookstores suddenly refused to sell King’s X albums. "I’ve said many controversial things in the media, especially about my dissatisfaction with Christian media and becoming agnostic”, continued Pinnick. “They never questioned this, but when I came out, they freaked."
Pinnick has chosen not to connect directly with gay audiences. "I’m not going to walk down the street and do gay pride," he continues. "I don’t care about it. I’ve got a (pink triangle) sticker on my bass, and I do that only because most straight people don’t know what it means anyway. If there is somebody who understands it, then hey, I can meet someone who feels the way I do.”