"I'm Coming Out," from Diana Ross's Diana album, is perhaps the apex of gay anthems. First recorded in 1979, the song's refrain, and its urging to "to break out of the shell" spoke directly to LGBTQ+ listeners who had declared their identities to the world.
However, Ross, who immediately loved the lyrics, was not always aware of the "coming out" association, as co-writer and co-producer Nile Rodgers revealed in an interview with the New York Post marking the album's 40th anniversary.
“She didn’t understand that that was a gay thing, that that was a person saying, ‘I’m coming out of the closet,’” said Rodgers. “She didn’t even get that.”
Rodgers — a member of the Chic production team, which produced Diana, with Bernard Edwards — explained how the track was inspired by a visit to GG's Barnum Room, a Manhattan transgender club. There, he saw a group of Ross impersonators.
“All of a sudden a light bulb goes off in my head,” he told the Post. “I had to go outside and call Bernard from a telephone booth. I said, ‘Bernard, please write down the words: ‘I’m coming out.’ And then I explained the situation to him.”
Rodgers said he ultimately convinced Ross to sing the track, arguing it would make the perfect opener for an entertainer, in addition to establishing her as one of the greatest gay icons. “I said, ‘Diana, this song is gonna be your coming-out song. We think of you as our black queen,’” he said. “And I even wrote a [horn] fanfare. I explained to her that it’s just like when the president comes out and they play ‘Hail to the Chief.’”
Diana, which also included the hit song "Upside Down," went on to become the best-selling album of Ross's career.