LGBTQ Pride is a time for celebrating identity, visibility, and activism for human rights and for recollecting on its roots – from the first march orchestrated by activist Brenda Howard in 1970, exactly a year after the Stonewall Uprising, to early organizations such as Gay Liberation Front, STAR (founded by Marsha P. Johnson), Gay Activists Alliance, and Radicalesbians that were established thereafter. This impact also brings notoriety to artists within the LGBTQ community who without their innovations, the landscape of history would be entirely altered.
DJs and producers built the foundations of electronic dance music and its subgenres that make up a large part of that list, many creating safe spaces in queer communities with their music, residencies, and events. The sense of liberation and community felt in the modern electronic music scene owes its LGBTQ-filled history, as do the artists who continue that legacy.
Here are eight standout LGBTQ+ DJs and producers past and present out of the very many.
Raised in Chicago, Honey Dijon experienced the city’s house music scene at an early age and encountered a love for DJing as a child before her career set off in NYC in the late ‘90s. Dijon was introduced to the various eclectic club scenes in NYC by DJs Tedd Patterson, Danny Tenaglia, and Grant Johnson, but she wanted to mix them all, meshing house, disco, and techno with her style of seamless transitions and live mixing. But another part of her goal as a DJ is to represent queer black culture and advocate for trans rights within the club community. Dijon now splits her time between New York and Berlin and performs worldwide.
Valentine’s Day of 1970, six months after the Stonewall Riots, and emerging out of counterculture and village folk scenes in 1960s NYC, was David Mancuso’s first party at The Loft on 647 Broadway. “Love Saves the Day” was facilitated by Mancuso and a group of friends who had been influenced by Timothy Leary and his 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Rent parties happening in Harlem during the Great Migration-era would soon inspire Larry Levan and his 10-year “Saturday Mass” residency at Paradise Garage, and later be a haven for DJ and New York University student Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy.
For $2.50, 100 party-goers would experience the start of the burgeoning disco scene and Mancuso’s career as a party host and DJ. But “Love Saves the Day” had him spinning soul, R&B, and psychedelic music from Klipschorn speakers, with records and songs played in their entirety to a diverse crowd, all there to celebrate music, alongside a movement that created a legacy and established community and club culture.
Toraino “Tee” Scott started DJing accidentally while working to be a radio broadcaster. Discovering NYC downtown club Candy Store in the late ‘70s, Scott was exposed to mixed music for the first time. He soon began DJing there, learning how to work the decks and soundboard on a whim and creating techniques he was known for the rest of his life – sampling using guitar pedals to program them, riding two or more records at a time, and creating his own remixes of disco that considerably made him an innovative precursor of club music.
Scott eventually held a residency at Better Days, also building his system at the club due to a bar-level sound system and the owner’s lack of investment in newer equipment, and became a centric part of the gay club’s community. Larry Levan, Scott’s friend and DJ at The Garage, even asked Scott to perform there to attract Better Days’ gay black demographic. Levan looked up to his DJing, and Scott reciprocated that respect, although their clubs and techniques were seen as competitive. Scott died in 1995 but was recognized by the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2004 and inducted for his impact on the NYC nightlife scene.
In 1978, you could find DJ Larry Levan in his own paradise that was Manhattan club Paradise Garage, filling up the dance floor with disco and dub experimentation that created careers for pop artists and himself – when disco was at its prime, electronica didn’t come to prominence just yet, and new wave was emerging just down the block. Levon grew up inspired by Harlem’s drag ball scene and originally wanted to work in fashion, but took interest in DJing while working for mentor and former partner Nicky Siano, owner of the club The Gallery and a DJ at Studio 54.
Levan’s practice soon turned into a decade-long residency deemed “Saturday Mass” as it brought together the NYC club community into a safe environment full of expression and love. From shining disco balls to playing unconventional dance floor songs such as “Why D’Ya Do It?” by Marianne Faithfull, Pat Benetar’s “Love Is A Battlefield,” or The Clash’s “The Magnificent Dance,” Levan had his own rules. He messed around with EQ knobs and replaced cartridges on record players to enhance the sound, concentrating on utilizing the effects on the music while affecting the crowd and creating unconventional mixes with dub effects.
Levan made Paradise Garage what it was, a haven that was practically a religious experience in a downtown parking garage turned venue and made an impression so big he is considered a legend to both DJs and the history of club music.
Stacey HotWaxx Hale
Where there’s a godfather, there’s a godmother. And that godmother also reigned Detroit’s gay club scene, shadowing Ken Collier to become a prominent part of the next generation of Motor City DJs defining the techno and warehouse scenes. Stacey “HotWaxx” Hale became the first female DJ to play house music, learning vinyl mixing and beat matching from a love for music at an early age due to her brother’s jazz records and audio equipment collection; turntables, reel-to-reels, and speakers dawned his walls, and DJ’d basement parties creating mixes before she was aware of the technique.
Hale’s admiration for the gear made her approach Collier after hearing his collective True Disco at the club Chessmate and asked to teach her to DJ, while Tee Scott introduced her to early sampling when she would visit NYC. Hale is still a touring DJ but also works with Girls Rock Detroit and runs a mentorship program called Lesbians of Color Support Network.
Musician, producer, and DJ, GRiZ, first started performing as an alto-sax player in school, but his transition into electro-funk dubstep hasn’t stopped him from using the jazz instrument years into his music career (after rediscovering it at his mother’s house in his hometown of Detroit). GRiZ became known as “the dude who plays saxophone and DJs,” but initially released his debut album End of the World Party on Daly City Recordsas his pre-saxophone dubstep album, which led to his festival circuit success.
GRiZ followed up by establishing his label All Good Records in 2015 and the self-release of his sophomore album Mad LiberationRebel Era. The label’s roster soon began adding acts Muzzy Bear, The Floozies, Manic Focus, and more. In a Huffington Post story in 2017, GRiZ described identifying as gay in college, the process of coming out to the public, and how it has helped him love himself:
“I believe in the goodness of people. Yes, there is a lot of negativity and hate. Instead of giving into that fear and sadness, we need to shine. Shine so brightly that it inspires your community to do the same. It won’t always be easy, but the battle is worth it. Never ever give up on yourself. It might not be cool to love Britney Spears, study AP physics or play saxophone, but it’s totally cool to be gay.”
GRiZ’s 2021 record Rainbow Brain’s 23-tracks continue the funk with an additional dose of heavy bass drops that are an homage to old-school bass artists before him and celebrate being authentically true to yourself.
Exposed to acid house while visiting Nuremberg in the early ‘90s, Tama Sumo relocated to Berlin and started DJing after a friend’s suggestion –soon becoming a regular at Café Moskau, with residencies at nightclubs Panorama Bar, Ostgut, and Tresor. Sumo started with strictly house music sets, spinning Frankie Knuckles, Masters At Work, and Inner City, but has since branched out to spinning a variety of genres.
Her highly emotive sets have been self-described as basic, but show off each record’s story while implementing her LGBTQ advocacy and rallying against homophobia as well as gender inequality within the industry, such as when she staged a “kiss-in” with same-sex couples at her 2013 Boiler Room set, an idea by her wife and fellow DJ, Lakuti.
About the Writer
Gabby Castellano is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and creator. Her work mainly focuses on covering music and music history across various genres.