50 Lesbian and bi women who changed music as we know it.
Music is a powerful vehicle for social and political messages because of its ability to occupy space in the mainstream in subtler ways, hence the expression “background music”.
The role of influencing societal norms and values is a formidable one, so any artist that speaks about their minority identities openly has the potential to both represent their communities and impact the views and perceptions of the majority. This can be a daunting feat, which is why fans are so grateful and dedicated to their favorite artists. The following list showcases just 50 of the most important lesbian and bisexual artists.
Her singing style is reminiscent of spoken word poetry, and her lyrics Her songs are not solely designed for lesbian consumption, as many of her songs perfectly encapsulate the experience of being a woman in a patriarchal society. For instance, “Nameless, Faceless” is a haunting snapshot into rape culture and female fear. You can also detect her Aussie accent when she sings which is an added bonus.
Emily Saliers and Amy Ray created the Indigo Girls in college. Thus began their journey straight into lesbian hearts. I often wonder what it is about the Indigo Girls that makes them so irresistible to lesbians, other than their sexuality, and I’ve decided that the world will never know. While you’re pondering that, though, put on some Indigo Girls and drink from the fountain of perfection.
This folk sweetheart underwent significant growth in her career. Her earlier songs were so relatable and raw because they encapsulated all the angst and hope of youth. Optimism and wisdom become themes in her later albums. For instance, “Hard Way Home” captures the sagacity of retrospective thinking, while “Turpentine” from her second album immerses the listener in her past. Her later albums straddle the line between folk and country.
Everyone remembers the day “Girls like Girls” exploded on the inter webs (I found out on Tumblr before the exodus). The pop song normalizes lesbian relationships: “girls like girls like boys do, nothing new”. Most if not all of Hayley’s songs revolve around lesbian experiences and identity. Since she’s a lesbian, a more personal dimension is added to her songs. She also appears in many of her music videos, extending this personal bond with listeners. Pop is such a significant genre because it’s predominantly consumed by young listeners, and as a result, has the potential to shape the minds of the future.
Janelle very recently came out after years of remaining cryptic and elusive regarding her sexuality. Her recently released album ‘Dirty Computer” included the song “Pynk” and “Make Me Feel” which became lesbian anthems. The music video features “floral” imagery (if you catch my drift). She had a rumored relationship with actress Tessa Thompson, and recently has been seen with actress Lupita Nyong’o.
Tracy Chapman is versatile in the thematic nature of her lyrics. “Talking About a Revolution” is an anthem for political movements that strive towards social change while “Fast Car” remains an anthem for forbidden love and youth. In the 1990’s, Chapman was in a relationship with writer Alice Walker.
Who hasn’t cried out the lyrics to “It’s My Party” alone in their bedroom? Congratulations, you’re a Leslie Gore fan! Leslie recorded “It’s My Party” when she was only sixteen years old. She followed it up with “You Don’t Own Me”, which became a feminist anthem and is sometimes even referred to as a contributing factor in the second wave feminist movement. She came out in an interview with After Ellen in 2005 and stated that she’s been in a relationship with her partner Lois Sasson since 1982, though she’s known about her sexuality since she was 20 years old.
Julien is a singer and guitarist from Memphis. Her first solo album “Sprained Ankle” was released in 2015. She also collaborates with Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers through their supergroup “boygenius”. Add her to your folk lesbian playlist!
This British actress from “Lip Service” (the Scottish L Word) has a long history as a musician as well. She began her music training at the age of six, when she learned the piano, and later learned guitar as well. She ended her musical hiatus with a sell out UK tour where she performed original songs. Her jazz album “Fairytales” was recorded by famous producer Nigel Wright. Peace was the only openly gay cast member of Lip Service, and converted her civil partnership into a marriage in 2014.
Saara is a Finnish singer whose major break came when she was the runner-up on the X factor UK. As a result of this international notoriety, she was able to represent Finland in Eurovision 2018. Aalto initiated a relationship with a female fan after a nine year relationship with a male singer. The pair became engaged in 2016 and moved to London in 2017.
DiFranco has written songs about sex with both men and women, and discussed her sexuality as well as societal expectations in her song “In or Out.” She bravely opened up about her abortions in “Lost Woman Song”, fighting the stigma as early as 1990.
k.d. is a Canadian pop (and previously country) singer and songwriter. She cultivated a “cowboy punk” style towards the beginning of her career, and won the Grammy award for Best Female Country Vocal Performance in 1989. In 1992, she won a Grammy for Constant Craving, the song that binds all lesbians together in universal longing. k.d. came out in 1992 through an article in the Advocate. She’s also a philanthropist, supporting HIV care and research. Could this woman be any more perfect?
This legendary musician from the 1970’s performed at Woodstock. Though she primarily had long-term relationships with men, she had flings with several women. Her death at the age of 27 from a drug overdose, alongside Jimi Hendrix’s, spawned the term “27 Club.”
Perry is the lead singer of “4 Non Blondes” and is a renowned producer. She became the ninth woman to be nominated for a Grammy for best producer of non-classical music, and regularly discusses the disadvantages women face in the industry.
Tegan and Sara
Our favorite dynamic duo has a song for every mood and lesbian experience. For angst and moodiness, we’ve got “Walking With A Ghost” and “Back In Your Head” while “Stop Desire” and “Closer” for new romances. My breakup playlist is 99% Tegan and Sara.
When “She Keeps Me Warm” came out as a full-length stand-alone song rather than a part of a Macklemore song, we were overjoyed. And then came “Secrets”, which was the liberating and motivational drive we all needed in our lives.
Laura Pergolizzi is known for her androgynous and effortless style. She’s also written songs for Rihanna, the Backstreet Boys, Cher and Christina Aguilera. In 2o12, she was on the cover of Vogue for artist of the week. Her songs have appeared in episodes of Orange Is the New Black and Sense 8. She came out through the songs in her first album.
I only recently found out that Sia is bisexual. Her sexuality gave me just another reason to fangirl over her. The music video for “Elastic Heart”, featuring Shia Laboeuf, beautifully captured the complexity of relationships and emotional turmoil.
Lesbians On Ecstasy
Their album was chosen by the Advocate as album of the year in 2005, and their song “Bitchsy” was featured on Queer as Folk. Their band name is a play on “Chicks On Speed”, while ‘Bitchsy” is a play on “All Women Are Bitches” by Fifth Column.
This jazz queen and trailblazer was a black lesbian cross-dressing performer in the 1920’s (that’s a mouthful). She played a pivotal role in the Harlem Renaissance. Her subversive way of dress and presentation led to harassment, and she eventually shifted into a feminine style due to McCarthy’s homophobic policies. Gladys was said to exude a “black female masculinity” (Wilson, James. “Bulldaggers, Pansies and Chocolate Babies” p.172) as she never renounced her femaleness or attempted to pass as male, but rather expanded the definition of womanhood. Her most badass move of all was entering in a civil marriage with a white woman in 1931.
Her uniqueness lies in her performance theatrics, her flamboyance and provocative lyrics. She came up with the term “Fatherfucker” to denaturalize female based insults like “motherfucker”. She’s also discussed her many experiences with antisemitism growing up, using her platform to speak out against bigotry of all kinds.
Though many fans discovered Ruby through Orange Is the New Black, these same fans would be dying to know that Ruby also has a song, “Guilty Pleasure” released in 2012. I’d recommend looking at her tattoo photoshoot for PETA’s “I’d Rather Go Naked than Wear Fur” campaign, it leaves very little to the imagination.
Girl In Red
The voice of innocent crushes and lesbian desire, Marie Ulven from Norway is making a name for herself in the indie scene. Her song “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” made number 9 on the New York Times’ “68 Best Songs Of 2018”. Remarkably, she was discovered through her SoundCloud.
Chely is a country singer and activist. She came out in 2010, becoming one of the first major country stars to do so. She described her coming out experience in her autobiography, as well as her motivations for coming out including fighting back against harassment and hate crimes. By speaking her truth, she deconstructed expectations surrounding country music stars and exposed the harmful effects of heteronormativity, as she briefly dated Brad Paisley while closeted due to internalized homophobia. She married her partner Lauren Blitzer in 2011, and gave birth to twins in 2013. Check out the documentary about Chely’s coming out experience, “Wish Me Away”.
The lead singer of PVRIS came out to her family by leaving a note before going on tour. Like Chely Wright, she explained that her decision to come out was motivated by her concern for future generations, stating in an interview with Alt Press in 2015: “I never had someone to look up to and be like, that person is OK and they’re gay” . She’s opened up about her struggle with depression, stating that it influences her music.
Dustry Springfield was a British pop singer and record producer. She’s remembered for her iconic 60’s hairstyle and glam, as well as hits such as “Son Of A Preacher Man” and “I Only Want To Be With You”. Due to the nonexistence of any heterosexual relationships, she was often quizzed on her sexuality. In 1970, she told the Evening Standard “I know I’m perfectly as capable of being swayed by a girl as by a boy”. She had several long-term relationships with women over her lifetime, but no known relationships with men.
Melissa developed a love for music as a child, when she began taking violin lessons at the age of 5. Over the years, she also learned to play piano, bass and trumpet. Melissa got her big break when she replaced the opening performer for Morissey while on tour. This artist keeps her music and her sexual orientation intertwined, as many of her lyrics address sexuality.
Pierson is one of the founding members of the B-52’s, the new wave band from the 70’s that gave us the hit song “Roam”. Nowadays, she owns: “Kate’s Lazy Desert” with her wife Monica Coleman. Sia was one of the guests at their wedding.
Syd Tha Kyd
Syd is a singer, songwriter, producer and DJ. She’s the vocalist for the band The Internet, and an ex member of the Odd Future hip hop collective. Syd later referred to herself as the “get out of jail free card” for the collective’s use of homophobic slurs.
Singer-songwriter Janis Ian shares the name of a very popular Mean Girls character. She performed in the 60’s and 70’s, and received high acclaim. Another folk lesbian, she came out in 1993 a couple of years after meeting her partner Patricia Snyder. Fun lesbian fact of the day, Ian also writes science fiction stories.
Leisha Hailey is far from just “Alice from the L Word”. She toured the Lilith Fair as part of her first band “The Murmurs”, which disbanded when she got the callback for the L Word. Nowadays, she continues to perform as lead vocalist for”Uh Huh Her”. Her musical style varies from indie to electro-pop depending on your definition.
This bisexual Australian singer-songwriter, as well as actress, As a child, she used music as an escape from her introversion. She released her first EP in 2004, which she gained notoriety for in Australia. Her single “Star” as well as her album: “the Sound of White” both occupied first places in the Australian Recording Industry Association Charts. This sweetheart also contributes to philanthropic causes, as she performed with Nick Cave at the Wave Aid benefit concert in Sydney for the victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean, and once again 2015 for a breast cancer fundraiser. She’s openly discussed her experiences with antidepressant medications and depression at large, however her recent music explores more optimistic themes.
“the Mother of Blues” was behind the times in many ways. Her musical career was very prolific, and she even recorded with Louis Armstrong. In 1925, she was arrested for taking part in an orgy. Some of her songs referred to her sexual experiences with women, such as from the song “Prove It On Me” “I don’t like no men” (same girl, same). She also rejected the dress norms at the time, opting for “a collar and a tie”.
Does anyone remember when “Love Me Or Hate Me?” came out? I had the song stuck in my head for the entirety of my middle school existence. Years later, I looked her up and found out she was a lesbian! This Brit rapper is known for her quirky and self-aware lyrics.
This singer-songwriter is known by the lesbian community for her song: “I Kissed A Girl”, which featured in the film “I Can’t Think Straight”. She’s open about her sexuality, and is comfortable with the labels “bi” and “queer.”
Garcia is a singer, songwriter and performer. She’s been nominated for two Grammys for Best Latin Pop Album for her albums “Boleto de Entrada” in 2011 and “Kany Garcia” in 2013. She also had a near death experience while driving, which later affected her music. Following a marriage with her guitarist, she started a same sex relationship with her personal trainer.
This Canadian pop singer and singer -songwriter. She began her singing career with ukulele demos and released her EP “I Killed Sara V” in 2014. She released her album “If You Can, Solve This Jungle (which is really one of the most unique names for an album I’ve ever heard). Her single LGBT is a powerful refusal to return to the closet and to remain proud of her sexuality as a bisexual woman”: “LGBT love, don’t hate our love again”.
Like Gladys Bentley, Alberta Hunter was a lesbian jazz musician. She was known for her improvisation on stage as well as her songwriting abilities. In her later career, she performed with Louis Armstrong. After a 20 year hiatus, she resumed her singing career and was even invited to perform by the White House. Originally, she rejected the offer since they wanted her to sing on her day off, but they altered the schedule to suit her needs. Hunter was discreet about her sexuality, unlike Gladys Bentley, but travelled with Lottie Tyler, who she remained in a committed relationship with until her death in 1984. Hunter was inducted into both the Blues Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame.
You probably know her from her work on Portlandia with Fred Arisen, but did you know that Carrie Brownstein also formed the riot grrl influenced band “Sleater-Kinney”? This talented gal occupies several spheres at once, acting in films such as “Carol” in 2015 while writing comedy and doing the vocals and guitar work for Sleater-Kinney. Carrie was outed at the age of 21 when an article about her music mentioned her past fling with bandmate Corin Tucker. In an interview in 2010, she confirmed that she identifies as bisexual. Carrie has dated actress Taylor Schilling from Orange Is the New Black as well as comedian Abbi Jacobson from Broad City.
Sinéad is an Irish singer-songwriter who gained notoriety with her cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”. She’s known for her non apologetic nature and her passion for social issues including women’s rights, sexual abuse, war and child abuse. In an interview with Curve in 2000, she called herself a dyke and later clarified that she’s had relationships with both men and women.
Holly is a self taught guitar player who started the band “The Jealous Girlfriends”. She performs in her own music videos. While she’s comfortable with characterizing herself as a lesbian, she doesn’t believe in musical labels.
Anika is an artist from New Zealand. She came out as a lesbian in 2007 and entered in a civil partnership with a burlesque dancer 3 years later. Her softly melodic voice and emotive lyrics are hypnotizing.
Beth is a singer-songwriter who formed the band “Gossip” in 1999. She characterizes herself as “punk” and as such, subverts expectations of womanhood. She’s been lauded for her feminist efforts, including speaking out against body shaming. Her style is inspired by 80’s dance music.
Feloni is a rapper from Detroit. She came out through the MTV LOGO documentary show “Coming Out Stories”. “Pussi Can” is a groundbreaking ode to female power, especially in the rap world where “pussy” is usually employed as an insult.
A bisexual entertainer, actress and Resistance agent? While she sounds like the protagonist of a Sarah Waters novel, the famous Josephine Baker actually existed. The “Black Venus” became the first African-American to star in a motion picture in 1927. During World War 2, she served as an “honorable correspondent”, gathering intel from German officials at her performances. Baker is also known for her activism, as she refused to perform for segregated audiences and was even offered a position in the Civil Rights Movement in the US by Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr’s wife. Her most popular song was “J’ai Deux Amours”, “I Have Two Loves” (those two loves are France and Paris, but I know what you’re thinking). Like many of the artists on this list, she was married to men but had relationships with women throughout her life, such as singer Clara Smith and artist Frida Kahlo.
As a lesbian hip hop artist, Siya is uniquely suited to discussing sexism in the music industry. She was featured in the reality TV show: “Sisterhood of Hip Hop”. Despite facing discrimination and insistence that she would never “make it” due to her identity, she persevered and continues to remain unapologetically herself.
This singer, songwriter, bassist, and rapper has been credited with starting the: “Neo-soul” movement, a combination of soul and R&B. Meshell is bisexual. Though she previously had a relationship with feminist writer Rebecca Walker, she’s now married to Alison Riley.
This indie rock musician from SoCal has been compared to Björk and Patty Griffin. She opened for BB King in 2009 and 2010. Cantu is also admired for her charity work with the organization “Songs For Kids”. She married actress Liz Feldman in 2013.
This feminist singer-songwriter is renowned for her openness surrounding her sexuality in a more intolerant era. Her work was a contributing factor in the creation of women-owned companies in the 1970’s. As early as 1973, she founded Olivia Records to cater specifically to gay women. She formed her own label after Olivia Records was disbanded, Wolf Moon Records.
I’m going to conclude with another gay country star! Brandy Clark is both a musician and a songwriter. Her songs have been recorded by Kacey Musgraves, Reba McEntire and Sheryl Crow. Her song “Mama’s Broken Heart” was featured on Miranda Lambert’s album: “Four the Record” in 2011. Her lyrics contain a grimy realism not often explored in contemporary country music. Clark was nominated for a Grammy in the Best New Artist category in 2015.