As you may be aware since mother has been celebrating since, I believe, late 2017, today is Diana Ross’s 75th birthday!
But how do you honor the legend who’s been honored with everything? Diana Ross is an American institution—from her days as lead singer of the greatest girl group of all time, the Supremes, to solo superstar to Oscar-nominated actress to your fave’s fave’s fave. Miss Ross has earned as many victory laps as she cares to take.
She’s done it all and has looked flaw-free while doing it.
As one of the Main Divas—you know the ones, the undisputed ones—Miss Ross is a gay icon. This, however, was something she was apparently unaware of when she recorded the quintessential gay anthem, “I’m Coming Out.”
There’s a new me coming out
And I just had to live
And I want to give
I’m completely positive
A little context. Picture it: 1980. Disco has died. There was a massive backlash—one steeped in racist and homophobic undertones—against the musical genre that had dominated charts and radio airwaves for the last five or so years. On July 12, 1979, Chicago’s Comiskey Park held Disco Demolition Night, a promotional event wherein disco records were blown up and, because folks don’t know how to act, a riot erupted.
Disco was the heartbeat of urban life. It was very black, very Latino, and very queer, so the backlash was fueled in part by an animosity towards the people to whom disco appealed. But it was also fueled by an exhaustion in the market. As soon as “Disco Duck” hit the top of the charts in 1976, disco’s days were numbered. The success of that novelty tune and the sort of disco-mania stirred up by 1977’s Saturday Night Fever inspired many artists to try and cash in on the trend—some with greater success than others.
Diana Ross was one of the most successful major stars to ride the disco wave, beginning with 1976’s “Love Hangover.”
Her 1979 album, The Boss, produced by the Motown duo of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, was a hit—but as with every popstar, the question remains: how do you follow up a hit? The answer, ideally, is with an even bigger hit. Enter Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic.
An habitué of Studio 54, Ross was no stranger to the disco stylings of Chic, no doubt having shimmied across the dancefloor to “Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak,” and “Good Times.”
Ross tapped Rodgers and Edwards—the architects of Chic’s gorgeous, symphonic sound—to give her next album some new life. They interviewed the elusive chanteuse to get a feel on who she was as a person. “She told us that she was going to turn her world ’upside down’,” Rodgers said in a BBCFour documentary on his life. “That’s her title, those are her words. We turned it into a song.”
“Upside Down” was the first single from what would become Ross’s most successful album, diana. The song came out in June 18, 1980 and in September of that year it topped the charts for four weeks. I mean, can you imagine being a faggot in New York in the summer of 1980? Days before Pride, the AIDS epidemic still a few years away from being fully realized, and you hear the bombastic chugga-chugga-chugga opening of “Upside Down” for the first time.
Then! Fast forward a few months and it’s August 28. The radio delivers an opening salvo you’ll never forget. “I’m!” Cue guitar. “Coming!” Cue the drums. “Out!” Cue the horns and release the doves.
For “I’m Coming Out,” Rodgers and Edwards found inspiration in…well, considering what the song is, the most likeliest of places.
“We went to this transvestite club but everyone went there,” Rodgers told Billboard in 2011, using a term that seemed outdated even then. Rodgers continued, “I went to the bathroom and I happened to notice on either side there were a bunch of Diana Ross impersonators. I ran outside and called Bernard and told him about it and said, ’What if we recognize Diana Ross’s really cool alignment with her fan base in the gay community?’ So we sat down and wrote, ’I’m Coming Out.'”
The time has come for me
To break out of the shell
I have to shout
That I’m coming out
Ross initially loved the song—she regarded it as her own coming out from “under the thumb of Berry Gordy” and Motown, as diana would be her last album with the label she had been signed to since she was a teenager. But when she took it to the popular and influential DJ Frankie Crocker, who pointed out that the phrase “coming out” had particular significance in the gay community, the diva had a change of heart.
“[S]he came back really down in the dumps and she asked us, ’Why are you trying to ruin my career?'” Rodgers said. “She asked us point blank if this was a gay record and if people were going to think she was gay. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever lied to an artist. I looked her straight in the eye and said, ’Are you kidding?'”
Though that may seem surprising, or even disappointing, Rodgers points to the time and circumstances surrounding the release of the record.
“This was the summer of disco sucks,” he explained. “When that happened it was because they hated gay people, they hated black people and women. Look at the pictures of who was there at that disco sucks thing. There ain’t a gay person in that baseball stadium, there ain’t a black person there and it was a sellout, 70,000 people. And Diana Ross lived in a bubble; she lived in the world of Motown which totally protected her.”
I’m not quite sure I believe that Diana Ross was so innocent to the reality of her gay appeal. She was hanging out at 54 with Halston and Warhol and Liza, was dressed by Bob Mackie, was BFFs with Cher for a minute—who is, was, and will always be an honorary gay man. Not to mention I’m pretty sure all her dancers were gay. And I mean ’70s gay, which is, like, peak gay.
Still, in the end, Motown and Ross didn’t fully trust Rodgers and Edwards, and the diva remixed the entire album with the help of a trusted Motown engineer, and without the knowledge or consent of the original producers. Rodgers and Edwards were, understandably, bummed about the whole thing. Diana Ross was the biggest name in the game and they took working with her very seriously.
But history has rendered all complaints moot. “I’m Coming Out” followed on the heels of “Upside Down,” hitting the top five on the charts, and becoming the staple opening salvo at nearly every Ross performance since.
Her tenth solo album, and final for Motown, diana went on to sell nine million copies worldwide, becoming her best-selling album to date. In 1997, The Notorious B.I.G. famously sampled “I’m Coming Out” for perennial club banger “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems,” introducing the song and Miss Ross to another generation.
Whether she was initially aware of it or not, Ross came around to embracing her gay icon status, covering that other quintessential gay anthem “I Will Survive.”
The video not only paid homage to the drag queens who had inspired Rodgers and Edwards to write “I’m Coming Out”—
—but also featured Diana Ross superfan and noted supermodel of the world, RuPaul.
Nearly 40 years after it arrived in a fanfare of horns and keys, “I’m Coming Out” still slaps harder than nearly anything today. Its lyrics continue to resonate with anyone seeking or experiencing their own liberation.
I’m spreadin’ love
There’s no need to fear
And I just feel so glad
Every time I hear
I’m coming out
I want the world to know
Got to let it show
“Im Coming Out” is the sound of unbridled joy and freedom and self-actualization, which is why, in addition to its lyrical content, it has always had particular appeal to the queer community. At the end of the day, we just want to be free and, of course, we just wanna dance.