The Story Behind Diana Ross’s Gay Anthem “I’m Coming Out”

Posted October 12, 2016 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

At the height of the homophobic “Disco Sucks” campaign, Motown superstar Diana Ross sings a tribute to her loyal gay fans

“There’s a new me coming out and I just have to live, and I wanna give. I’m completely positive.” – Diana Ross
dianaross-imcomingoutWhen Diana Ross recorded “I’m Coming Out” in late 1979 for her Chic-produced self-titled album for Motown, she automatically detected a deep secret beneath its cheery lyrics. Inside the lyrics of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers was a Morse code to the millions of men and women who either identified as gay or who weren’t exactly brave enough to come out of the closet. This was to be their “coming out” anthem. And it was intentional.

On many occasions, Rodgers has explained the songwriting process of the song and how Diana reacted to the news of the song’s deeper purpose, even in his intimate autobiography Le Freak. It’s been alleged that the inspiration behind the song actually came from a late-night visit at a now-defunct New York City gay bar called the Gilded Grape. Another source named GG Barnum Room as the hangout spot. So why were Rodgers and Edwards hanging out at the gay bars? Well, at the gay bars in flashy New York City, the two were mostly introduced to “cutting-edge underground music and [eclectic] performers.”

During an interview with Billboard, Rodgers mentioned running across Diana lookalikes, and that was where the magic began. “We went to this transvestite club…[and] I went to the bathroom and 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’s really cool alignment with her fan base in the gay community?’ So we sat down and wrote, ‘I’m Coming Out.'”

According to Rodgers, Ross originally felt the song would sabotage her career. “Diana took a rough mix to the top DJ in the country who hated it and she came back really down in the dumps and she asked us, ‘Why are you trying to ruin my career?’ 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? No, this is your ‘coming out’ song.” Ross at the time was recording her last album for Motown and “coming out” from under the shadow of its owner, Berry Gordy.”

On another occasion, during a 2012 Billboard panel discussion at BB Kings in New York City, Rodgers chimed in on the importance of making a memento for Ross to her gay fans while making their one-time stint album with her. “The one thing we knew about Diana Ross was that she was an icon not only to the black community and not only to the female community, but the gay community who was so supportive of Diana,” he said.

At the time, Ross was quite sensitive about taking big risks during this time, as label execs were hammering her for a career breakthrough. But knowing this was an ode to her devout gay fans and to the many who preferred her longevity over new-age disco divas like Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor, Ross agreed to the recording.

Released in the summer of 1980 as the second single from Diana, the follow-up to “Upside Down,” I’m Coming Out” was a Top 40 smash, peaking at number five on the pop charts. And even with the gay-centric lyricism and as the volatile homophobic war on disco began to organize, the public and mainstream ate it up. In the gay-friendly discotheques, the funky disco single quickly became their mantra, soaring almost immediately to the number one slot on Billboard’s Hot Disco Songs chart.

Leading up to the creation of “Upside Down,” gay anthems had been done before. The majority of them were mainstream standards that were adopted into gay heritage, like Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or the more recent Carl Bean’s prolific disco gem, “I Was Born This Way,” also a Motown release. But “I’m Coming Out” was a different case. This featured a heterosexual artist unequivocally celebrating her gay base and giving them the power to rein in a jubilant crossover song to call their own. Most importantly about the song’s legacy, Ross, a heterosexual, has used the song to boost her profile as an ally towards the LGBT community. To this day, she continues to open her live concerts with “I’m Coming Out.”

When asked by Rolling Stone about what the perfect pop song for her was, she brought up her musical gift to the gays. “I like songs that are positive and say something inspirational and make a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “‘I’m Coming Out’ is still one of those messages, whether it’s for gays or whether it’s for women.”



ALTLOUD is a new music + lifestyle section at HiFi Magazine focusing on the music market aimed at our LGBT readers, followers and subscribers.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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