Last weekend the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards continued in New York City, where pop icon Madonna received the Advocate For Change Award. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation held its Los Angeles ceremony last month, where Beyoncé and Jay-Z were honored with the similar Vanguard Award.
Madonna discussed the first gay man she met, her ballet teacher Christopher Flynn — the first person to tell her she was beautiful and take her to her first gay club. From then on she's had a strong camaraderie with the LGBTQ community that's lasted decades. Her gay friends and fans made her feel like she wasn't alone and that it was OK to be different.
“Why have I always fought for change? That's a hard question to answer, it's like trying to explain the importance of breathing or the need to love,” Madonna told the audience. “As soon as you really understand what it means to love, you understand what it takes to become a human being and that it is every human's duty to fight, to advocate, to do whatever we can and whatever it takes.”
Indeed, Madonna has been a fierce ally for the entirety of her career, especially back when embracing LGBTQ people wasn't as common (or as trendy) as it is now. Since many younger LGBTQ kids don't realize the impact Madonna has had on our culture or don't understand how she helped open the door for advocates down the line like Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, I thought it was worthwhile to give a run down on some of the biggest examples of Madonna's advocacy for LGBTQ equality and acceptance.
AIDS Fundraising & Awareness
As early as 1987 on her second world tour, the “Who's That Girl Tour,” Madonna made her Madison Square Garden show in New York City a benefit, with all proceeds going to the American Foundation For AIDS Research (AmFAR). She did this publicly at a time when even the government under the Reagan administration barely acknowledged the disease. When everyone else was calling it gay cancer or a gay plague that was sent to deservedly destroy the LGBTQ community, Madonna stood up to fight against the disease and its stigmas, even dedicating her performance of “Live to Tell” to her late friend Martin Burgoyne who died of AIDS. She did the same for the New Jersey show on her 1990 “Blond Ambition World Tour,” this time dedicating the show to her late friend Keith Haring.
Madonna also took the extra step of including an insert card with her 1989 album Like A Prayer titled “Facts About AIDS.” The card called AIDS “an equal opportunity disease” and, in addition to facts about how it's spread and how it can be prevented (by using a condom), it also read, “People with AIDS — regardless of their sexual orientation — deserve compassion and support, not violence and bigotry.” Considering the album went to number one and was certified multi-platinum, Madonna was able to educate a lot of people with this simple act.
Finally, if raising money and disseminating information about AIDS/HIV wasn't enough, Madonna also included personal stories of the loss of loved ones as well as inspirational messages about love and acceptance in her music itself. Although her 1992 album Erotica is often overshadowed by its companion, the Sex book (more on that later), there are a few powerful songs where Madonna addresses about the AIDS crisis: “In This Life,” about friends she lost to the disease (Have you ever watched your best friend die (what for)/ Have you ever watched a grown man cry (what for)/ Some say that life isn't fair (what for)/ I say that people just don't care (what for). Similarly, the song “Why's It So Hard” finds Madonna pleading for everyone to love each other despite their differences as she sings, “Why's it so hard to love one another?”
Throughout her career, Madonna has used her art to promote LGBTQ visibility. As one of the biggest pop stars in the world, especially in the '80s and '90s, this is not to be taken lightly. Madonna's infamous “Justify My Love” video, which was famously banned by MTV before Madonna released it as a video single, featured both androgynous and same-sex couples, as did her Sex book and the music video for its corresponding single, 1992's “Erotica.”
The hit song “Vogue” in 1990 also had major roots in the LGBTQ community. The late 1980s saw the rise of the ballroom scene in underground gay culture and clubs, which is where the voguing style of dance first emerged. GBQT people formed into different “houses” to compete against one another, and two men from the “House of Xtravaganza,” Jose Gutierrez and Luis Camacho, emerged as two of the most talented dancers on the scene and Madonna plucked them up to help choreograph and appear in her “Vogue” video. The video also featured four other gay men, and together these six gay dancers were then prominently featured in Madonna's “Blond Ambition World Tour.”
Featuring these gay men front and center on tour was just the beginning. Madonna filmed the tour and released the documentary film Truth or Dare in 1991, where viewers really got an up close and personal look at who these gay men were. As part of the film, Madonna featured a New York City gay pride parade, a same-sex kiss during a game of truth or dare and a prayer circle where she speaks to the loss of her friend Keith Haring from AIDS. Madonna was at the top of her game at this time and having one of the biggest pop stars in the world bring these aspects of LGBTQ life to those who would not otherwise be exposed to it was immeasurable. No other pop star was doing this at the time, let alone one at her level of fame. Surely by using her art for LGBTQ visibility, she played an important role in breaking down barriers and normalizing gay lifestyle.
As she said in an interview with Good Morning America from 1991 when asked about some people being offended by Truth or Dare, “I deal with … a big problem in the United States and that's homophobia … these things exist in life, I'm only presenting life to people. I'm not presenting anything that probably they're not exposed to in everyday life but maybe they don't want to deal with it. If you keep putting something in somebody's face eventually maybe they can come to terms with it.”
Aside from Madonna's philanthropic efforts for the LGBTQ community and inclusion in her art, she has also continually spoken out for us. A recent example of this was when her 2012 “MDNA World Tour” made a stop in the notoriously homophobic St. Petersburg, Russia. She distributed pink wristbands at the door that represented “tolerance for the gay community,” and during the concert, she told the audience as they waved rainbow-colored flags that said “No Fear,” “I'm here to say that the gay community and gay people here and all around the world have the same rights and [should] be treated with dignity, with respect, with tolerance, with compassion, with love. Are you with me?” This was all after President Vladimir Putin's government threatened to throw her in jail for “promoting gay behavior.” She spoke out anyway.
Just two years prior, Madonna denounced the decision to jail two gay men in Malawi, the African country where she adopted four children (Madonna mentioned at the GLAAD Awards that her advocacy during the AIDS crisis in the '80s and '90s is what led her to help the AIDS-ravaged country of Malawi as well). Also that year, she went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to speak out against bullying, including bullying of LGBTQ youth. In 2013 Madonna presented the Vito Russo Award to openly gay journalist Anderson Cooper at the 24th GLAAD Media Awards. She dressed as a boy scout to protest the Boy Scouts of America's ban on homosexual scouts and scout leaders.
Finally, it was revealed last year that Madonna would be the Stonewall Inn Ambassador for the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots this June, which many believe kick started the modern LGBTQ rights movement in 1969. She gave a surprise performance at Stonewall last New Year's Eve, telling the crowd in between songs, “If we truly look and we truly take the time to get to know one another, we would find that we all bleed the same color and we all need to love and be loved.”
Just last week with the promo single “I Rise,” released from her upcoming Madame X album, Madonna once again touted equality and inclusiveness for all, sharing in a statement about the track, “I wrote 'I Rise' as a way of giving a voice to all marginalized people who feel they don't have the opportunity to speak their mind. This year is the 50th anniversary of Pride and I hope this song encourages all individuals to be who they are, to speak their minds and to love themselves.”
I am only scratching the surface here in terms of what Madonna has done for the LGBTQ community over the course of her 36-year career. Not to take away from the advocacy of today's pop stars in any way, but it is important for the gay community and its supporters to understand and appreciate everything Madonna has done, even when she stood almost alone doing so. Sure, there were pop stars who played with gender and sexuality such as Prince, David Bowie and Freddie Mercury, but none were openly and directly showcasing the LGBTQ community, commenting on homophobia and taking action to change things like the queen. The LGBTQ community has been lucky to have many staunch advocates over the last half century, but Madonna has always been the fiercest. Her GLAAD award is much deserved.
The New York City ceremony of the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards will air on Logo on Sunday, May 12 at 8pm.