The 1970s represented a shift for Motown Records. The label, long a Detroit staple, started moving its operations to Los Angeles in the late 1960s and eventually relocated completely in 1972. Musically, it was also moving in a new direction with albums like What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye in 1971 and the launch of Stevie Wonder’s classic period with the release of Music of My Mind the following year. What those albums had in common that many Motown albums of previous years didn’t was a distinctly political bent. It was a time of war, of fights for equal rights for women and people of color, and the music reflected its time. As journalist Jon Clayborne wrote in a 1978 article for New Gay Life, “Social concerns were widely declared in the atmosphere spawned by the chaos of the last decade, and not even non-controversial Motown could afford to ignore the upheaval in society.” But, he continued, there were some issues the label stayed away from, among them the gay rights movement.
That changed in 1975 with the release of “I Was Born This Way” on Gaiee Records, which was distributed and eventually bought by Motown. As researchers Loren Kajikawa and Daniel Martinez HoSang write, music can, like many other art forms, “mobilize creativity and pleasure in ways that ultimately effect material change.” Though Gaiee only lasted a short time, this release is part of a longer legacy of music and liberation.
The Gaiee label was started by Bunny Jones, a Harlem salon owner. In addition to offering hair styling services, Bunny was a songwriter and label owner, and, according to Billboard, when she later opened a recording studio—Astral Sound—she became the first Black woman to own her own 24-track recording studio. Things were looking bright for Jones, but the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community weighed on her. Gaiee sprang from her desire to give gay performers a space to fully be themselves. “I wanted to give gay people a label they could call home,” she told The Advocate in 1975.
“I Was Born This Way” was co-written by Jones and Chris Spierer, recorded by Charles “Valentino” Harris, and self-distributed via the trunk of Jones’s car. She eventually sold 15,000 copies, earning her the attention of Motown, who took over distribution. “They are the first major label to give a gay record this kind of support,” Jones informed The Advocate.
The song found a wider audience when Motown re-recorded it in 1977 with Carl Bean, a gospel singer who would later found the Unity Fellowship Church, a “national Black lesbian and gay ministry with the motto ‘Love Is For Everyone (LIFE!)’.” Bean’s version of the song reached number fifteen on the Billboard Disco chart, making it seem like Gaiee and Motown were in it for the long haul. But the Motown-Gaiee partnership stalled.
As Clayborne noted, soon after Bean’s release, “The published reports stopped abruptly, and Gaiee Records never released another disk.” But the song was able to carve a path for liberation. As Kajikawa and HoSang note, “disco music and gay dance clubs [are] an articulation of a queer politics.”
“I Was Born This Way” wore its politics on its sleeve, and its popularity was part of music’s “ability to offer a taste of another way of being that can have profound consequences for how people see themselves and how they expect to be treated,” Kajikawa and HoSang explain.
Support JSTOR Daily! Join our new membership program on Patreon today.