In honor of this Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards, we’ve mapped out a timeline of landmark music videos — by both straight and queer artists — that pushed the needle forward for LGBT visibility. Whether they depicted our lives, showed us in love (and lust), highlighted causes, or simply raised a fist in solidarity, music videos have been breaking ground for our community even before the days of MTV. Here are a few dozen of our favorites:
1. David Bowie, "John, I’m Only Dancing" (1972). Bowie was one of the rare pop stars experimenting with video promotional clips a decade before the launch of MTV. In this one, directed by famed music photographer Mick Rock, androgynous Bowie — who made no secret of the fact that he slept with men in the 1970s — laments the hazards of bisexuality.
2. Lou Reed, "Walk On The Wild Side" (1972). Reed, who in the '70s also had bisexual dalliances and a well-documented relationship with a transgender woman, pays tribute to Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, and other transgender “superstars” of Andy Warhol’s Factory in this undated video for his 1972 hit.
3. Village People, "YMCA" (1978). Taken from the truly awful film Can't Stop the Music (directed, oddly enough, by television actress Nancy Walker — yes, the Bounty paper towel lady!), this clip makes clear that boys will be boys when they stay together at the Y-M-C-A.
4. Pete Townshend, "Rough Boys" (1980). The Who's guitarist shocked a lot of fans with a 1980 solo album that contained this song, which he later called "a coming out." In the video, Townshend, performing in a pool room full of young men, lip-synchs lyrics like "I want to bite and kiss you" and "Gonna get inside you." So much for subtlety! Years later, he came out as bisexual in an interview.
5. Joe Jackson, "Real Men" (1982). The British musician caused fans and critics to speculate about his sexuality with this powerful song. Jackson angrily rails against macho culture — and devotes a tender segment in both the tune and the video to the “nice boys dancing in pairs.” In a 1999 memoir, the musician wrote that although he’s dated both men and women, he doesn’t believe in labeling sexuality.
6. Culture Club, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" (1982). Until this point, had we ever seen a drag queen scoring international hits? This was our very first glimpse of Boy George, and here he is on trial for "his crime," which some critics and scholars interpreted to be his sexuality. Boy George himself later said it was about his tortured affair with drummer Jon Moss. (Some criticized the band for depicting jurors in blackface, but others contended that since the jurors are actually black men, having them in blackface is a kind of metaphor. Neither the Boy nor his band mates, including black bassist Mikey Craig, have ever elaborated.)
7. Queen, "I Want To Break Free" (1984). Fans knew the late, great Freddie Mercury wasn’t straight, so it was cheeky good fun when the singer appeared in campy drag as a housewife dreaming of a more fulfilling life in this video. Even more fun — the band's straight members joined in too.
8. Dead or Alive, "That’s The Way I Like It" (1984). This cover of the K.C. & the Sunshine Band disco classic was released a year before Dead or Alive scored its first major hit with "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)." Here, androgynous lead singer Pete Burns looks like the sexiest dominatrix in town — which naturally caught the eye of LGBT fans. Though years later he began undergoing cosmetic surgery to appear more feminine, he does not identify as transgender.
9. Bronski Beat, "Smalltown Boy" (1984). The gay dance-pop trio got real on this 1984 song that chronicled a young gay man's need to leave his small town and find acceptance. Its somber video was a sharp contrast to all the camp of the 1980s. The band's follow-up single, the gay rights anthem "Why," was another milestone in pop.
10. Divine, "You Think You’re a Man" (1984). Fans of cult film director John Waters jumped for joy when his longtime muse Divine began releasing music and making kitsch videos in the early 1980s. The legendary drag queen performs for a group of nightclubbers in this video. The song was written by punk musician Geoff Deane, who would go on to write the film (later a Broadway musical) Kinky Boots.