LGBT+ at St George’s Hall

LGBT+ at St George’s Hall

There is a rich heritage of LGBT+ artists who have performed at St George’s Hall during its long history.

The work of these artists represents an immeasurable contribution to our cultural life and also charts the social, political and personal challenges experienced by individuals from the LGBT+ community over the decades.

St George's Hall was built in 1853 to bring the world’s best music to the people of Bradford. Over the years the music of Handel, Tchaikovsky and Britten has been performed here extensively, and in particular Handel’s Messiah.

None of these famous composers identified as heterosexual, but lived in a time when it was impossible to be completely open about being gay. However, in recent times academics have found evidence to suggest that these three exceptional musical composers were in fact gay.

Sisters are doing it for themselves

In the 1950s Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Big Mama Thornton performed at the venue. These are two of the most ground-breaking performers ever to have appeared at St George’s Hall.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, known as the godmother of rock 'n’ roll was a gospel-singing black lesbian who played hard-driven electric guitar and influenced rock legends such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. She is now credited with literally inventing rock 'n' roll as a musical genre. Today, Tharpe is remembered not only for her incredible musical talent but also for breaking barriers as a black lesbian on stage and in the public eye.

Big Mama Thornton was an influential African American blues singer/songwriter. She was called Big Mama for both her size and her robust, powerful voice. She is best known for her gutsy 1952 rhythm and blues recording of Hound Dog later covered by Elvis Presley. Later in her career, Thornton often dressed in men's clothing and was an ‘out’ lesbian. This caused tension with her producer and others in the music industry at the time but she showed little regard for their opinions.

Trailblazers and influencers

Wearing glitter, satin and feather boas on stage, Marc Bolan with T-Rex performed at St George’s Hall in the early 1970s. Marc Bolan was a pioneer of the glam rock movement.

He was followed by David Bowie wearing orange hair and extraordinary costume as Ziggy Stardust with the Spiders from Mars, then Freddie Mercury of Queen with long hair and dressed in skin-tight white satin, and later on, the sequin-loving Elton John when he appeared as a surprise guest of Kiki Dee.

These stars with their outrageously flamboyant costume, make-up and stage personas dared to challenge the gender norms of the day. They blazed a trail for a generation of young people by expressing their individuality outside the strict codes previously expected in mainstream society.

In 2016 the BBC’s Mark Easton wrote that Britain was 'far more tolerant of difference' and that gay rights, such as same-sex marriage and gender equality, would not have 'enjoyed the broad support they do today without Bowie's androgynous challenge all those years ago.'

Glad to be Gay

The Tom Robinson Band played at St George’s Hall in the late 1970s and led crowds to sing (Sing If You're) Glad To Be Gay.

This event marked a huge step forward in the fight for rights in LGBT+ history.

In 1967, male homosexuality was partially de-criminalised. Despite this change in legislation many faced violence and intimidation on a daily basis.

In 1970 a group called the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed. This political group urged openly lesbian and gay, bisexual and transgender people to engage in direct action to fight for basic rights and to counter societal shame.

Then in 1972 the first Gay Pride March took place when hundreds of protesters, many in drag or extravagant costume, marched from Trafalgar Square to Hyde Park in London. Glad to Be Gay was originally written by Tom Robinson for a London Gay Pride Parade in 1976 and is now considered a gay anthem.

Out and Proud

In the 1980s and early 1990s a range of new, ‘out and proud’ musical artists performed on stage at sell out gigs in St George’s Hall.

The 1980s saw the tragedy and stigma of the AIDs epidemic, and the introduction of Section 28 which was a new law brought in to allow only critical mention of homosexuality in schools. However, against this devastating backdrop, a range of new, ‘out and proud’ musical artists emerged. Their songs rose to the top of the charts and filled dancefloors across the UK.

In this era groups such as Bronski Beat, The Communards and Erasure all played sell out concerts at St George’s Hall. These artists used their music to speak out about rights and themes relevant to the LGBT+ community and unashamedly express their sexual orientation on stage.

The synth pop duo, Erasure who played at the venue in 1988, established themselves as one of the most successful groups of the late 1980s to mid-1990s. The band is still hugely popular with the LGBT+ audiences, for whom the lead singer, Andy Bell, has become an icon.

Stand Up and be Counted

In the 1990s LGBT+ comedians led the way as comedy became the new rock ‘n’ roll at St George’s Hall.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s a new ‘alternative’ brand of comedy was emerging and proving hugely popular with audiences both on TV and in live venues.

At St George’s Hall a range of new comedians took centre stage; a host of LGBT+ stand-up comedians filled the auditorium with laughter at their sell-out shows. The venue welcomed artists including Julian Clary, Eddie Izzard, Simon Fanshawe, Sandra Bernhard, Ennio Marchetto and the hilarious and outspoken Lily Savage, played by Paul O’Grady.

21st Century Freedoms

The 21st century sees new legislation allowing same-sex marriage for the first time and a wide variety of LGBT+ artists performing at St George’s Hall in many different roles.

During this time, singers such as Simon Fowler of Ocean Colour Scene, Marc Almond and Clare Teal perform, along with comedians such as Alan Carr, Sandi Toksvig, Sue Perkins, Stephen K Amos, Rhona Cameron, Robert White and variety acts like Derren Brown, John Barrowman and Colin Fry. LGBT+ performers draw huge audiences to the venue.

Many LGBT+ individuals and groups have fought a long hard battle to claim the same rights and freedoms as heterosexual people in our society. Musicians and performers have played an important role in this movement.  With LGBT+ people still facing hostility, there is of course a long way to go. However huge progress has been made.

‘When I came out being trans it was essentially toxic. It was a very, very, very negative thing and people fought me in the street – they hurled abuse at me. Things have got better slowly but surely, two steps forward – one step back.’ Eddie Izzard

Icons and Allies

From divas to Dynasty stars, many LGBT+ icons and allies have appeared on the stage at St George’s Hall.

Over its long history many LGBT+ icons and allies have performed at St George’s Hall such as Shirley Bassey, Joan Rivers, Joan Collins, Debbie Harry, Jane MacDonald and Beverley Knight. Beverley Knight is a supporter of HIV organisations such as The Terrence Higgins Trust and also a vocal campaigner against homophobia and homophobic lyrics in urban music.