“Lie to your workmates, lie to your folks
Put down the queens and tell anti-queer jokes
Gay lib’s ridiculous, join their laughter
‘The buggers are legal now, what more are they after?’
Sing if you’re glad to be gay
Sing if you’re happy that way” — Tom Robinson Band, “Glad To Be Gay”
When Tom Robinson’s “Glad to Be Gay” was released in 1978, homosexuality in England had only been decriminalized just 11 years earlier (the law only specifically referred to gay men) with the passage of the Sexual Offences Act. Gay men could now have sex without fear of retribution as long as it took place on private property and with consenting individuals age 21 and older. It was the first law of its kind in English history.
Robinson, who was born in 1950, realized he was gay when he was 13 and had fallen in loved with a boy at his school. To be gay at that time was a crime. He suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide at 16. He was sent to another school that nurtured and attended to teens with emotional difficulties (Robinson has called the school “a retreat”) and it was there that music entered his life. He also learned to accept himself for exactly who he was.
The great British DJ John Peel broadcast his late-night show The Perfumed Garden on pirate station Radio London, beginning in May 1967. Peel avoided the top hits of the day in favor of psychedelia, folk, blues and progressive rock. In addition to being a dedicated follower of Peel’s show, it was after the famed bluesman Alexis Korner performed at the school that Robinson knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“In the ’60s, there wasn’t a single public figure who was openly gay, so we sang ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ almost certainly about Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s sexuality, but the gender was changed,” Robinson told The Guardian in 2013. “Then in the 1970s, along came David Bowie who declared he was bisexual. He had all these songs where you could think: ‘That’s about me.’”
He moved to London in 1973 and was part of an acoustic folk band called Café Society, which caught the notice of The Kinks’ Ray Davies. He was swept up in the burgeoning gay pride scene in London and in the politics of the gay liberation movement. Concurrently, the punk scene was a mighty force in London.
“I’d become politicized after becoming a musician with a theatrical troupe from New York called Hot Peaches, who were very camp,” he told The Guardian. “They exposed me to the notion of being proud of being gay. I also saw the Sex Pistols who kicked open the doors for the art of confrontation.”
His love of punk music, his activism and the growing gay liberation movement proved the perfect ingredients for the recipe that produced his song “Glad to Be Gay.”
“I formed the Tom Robinson Band with Danny Kustow, a guy I’d met on that retreat,” Robinson said. “TRB were straight men, but Danny understood this was an important protest song.”
Though only John Peel played it on the radio initially, the song became a great pub and protest march singalong with all its references to police brutality, discrimination and, ultimately, pride in being gay. At the time, it was truly revolutionary stuff. Looking back, the song’s importance in the gay pride movement was a surprise to Robinson.
“‘Glad to Be Gay’ was about anyone who didn’t conform, from lesbians to transgenders, a way of recognizing that most of us have complex sexualities,” he said. “I never imagined that, 35 years later, it would be called the gay national anthem, or that we’d have openly gay pop stars.”
When the record dropped I was working at the University of Maryland Record Co-op, where the college experience was opening my mind to all manner of things that had passed me by in my youth in rural Maryland. Not only was my record store job putting my music-loving synapses a state of high alert, but through music, I was meeting all kinds of people. Gay, black, Asian, Indian … the folks that came through the co-op’s doors had a love of music in common, and the co-op, with its ridiculously low prices and outrageously diverse selection, was a magnet. “Glad to Be Gay” revealed to me the never-before-considered notion of a gay punk rocker.
In the end, all I cared about was the music. Rock is all about attitude and Robinson brimmed over with the stuff. Moreover, I’ve never shied away from music that took a social position, and his strong, simple and perfectly clear message was that we should all embrace our truest selves fully and without shame. That was a good thing to hear for a young woman shredded with insecurities and unsure of her way forward.
Here’s to honesty, courage, tolerance, compassion, activism and, yes, being glad to be gay. Everybody sing!