In light of Glasgow becoming one of Europe’s top five queer destinations, Joy Kerr explores the legacies of two of the city’s most influential queer acts: Bronski Beat and SOPHIE. Despite the years between them, she finds pertinent parallels in both their ambivalent relationship with the city and defiance in the face of prejudice.
I leave in the morning with everything you own in a little black case. Alone on a platform, the wind and the rain on a sad, lonely face – Smalltown Boy, Bronski Beat
I was just a lonely girl in the eyes of my inner child. But I could be anything I want – Immaterial, SOPHIE
But it was not until 1980 that homosexuality was decriminalised in Scotland, 13 years after England.
By then, Jimmy Somerville had already left his home in Ruchill in Glasgow, stating that ”the day I was born was the day I arrived at Euston station.” During the same year, the British Gay Press published the first article about AIDS, titled “Gay cancer or mass media scare?” By 1984, Edinburgh had become the AIDS capital of Europe, the same year that Bronski Beat released their hit song, Smalltown Boy.
Bronski Beat were a pioneering band – they Included the age of sexual consent list on the back of their debut album to highlighted the disparities between the UK and the rest of Europe’s LGBT laws. The pink triangle logo on the front, once used to mark out gay men in concentration camps, was here reclaimed as a symbol of pride. But most important was the defiantly unambiguous lyricism. “Smalltown Boy” could not be misconstrued. It tells the story of a young man fleeing his hometown for fear of disapproval. It was not a story often heard in mainstream music; as Martin Aston notes, the need for gay men to flee small-town intolerance and pursue reinvention in the big city was not uncommon.
Though Glasgow could never be considered a small town, it had its own gay scene that Somerville frequented. But in Smalltown Boy, he was singing for any and every gay, lesbian youth rejected at home who craved safety and validation in numbers. Shaun Dellenty, a gay teacher who developed an LGBT+ training programme, describes hearing the song live. “It was as if the lyrics, words, the meaning ripples forward from 1984. I just cried when it hit the line, kicked around, and pushed around, always a lonely boy”. I hugged my partner, and never had that felt like such a privilege. I told him I loved him… because I could”. The UK is filled with similar queer stories; Smalltown Boy had a real emotional impact.
SOPHIE was born in Glasgow in 1986, 2 years after Smalltown Boy reached number 3 in the charts. Now one of Glasgow’s most recognisable queer artists, SOPHIE first emerged as an anonymous character in the UK electronic pop of the PC Music label.
Much of her early life is unknown, but we do know that her introduction to electronic music came from her dad taking her around Glasgow’s thriving rave scene as a child in the 1990s. In the years leading up to her debut album, SOPHIE would create forward-thinking, electronic pop music described by The Guardian as “immediate, compelling and genuinely new”.
But unlike the widespread, immediate appeal of Smalltown Boy, not everyone “got” SOPHIE at first. Her take on Hyperpop was criticised as satire, “pure, contemptuous parody, completely redundant, the dancefloor version of a Buzzfeed list”. Others (including, notably, Grimes) accused SOPHIE of appropriating femininity, “cashing in on capitalism’s exploitation of women and “colonising” the female body”. This is not dissimilar to contemporary criticism of Somerville’s feminine “shrieks”.
This changed with the release of her 2018 album Oil Of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides (when pronounced with a Glaswegian accent, you get I Love Every Person’s Insides), when SOPHIE publicly came out as trans. The single It’s Okay to Cry featured SOPHIE using her own voice and image for the first time. Her visionary experimentation and celebration of transgender empowerment led to critics hailing her as shaping the landscape of modern pop. From here, SOPHIE was widely recognised as a 21st-century pop pioneer.
Both of these queer Glaswegian acts stand defiant in times of LGBTQ persecution. The years following Smalltown Boy were a bleak period in British queer history. In 1988, the UK government passed Section 28, stopping councils and schools from “promoting homosexuality”. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Bronski Beat helped shift the public view of gay men. By sharing the pain and heartache of coming out amidst hostile surroundings, Smalltown Boy struck a nerve that reverberates from the 1980s and connects. It gave light to many LGBTQI+ persons in a period that sadly seems to be repeating itself in the twenty-first century.
The 2021 census found just 48,000 people identified as trans men and 48,000 as trans women. Yet transgender hate crimes rose by 11%. In December 2022, Scotland passed the Gender Recognition Act, allowing trans people to face fewer legal recognition barriers without a medical diagnosis, but just a month later the bill was blocked by the UK government. The media onslaught against trans people in 2023 also bears a striking resemblance to the smear campaigns against gay men in the 1980s. They’ve changed the target, but they’re exactly the same arguments.
Paul Kelaita argues that the focus on suburban “Smalltown” queerness benefits from reimagining cultural narratives around how gay, lesbian and queer urbanity is embedded in a place and that it can be reimagined via music and art. It’s been almost 40 years since Smalltown Boy and Glasgow is now seen as the ‘gay elsewhere’ we were searching for.
SOPHIE died in 2021. While her music and empowerment were felt worldwide, she had an incredible impact on Glasgow. Her pursuit for liberation and acceptance continues to thrive in the vibrant queer club scene of the city. Each month you can find club nights in her name. Artists like Taahliah cite her as their biggest inspiration. And, of course, her music continues to reach and inspire audiences.
The excellence of Glasgow’s current vibrant queer scene is the enduring legacy of SOPHIE. Her influence still echoes through the streets of Glasgow, shaping the city’s sonic fabric.