Rainbow Rant: The magic of queer music

An ode to the late summer outdoor concerts we might attend

Joy Ellison
The Indigo Girls: Amy Ray, left, and Emily Saliers. Courtesy Photo.

When the weather turns hot and humid, I find myself humming. Often, it’s “Closer I Am to Fine” by the Indigo Girls. Always, though, summer makes me think of music.

Should we go to outdoor concerts as summer winds down? I don’t know. Certainty is not to be found in this moment, except for in our own desires. We all want to connect with each other, to sway to the same rhythms and share heartbeats. An outdoor concert may not be what the doctor ordered, but could it be a reasonable risk? You’ll have to decide for yourself.

Outdoor concerts have long been a part of queer culture, especially for queer women. In the 1970s, when the women’s movement was in full bloom, it must have seemed like there was always music in the air. As more and more women began to prioritize themselves and each other, as feminists or even lesbian separatists, “women’s music” became a genre — and essentially a euphemism for lesbian music. What can I say? We knew what was up. 

In 1975, Cris Williamson released the first LP in U.S. history to be entirely produced by women, a folk album called The Changer and the Changed. The title of the record coincidently summed up its origins. In 1973, Williamson suggested during a radio interview that it was time for a record labeled aimed squarely at queer women. The next day, an enterprising group of lesbians founded Olivia Records. When they released Williamson’s album, it shot up the charts, becoming one of the best-selling independent records of all time. One critic called The Changer and the Changed the Thriller of the women’s music industry: a breakout record that proved women’s music had a far bigger audience than anyone had dared to imagine.

The success of Williamson and Olivia Records paved the way for independent queer artists and many a summer night of music under the stars. Outdoor music festivals became a queer summer tradition. Lilith Fair and Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival were among the most famous, but they were only two of hundreds.

The history of women’s music isn’t all rainbows. As an outgrowth of lesbian separatist movements, women’s music festivals have been the site of some of the most important battles over trans inclusion in women’s spaces. In the late 1970s, transphobic feminists targeted trans woman Sandy Stone and Olivia Records. An all-around polymath and accomplished sound engineer who previously worked for Jimi Hendrix, Stone joined the Olivia Records collective after revealing her transgender status. When notorious trans-exclusionary radical feminist Janice Raymond attacked Stone in print, Stone eventually left the collective and turned her considerable intellectual power to trans theory and technology studies. 

But the treatment of transgender women in women’s music is also a story of solidarity and change, with many women coming together to demand that festivals, including Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, recognize trans women as the sisters they are. 

It makes sense that music festivals would be the place where the boundaries of queer women’s communities are debated. Music festivals are where we come together and define who we are. Sharing music together, especially through the sing-alongs that are so common at queer concerts, creates and reinforces our collectivity. Queer music is the sound of our lives. 

One reason that music is so important to queer people is that it can speak for us when we find ourselves speechless. That’s long been the role played by my favorite queer band, the Indigo Girls. 

The Indigo Girls came into my life during high school through an unlikely source: my Dad. My Dad loved them because of their virtuosic guitar playing and tight harmonies. I loved them because their lyrics put words to feelings that I was just beginning to understand. When I learned they were gay, I thought it was the most wonderous secret in the world. Like every child who assumes that their generation invented love, I was certain that my father didn’t know the Indigo Girls were lesbians, but somewhere, deep in my heart, I knew that if my Dad loved two out and proud musicians, then certainly he would love me, too.

The music of the Indigo Girls was a bridge between my Dad and me in the years before I came out. One summer, he took me to see them — sort of. 

When Dad, the tightest of tightwads, heard that the Indigo Girls would be playing an outdoor concert downtown in Portland, Oregon, he figured we wouldn’t need tickets to hear them. 

Dad brought me and two lawn chairs to Pioneer Courthouse Square and claimed a spot beside the six-foot green mesh barrier erected to keep people like us out. When the music began, we stood on top of the chairs, two short people just barely able to see the stage. Somehow, that only made the music more magical. 

Our spot was directly behind the food vendors, and soon employees took pity on us. They handed us free pizza, which delighted us both. Then, just as the concert was beginning to wrap up, they passed two vendor’s passes over the fence. Dad and I entered the park in time to see the Indigo Girls play an encore. I felt like the luckiest person in the world. 

Dad stuck his vendor’s pass to the file cabinet in his office. I took mine with me to college, affixed to my white board. For many years, Dad bought me the latest Indigo Girls album for Christmas. I dream of seeing the Indigo Girls with him again —  and this time, I’ll buy tickets. I’m certain, though, it won’t be as thrilling as the first time. 

Queer music says for us the things that we struggle to say. I don’t know when it will be safe for us to gather again, but when it is, I’ll be in the front row.