Inside the sapphic pop boom: The history of the lesbian music scene

Maxine Feldman creating Angry Atthis
Maxine Feldman Photo: YouTube screenshot

From Reneé Rapp to Chappell Roan, sapphic artists are rightfully claiming their space in 2024, with influence spanning genres from indie to hyperpop. 

And while it can seem as if the “sapphic pop boom” sprang into being from our TikTok algorithms into our Spotify playlists, queer musicians have been grafting for generations – from Ma Rainey in the 1920s to Skunk Anansie headlining Glastonbury in the 1990s – to work through the institutionalized homophobia and misogyny of the music scene and make their mark.

So how did queer women become the artists everyone’s watching? Here, LGBTQ Nation charts a brief history of the lesbian music scene, from its beginnings to the out, proud, and absolutely wild sapphic pop boom of today. 

While LGBTQ+ artists have been around forever, the 1920s was when queer lyricism began to emerge in the United States. Black women pioneered the scene, with Vaudeville theatre in the late 19th century and the touring music Chitlin’ Circuit in the 1920s, providing a space in which queer women could subtly nod to their identities in their music. 

While some musicians in the era were private about their identities, other artists, including Harlem Renaissance star Gladys Bentley, Billie Holiday, and Ma Rainey, were openly queer. Lucille Bogan’s B.D. Women’s Blues, recorded in 1935, is thought to be the first recorded lesbian blues song, with the “B.D” standing for “bull dagger” or “bull dyke”, still used as slang for butch lesbians to this day. 

Following this scene, the 1940s ushered in a time of conservatism in the U.S. that meant many LGBTQ+ people had to revert to living in the shadows. After the Second World War, the “lavender scare” era was a time of “moral panic” surrounding LGBTQ+ people, with many queer government workers interrogated and losing their jobs. 

While there were several LGBTQ+ clubs during the ‘40s and ‘50s in major cities, and some queer artists, like Dusty Springfield, were making music, it wasn’t until the sexual revolution and Civil Rights movement that lesbian music began to take off.

After lesbian singer-songwriter Lesley Gore released You Don’t Own Me in 1963, a new movement of music arose. From the late 1960s and early ‘70s, “women’s music” formed, defined as “by women, for women, and about women.”

The beginnings of lesbian music were seen during this movement, with Maxine Feldman creating Angry Atthis, one of the first overtly lesbian records, in 1972. The band Lavender Jane released the album Lavender Jane Loves Women, purported to be the first full-length album for and by lesbians, while other lesbian musicians, like Cris Williamson, Meg Christian, and Holly Near, were starting to gain prominence. 

Central to women’s music was Olivia Records, formed in 1973 as a label specifically for lesbians, with the founders described as “radical feminist lesbians looking to change the world”. 

“We knew music could cut through homophobia and bring strength,” co-founder Judy Dlugacz told The Guardian in 2020. 

But despite Olivia Records being a pioneering record company, and the women’s music movement critical to the emergence of lesbian artists, the scene was criticized for its transphobia, with Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which ran from 1976 to 2015, explicitly banning trans women from 1991.

Lesbian folk duo Indigo Girls explained in an interview with The Advocate that while some of their biggest musical influences had come from women’s music, they would no longer perform at the festival due to its anti-trans policy.

“That community [trans women] is so important to me,” band member Amy Ray said. “I think it hurt people’s feelings when we were like ‘We can’t play this festival if you can’t let trans women in’.”

As the “women’s music” movement began to die out, partly due to the community dividing over issues like transphobia, and partly due to new genres emerging, a different scene began to explode: punk rock.  

“Some of this was just a larger genre evolution, or revolution: a new generation rejecting their parents’ music and making their own,” Evelyn McDonnell, journalism professor at Loyola Marymount University and author of Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways, told LGBTQ Nation.

“Punk was foundationally queer music. The etymology of ‘punk’ comes from queer and whore — sexual deviancy and outlawry. It was incubated in queer spaces such as Warhol’s Factory and Club Louise in London. Its anger, defiance of traditional beauty standards and gender roles, and rejection of skills-based performance in favor of original expression made it a natural outlet for women and queers from its very beginning.”

Punk rock, with queer bands The Runaways, Au Pairs, and Wayne County & The Electric Chairs, began a wave of more hardcore, politically-focused music. As the third-wave feminist DIY aesthetic became popular, this continued to spread into LGBTQ-centric genres queercore (or homocore), and Riot Grrrl.

Artist GB Jones coined the term “queercore” in her zine, leading the movement with her post-punk band Fifth Column, which went on to inspire similar acts Team Dresch, Tribe 8, and The Butchies, as well as setting the stage for Riot Grrrl. 

Though both genres were focused on DIY shows and zines, Riot Grrrl – with well-known groups including Bikini Kill and Bratmobile – was particularly known for being female-focused, with lyrics often addressing sexuality, rape culture, and female empowerment. 

“Riot Grrrl and Homocore consolidated and named identity subgroups within punk music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in response to larger political and musical trends, from ACT UP, Queer Nation, and WAC to hardcore and straight edge,” McDonnell explained. “It was a time for tribalism in the shadow of the monoculture of popular music and politics at the time.”

Riot Grrrl faced criticism for its lack of intersectionality, however, with some bands taking part in the trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, and some Black artists viewing the movement as centering white women’s experiences. From this, Sista Grrrl Riots were created in the 1990s by Tamar-kali as a string of shows by Black musicians, providing an alternative to both the male-dominated punk scene and white-dominated Riot Grrrl.

Moving into the 2000s, lesbian music simultaneously became more mainstream, while queer women increasingly faced fetishization in pop culture as the community crept into public consciousness. 

While more and more lesbian and bi artists – like k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge – were not only hitting the charts, but being open about their sexuality, they faced homophobia and misogyny as they stepped moreso into the limelight. 

k.d. lang, the first artist in the charts to come out as a lesbian in 1992, has spoken openly about the homophobia she has experienced as a well-known LGBTQ+ figure. 

This mainstreaming of queer identity was also evident in the UK, with queer artist Skin of Skunk Anansie becoming the first Black woman to headline Glastonbury in 1999. 

Despite this influx of out queer artists in the 2000s, there were also several instances of fetishization of lesbian music, with t.A.T.u famously causing outcry after kissing in the music video All The Things She Said, and Katy Perry’s nightclub staple I Kissed a Girl focusing less on queer rights, and more on pandering to queer women’s boyfriends. 

This moment, of lesbian identity catered to the heterosexual gaze, began to peter out by the 2010s, and with the internet – and LGBTQ+-inclusive websites like Tumblr – beginning to take over, queer artists like Halsey, Tegan & Sara, Janelle Monáe, and Hayley Kiyoko started to thrive.

Although queer artists still faced issues like homophobia and misogyny, they were not only finally able to create explicitly queer music, but tailor their art to queer audiences and celebrate their fans’ sexualities.  

These days, it’s hard to keep track of just how many lesbian artists are around, not only being elevated to the mainstream, but making waves across genres. Phoebe Bridgers, Megan Thee Stallion, Julien Baker, and St. Vincent are just some of the myriad queer artists in the charts now, and trans artists like Ethel Cain are thankfully no longer excluded from the scene.  

“[Young people today] are so much more accepting of people being and loving whomever they want to. They are post-gender and post-genre in their musical tastes and their politics,” McDonnell said. 

“It’s not that more LGBTQ+ are making music now than in the past. It’s just that they can be out and make their music and not be ghettoized and have to hide in the woods of Michigan.”

But while the lesbian community is without a doubt experiencing a moment in pop in 2024, with artists, LGBTQ+ festivals, and fan culture flourishing, the community itself is still facing horrific attacks, worsening transphobia, and a crushing wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. 

It’s clear that in order to keep the sapphic music scene thriving, inclusion must be at the forefront; with trans artists and queer people of colour facing the brunt of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, we must champion these artists harder than ever before.

“Buy their music, don’t just stream it. Go to shows. Buy merch. Spread the love in fanzines, TikTok, whisper networks,” McDonnell said. “Do it not just because they are LGBTQ+, but because they make great, important music that everyone should listen to.”

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