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May 21st, 2012

Coming Out with Donna Summer

The music my friends liked when I was a teenager intimidated me. It was the head-banging rock of the early seventies, and it felt alien and unappetizing. Most of all, it just felt… straight, in a way I knew I could never be. Alone in my room, I listened to my beloved Broadway musicals, and resigned myself to the fact that popular music would never really speak to me.

And then in 1977, when I was sixteen years old, I began sneaking into the only gay bar in Shreveport, Louisiana. Inside I found joy and liberty, fashioned with bell bottomed pants and handsome smiles and the dance floor – oh my God the dance floor – centering the nightclub was a glorious explosion of colored light and swinging hips and arms reaching up, up to the sky as if we could clutch it in our hands. The music was an entrancing bombardment of sound, and one song, one mesmerizing invitation to touch the heavens, was played again and again.

It was Donna Summer. And she was singing “I Feel Love.”

The track was really the triumph of producer Giorgio Moroder, who created the driving, synthesized beat that would define Donna Summer’s music for years to come. But I knew I had to own this amazing song, and soon I stood proudly at the record store cashier to buy my very first popular album, Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday.

I had found my music, my voice, and my lifelong muse.

The following year I had come out as a senior in high school, and Donna Summer was still in her “whisper period.” It was never my favorite sound from her – it felt like playing chopsticks on a grand piano – and I knew from her other album tracks that she could let it rip. As I was graduating she did just that, with the release of her iconic “Last Dance.” Her full-throttle pipes were on stunning display. Dance parties would never be the same.

By the time I left home for college in New Orleans, the music of Donna Summer had exploded into popular culture. I felt so proud of her, as if I had discovered her myself. My nights in the French Quarter were spent in the Parade disco on Bourbon Street, dancing to “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.”

The feeling of joyous exuberance that surrounded that disco is hard to describe. It was a sea of shirtless men, staking claim to our sexuality and the promise of infinite possibilities ahead. The incessant thump! thump! thump! of the beat was our clarion call, and it shouted Here! Here! Your tribe is here! We were so beautiful, in ways we were much too young to know.

And then soon, of course, the lights began to dim.

By 1982, I was struggling in Los Angeles as an aspiring actor, and Donna Summer was having a musical identity crisis. Record executives wanted a new sound for her to accompany the changing times, and her longtime producer Giorgio Moroder had been replaced by a succession of others. The red-hot Quincy Jones produced her Donna Summer album that year and their studio clashes became legendary. The album floundered and produced no significant hits.

At the Los Angeles gay pride festival the next year, I was thrilled to hear Donna’s voice again, sounding gorgeous and almighty, singing “She Works Hard for the Money.” I took to the dance floor but was somehow unable to muster the joy I had known only a few years before. Life had intervened. And it had brutal plans for the men under the dance floor tent.

Donna Summer produced dance floor singles, if not hits, in the years that followed, but we weren’t paying attention. The night club crowds dissipated, as a silent killer plucked men away one by one. AIDS had begun its murderous march through the gay community.

The villain wasn’t simply the disease in those darkest of days. It was ignorance, and the judgment that rose up from social conservatives who saw Godly retribution in the horrific deaths of our friends. And so, when Donna Summer became a born-again Christian during this period and announced she would no longer perform her early, erotically charged hit “Love to Love You, Baby,” her gay audience viewed her with immediate suspicion.

An ugly rumor began. Someone claimed to have heard her make a homophobic remark during a concert appearance. Depending on who was repeating the story, she had either said AIDS was God’s judgment, or that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. The unsubstantiated rumor swirled and grew, in an environment in which gay men were particularly sensitive to ignorance and hatred. By the time Donna Summer took it all seriously enough to set the record straight, it was too late. What was left of her popularity fell victim to the social maelstrom of AIDS.

I never believed the story, and defiantly continued buying her albums, though they appeared with less regularity. Donna Summer would have only one more true hit, “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” which I chose to perform for my maiden appearance in drag at an AIDS benefit. The fact that during this time Donna Summer was raising money for AIDS research gained little traction among emotionally bruised and unforgiving gay men.

Today, disco may be dead, but Donna Summer’s music laid the groundwork for everyone from Madonna to Lady GaGa, even if my body has found it harder to approximate the dance floor moves of my youth. But in my mind, as I blast “Dim All the Lights” in the privacy of my living room, I am young and powerful and life is making promises that are wonderful and possible.

Donna Summer is among the spirits now, joining the legions of ghosts haunting brightly colored discos from another era. She is still cooing to them, to these throngs of boisterous men, inviting them to the dance, where there is everything to celebrate and nothing to forgive.

The men are moving to the beat and laughing and holding one another. They are all beautiful, and they know it.

And they feel love.

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23 Responses to “Coming Out with Donna Summer”

  1. Cathe Hall Payne Says:

    May 21st, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    I sooo love to read what you write. I know NOT to do it at work because it leaves my throat closed of and me grabbing tissues. I grew up in those times as well and I still have a disco ball in my den….somethings you just can’t put away.

  2. Steve Kerbow Says:

    May 21st, 2012 at 1:40 pm

    Awesome read Mark! Though I came out long before Donna hit the music scene, I do have a fond memory of her first appearance here in Houston at what was then The Summit.

  3. . Jim Says:

    May 21st, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    “carrion call”? An oddly macabre slip, perhaps for “Clarion call”?
    (Oh my. Umm… oops. Corrected, sir! — Mark)

  4. Mario Says:

    May 21st, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    Great recollection of how Donna Summer both impacted our lives and reflected both a very joyous and a very sad time in our community. I completely share your journey with this great musical icon of the 70’s and 80’s. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings during these still turbulent times.

  5. Donna Gore Says:

    May 21st, 2012 at 4:35 pm

    I do remember hearing that she had made some homophobic comments regarding her religious belief that the bible says it’s wrong. Maybe because I’m straight but I didn’t care enough to investigate if it was true — but I always did like her music.

  6. Ron Says:

    May 21st, 2012 at 7:05 pm

    Oh Mark how your blog about the years with Donna Summers brings back so many good memories. Then Aids hit I lost sooo many friends. The Los Angeles parties at The Probe and Gregs Blue Dot gone forever.
    Will there ever be joy such as in those years again.
    Take Care Mark,
    Ron

  7. Joseph Cotton Says:

    May 21st, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    I remember that time very well. You and I used to dance to the music at the Florentine Club in Shreveport,La. When you were in the 12th grade. You brought back so many fond memories for me. Thanks so much, those memories still are with me to this day! Many nights at the club and the Spaghetti Factory! Thanks for the wonderful memories!!

    Joseph L. Cotton

  8. James Allen Says:

    May 21st, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Mark,
    You hit it out of the park with this one. Our remembrances are similar and clear to me and the fact that we were in some of the same places at the same time are more than coincidental. Thanks for not letting her life go unnoticed here.

    Jim

  9. david patient Says:

    May 21st, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Mark, what a great piece…I could very easily have penned a similar article as you told my story…well done…you spoke to a place in me I have been in years and brought tears to my eyes.
    “But in my mind, as I blast “Dim All the Lights” in the privacy of my living room, I am young and powerful and life is making promises that are wonderful and possible.”….and then came AIDS…I was diagnosed in early 83 {GRIDS} and for me, the party was over….or so I thought…and almost 30 years later, I’m still here, a bit bruised, somewhat tattered and aging and I thank God that I was there and lived in that time. My heart goes out to those who were not there as they will never know what we know. Thanks for a wonderful start to my day….

  10. Mommie Dammit Says:

    May 22nd, 2012 at 9:50 am

    Ah, disco… glittering lights, glittering bodies, throbbing bass and throbbing… huh? What? Wadda ya mean “NSFW”?!

    Thank you, Mark, for a poignant remembrance – of a time, a revolution and a voice. For me, it isn’t the disco that I remember Donna Summer for most. It was a certain 4th of July house party, where my beloved Danny and I did our pre-Swaze dirty dance to the extended remix of “Love to love you baby” and oblivious to the fact that we’d stopped half the people there in their tracks. I can still see his blushing face and sexy, leering grin as the music ended and the applause and cat-calls started, then he lead me off the dance floor by my pony tail… this is where the NSFW part begins.

    I have to agree with David, above, that those of us who came into our own during Disco know a certain sense of liberation and joie de vivre that no other generation since has quite captured. We were young, we were beautiful, we were powerful and so very much alive. The beat of the dance floor was our call to celebrate it, and Donna’s voice was an enormous part of it.

  11. Anne Says:

    May 22nd, 2012 at 10:15 am

    We learn so much, so late. Would love to have seen you dancing in the clubs in Shreveport!

  12. joe tate Says:

    May 22nd, 2012 at 11:09 am

    Thanks again Mark…for capturing a time when we had nothing to worry about but what to wear and when we could find time for a disco nap……Time of innocence and freedom and the soundtrack that reminds us of that time…..a scrapbook of a time that like the 60’s …will never come again….I am so glad I was apart of it and am here to remember it…..

  13. Chris Glaser Says:

    May 22nd, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    Thanks for reminding us of a wonderful era of dance and music!

  14. Brad Says:

    May 22nd, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Thank you for a deeply moving and powerful revelation of a time before me, whose ripple effects shaped the world I came out in. I came out in 95 — into a world that was still reeling from the anger and loss of the AIDS pandemic … This was heartfelt and I thank you.
    Brad

  15. Brian Says:

    May 23rd, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Thanks Mark,
    Donna, Brings back Wonderful memories of our youth. I saw her a couple of years back and danced like I was Twenty again.

    God Bless and Keep you
    Brian B.
    Newport Beach, CA.

  16. Phil Says:

    May 23rd, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Great Job Mark, Thank You for bringing back a time that has helped form the man I’ve become, as well as the man I dream of becoming.. What a time.. tears come to my eyes as I so fondly remember all those who have gone before me, my three lovers and so many good friends.. Did I know back then that my goals would be to become a less selfish, more compassionate, understanding, spiritually fit man… No probably not.. but here we are.. thanks to those that have gone before us.. I for one know they are proud of us.
    May your Higher Power continue to Bless you and yours.

  17. Nancy Says:

    May 24th, 2012 at 9:04 am

    Mark,

    Remember when I visited you in LA and we went to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson? Donna Summer performed “She Works Hard for the Money” that night! You were so excited. That was a thrill for both of us.

    Love you, Sis

  18. Bobby Says:

    May 26th, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    Thanks for the memories of The Florentine daze!
    Signed,
    The Beautiful Blonde on the Dance Floor….

  19. John Says:

    May 30th, 2012 at 8:24 pm

    I too was a big Donna Summer fan. When I first heard “Love to Love You Baby” I was not suddenly taken by a song that lasted so long with the “oooz and ahhzz” It left me scratching my head but yet, got my interest .. who was this chick. We’d not quite heard a song in the top 40 that was anything like it.

    Well paying a little more attention and watching her progress as an entertainer and really getting into the disco dance craze, I became a fan. What a voice.

    I remember also Donna holding a press conference where she completely denied any derogatory words toward the gay life style or homosexuals. She said it was a rumor that got out , and it upset her very much. Perhaps someone can dig that up .. but it doesn’t matter, she was a great artist and defined a very unique moment in the music industry whether you hated disco or not. The thing about gay men is they know how to dance and like dancing .. Donna fit the time perfectly.

  20. Jeff Coulter Says:

    December 12th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    I remember those days well. For me it was sneaking into West Coast Production Company in San Diego using a friends ID. When Love to Love You Baby came out I was in heaven listening to the 21 gun salute to the multiple O. Your article is right on, Mark. Her music will forever be what I listened to in my care free youth, when I thought nothing could ever go wrong and that I was indestructible.

  21. Jeff Coulter Says:

    June 18th, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    I loved it as much this time as I did the first time, and I still teared up. Donna was the sound track to my coming out and accepting who I was. The dance floor was alive when she sang.

  22. George Says:

    June 18th, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    I remember seeing a TV (no pun intended) interview with Donna Summer and she was irked that someone had started a rumor that she was really a drag queen. I have to admit I thought it was true for a little while, observing her big boned amazon stature and too much make up.

  23. Mark Says:

    June 18th, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    Glad to read this beautifully written piece again, thanks for the link. My favorite was “Love Is In Control” and when I came out in the early eighties we would RUN onto the dance floor as soon as those opening clicks and licks started. Donna really was the goddess who reigned over our collective disco-coming-out days. So much fun.

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