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.
11. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "Relax" (1984). This is the original video for the band's mega-hit, and it's set in an S/M-themed gay bar. The leather men and drag queens were too much for both the BBC and MTV, and both quickly banned it. That forced the band, which featured out lead singer Holly Johnson and out backing singer-dancer Paul Rutherford, to create a replacement video — that boring one with the laser beams.
12. Neneh Cherry, "I've Got You Under My Skin" (1990). The Swedish-born singer and rapper used this video to highlight the plight of those suffering with HIV and AIDS. The song is from the AIDS awareness benefit album Red Hot + Blue, which featured pop stars covering the early-20th-century hits of legendary gay composer Cole Porter.
13. Erasure, "Too Darn Hot" (1990). Here's another video for a song off the Red Hot + Blue album. Out lead singer Andy Bell sings as viewers see footage from ACT UP protests around the world. Bell revealed his own HIV-positive status in 2004.
14. Madonna, "Justify My Love" (1990). How to choose just one LGBT-centric video from Madonna? It ain't easy. Ultimately we're going with the one showing Madonna's first on-screen lesbian kiss — and with an androgynous dominatrix, no less. The video so scandalized bigwigs at MTV, the network aired it only three times — after 10 p.m.
15. k.d. lang, "Constant Craving" (1992). The Canadian crooner was the first androgynous lesbian ever to make it big on MTV. She officially came out to The Advocate while this video was in heavy rotation.
16. RuPaul, "Supermodel (You Better Work)" (1993). Technically, MTV had its first glimpse of RuPaul four years earlier, when he could be seen dancing in the B-52s’ "Love Shack" video. But the surprise hit "Supermodel" brought the glamazon into America's living rooms — well, those who watched MTV, anyway — with his own song. Now RuPaul's in everyone's living room, thanks to the phenomenon of Drag Race.
17. Living Colour, "Bi" (1993). A few years before this sexy video emerged, the all-black rock band scored a mega-hit with “Cult of Personality,” but mainstream fans didn’t know what to make of this ode to the joys of bisexuality. The rest of us? We thought it was fierce as hell.
18. Indigo Girls, "Power of Two" (1994). The out folk duo created what's possibly the first music video to share images of couples of every stripe, including, of course, same-sex couples. A celebration of love, and so ahead of its time.
19. Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Warped" (1995). This beautifully shot video is a celebration of the male form, bromance, and — wait, what the hell are singer Anthony Kiedis and guitarist Dave Navarro doing at the 3:59 mark? Making out. With each other. And it's hot.
20. George Michael, "Outside" (1998). Things got deliciously meta when the newly outed pop star mocked his real-life arrest for soliciting sex from an undercover cop in a fun, flippant video.
21. Melissa Etheridge, "I Want to Be in Love" (2001).The out singer’s pal Jennifer Aniston starred in this clip, which shows the actress being whisked away from an aggressive guy by a lady knight in shining armor (played by Etheridge's then-wife, Tammy Lynn Michaels). Aniston proceeds to dance the night away with a group of fun-loving lesbians — until a superhot guy shows up. Well, we can all be Friends, right?
22. t.A.t.u, "All the Things She Said" (2002). This one makes the cut — but with major reservations. The whole idea of a Russian teenage lesbian pop duo caused such a ruckus at the time, and the video, naturally, featured the duo kissing, which got it banned in some countries. Of course, the fake lesbians eventually outed themselves as straight — and one of them outed herself as a big ol' homophobe.
23. Christina Aguilera, "Beautiful" (2002). Xtina and director Jonas Åkerlund created a powerful video for this self-empowerment anthem, written by out songwriter Linda Perry. The out bisexual singer won a GLAAD Media Award for the clip's moving portrayals of LGBT folks of every stripe.
24. Franz Ferdinand, "Michael" (2004). A straight guy singing erotically to a guy named Michael? Alex Kapranos, front man of this Scottish band, sure caused a stir with lyrics like “Stubble on my sticky lips.”
25. Bright Eyes, "First Day of My Life" (2005). Directed by Hedwig star John Cameron Mitchell, this video's touching portrayal of all kinds of couples listening to the song on earphones garnered the Omaha-based indie rock act a GLAAD Media Award for Special Recognition.
26. Matt Alber, "End of the World" (2008). A gentleman gets a shave at the barbershop. He meets the eye of a handsome patron. Slow dancing ensues. Swoon!
27. Sigur Rós, "Vidrar Vel Til Loftarasa" (2008). A young boy is tormented by his homophobic father in this haunting video from the critically acclaimed Icelandic band, which features out front man Jónsi Birgisson.
28. Lady Gaga, "Alejandro" (2010). Again, it's tough to choose only one video from Gaga, but "Alejandro," with all its homoerotic military imagery, is a good starting point. The out bisexual musician herself told The New York Times this video is a "celebration and an admiration of gay love."
29. Kylie Minogue, "All the Lovers" (2010). An orgiastic celebration of love and lust in all combos. Censored in some countries for all the rampant queer kissing. (But not for the straight kissing.)
30. Pink, "Raise Your Glass" (2010). One of the earliest celebrations of same-sex marriage in a pop video, and inspired by the lesbian wedding Pink once hosted in her own backyard. Here we see two men kissing within the first 30 seconds, which is possibly a world record for LGBT-friendly music videos. Go, Pink!
31. Rihanna, "Te Amo" (2010). Just when you thought nothing could get sexier than Rihanna singing about another woman to a Latin beat, the European video for "Te Amo" comes along! And it's a lot more interesting than the one we got in the States. French model Leatitia Casta plays Rihanna's lesbian suitor and the two ladies have some serious chemistry -- even before they change into the bondage outfits.
32. Murs, "Animal Style" (2012). Out hip-hop artist Murs locks lips with another man at a picnic table in this charming video about youthful lust.
33. The Magnetic Fields, "Andrew in Drag" (2012). A frolicsome video that challenges notions of gender as we watch all sorts of people reinvent themselves through drag. All the while, out singer Stephin Merritt sings, "The only girl I ever loved was Andrew in drag."
34. Perfume Genius, "Hood" (2012). Putting gay-porn star Arpad Miklos in your video is one way to grab the attention of a certain demographic. Out musician Mike Hadreas cast the actor as his doting boyfriend — and it's sweet and hilarious.
35. Esperanza Spalding, "I Can’t Help It" (2012). Spalding's character is seen already living with a handsome man, but she just can't help falling for an intriguing woman she's just met.
36. Bat for Lashes, "Laura" (2012). Singer Natasha Khan's voice already made this ode to a glamorous woman resplendent — but a video featuring an elegant older drag queen? Oh, yes. Bring it.
37. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe” (2012). Who didn't love the surprise twist at the end? Adorbs!
38. Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert, "Same Love" (2012). Perhaps you are familiar with this one?
39. Hot Chip, "Don’t Deny Your Heart" (2012). EDM meets FIFA in this animated soccer-rivalry-gone-sexy video.
40. MNDR, "Feed Me Diamonds" (2012). MNDR's fans got a sneek peak at RuPaul's Drag Race season 2 finalist Raven as the queen gets her look on in this gorgeous black-and-white video.
41. Goldfrapp, "Annabel" (2013). Another black-and-white stunner. Musician Alison Goldfrapp created the video with her filmmaker partner Lisa Gunning. It follows a gender-questioning child who's playing in the forest — but the real magic happens when the child's mother is loving and kind.
42. John Legend, "You and I (Nobody in the World)" (2013). The R&B singer collected a bevy of women of different ages, races, sizes, sexual orientations. and gender identities and expressions for this video about a beautiful woman. Look for transgender actress Laverne Cox and lesbian comedian Tig Notaro.
43. Eli Lieb, "Young Love" (2013). Romance is real for these two fellas, one of whom is Lieb himself. The out singer is a bona fide YouTube sensation and the songwriter behind Allstate's "Out Holding Hands" campaign commercial.
44. Panic! at the Disco, "Girls/Girls/Boys" (2013). The band’s front man Brandon Urie told NPR the decidedly bi song is about his “homosexual experiences.” Incidentally, he’s naked in the clip.
45. Mary Lambert, "She Keeps Me Warm" (2013). In this 2013 video for the updated version of a once-spare song, out singer Lambert catches the eye of the super-cute barista at her local coffeehouse.
46. Lana Del Rey, "Summertime Sadness" (2013). A mysterious woman in love with another mysterious woman. It's all so noirish and cinematic — and sad.
47. Backstreet Boys, "In a World Like This" (2013). There’s a great surprise twist at the end of this video celebrating lifelong love.
48. Steve Grand, "All American-Boy" (2013). Out country singer Grand proves red-blooded all-American boys can be very, very into other red-blooded all-American boys. Nearly 4.5 million YouTube viewers approve of this message.
49. Conchita Wurst, "Rise Like a Phoenix" (2014). The bearded Austrian drag queen singer won the hearts of Eurovision Song Contest 2014 judges — and then the hearts of millions around the world.
50. Demi Lovato, "Really Don't Care" (2014). The former Disney star opted to film this video at L.A. Pride — and we love her for it. It's one big celebration.
51. Hozier, "Take Me to Church" (2014). With the Supreme Court ruling still months away, a wave of same-sex marriage videos began popping up. Irish musician Hozier said his was a message to bigots. It was also censored in some countries for showing two men kissing.
52. Sam Smith, "Lay Me Down" (2014). Out singer Smith walks down the aisle himself in this one.
53. Ricky Martin, "Disparo Al Corazon" (2015). Gay wedding bells ring again in this joyful clip from the out Latin pop heartthrob.
54. Kelly Clarkson, "Heartbeat Song" (2015). More guys getting married! Except these two actors really did become engaged on the set of Clarkson's video. Hooray! Love: winning!
55. Laura Jane Grace and Miley Cyrus, "True Trans Soul Rebel" (2015). This is technically a live video, but it's so important, we're listing it here. Pioneer punk Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of the band Against Me!, boldly chose to transition right smack-dab in the limelight several years ago. Here she's partnering with our favorite pansexual pop star Miley Cyrus to perform a song from her 2014 masterpiece, Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
56. Jennifer Hudson, "I Still Love You" (2015). In this ultimately triumphant video, J-Hud captures what it feels like to be rejected by family for who you are. When an interracial gay couple ties the knot, one man's father refuses to attend the nuptials — at first. Special guest stars Leisha Hailey (The L Word) and Manila Luzon (RuPaul's Drag Race) amp up the fun factor.
57. Joey Graceffa, "Don’t Wait" (2015). It's not every day someone famous comes out in a music video, but Graceffa did. Already a huge YouTube star, he came out to his 5 million followers in this adorable fairy tale-inspired video. Squee!
58. Tove Lo, "Timebomb" (2015). In a previous video, the Swedish singer made out with both men and women. This time around, she lets others do the kissing, with plenty of same-sex smooches in the mix.
59. Neon Trees, "Songs I Can’t Listen To" (2015). In the midst of all the cheery love and marriage videos, the moody Utah-based indie rockers, featuring out lead singer (and former Mormon) Tyler Glenn, give us some turmoil in the form of a breakup video guest-starring famed Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
60. Courtney Act, "Ugly" (2015). Watch as one of the world’s most famous drag queens romances a hunky straight guy — and then holds on to him even after her wig is off. Ah, romance.