“I’m Coming Out” is easily one of the most recognizable and beloved anthems of the LGBTQ+ community. With its bold sound and open appeal to queer identities, it’s a song that’s helped to offer a feeling of acceptance to generations of LGBTQ+ people.
But how exactly did this song manage to garner such love and appreciation?
A Milestone For Queer Music
We’ve seen an explosion of queer-inclusive and even queer-focused media in the last few years. In fact, with mainstream icons like Hayley Kiyoko and Lil Nas X, and popular streaming shows like Euphoria or Netflix’s recent Heartstopper adaptation, it can almost be hard to imagine a time when non-cishet identities were all but invisible in popular culture.
That being said, things certainly haven’t always been this way. For decades, LGBTQ+ people and stories were almost entirely excluded from mainstream culture both through active censorship – such as the infamous Hays Code – and the kind of passive gatekeeping that often prevents minority groups and identities from being able to engage with society in more traditional ways. This meant that if queer people wanted to see their stories being told, they had to seek out those themes within the media they were often excluded from. Even many songs that are regarded as gay/queer anthems – such as “YMCA”, “It’s Raining Men”, and “Freedom! ’90” – were either initially written for a mainstream audience or made an effort to keep their queer themes deliberately ambiguous.
“I’m Coming Out” was a different kind of queer anthem. By appropriating one of the most commonly known and used pieces of LGBTQ+ slang globally, Ross’s song wore its anthem status with pride from the first, drawing in fans from across the community.
Composed by songwriting duo Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, the song was always intended to be marketed toward a queer audience.
According to Rogers, the initial inspiration came when he and Edwards noticed just how famous Diana Ross was amongst drag impersonators. Seeing this, they decided to try to capitalize on her popularity within the queer community by writing a song that would resonate within that space.
“One particular night, I went to a club,” said Rogers in a 2021 TikTok video, “and I noticed that there were at least six or seven Diana Ross Impersonators. So I went outside to call Bernard and said, “You know the gay community reveres Diana Ross””
The next day, the pair met in the studio and built the song around its central hook:
“I’m coming out! I want the world to know! I want to let it show!”
It’s hard to quantify the cultural impact of a song like “I’m Coming Out”. While it certainly isn’t the only mainstream hit to have ever been openly directed toward a queer audience, it was still a relatively groundbreaking track at the time of its release (1980). In its wake, the ’80s and ’90s would see tracks with openly LGBTQ+ subject matter like “Smalltown Boy” and “I Kissed a Girl,” but for the most part, the trend for pop songs to downplay their queer subject matter while retaining their queer aesthetic continued for a long time.
In this regard, “I’m Coming Out” remains significant for being so loud and proud in its message.