"I just kind of lived my life naturally and did what I wanted to do," — Lesley Gore
In honour of Lesbian Day of Visibility recently, we wanted to look at a woman whose music is incredibly well-known, but whose queerness is often erased. Her music has been used in PSAs and presidential campaigns alike, and she worked hard to become a prolific singer, songwriter, actress, and LGBTQ+ activist. Lesley Gore was a vibrant and proud Jewish lesbian. Unlike many of the people we write about, she was fortunate enough to have the language to talk about her identity—and did. It’s an unfortunate truth that one of the rare people we’ve written about who used clear terms to describe their experiences still had her experiences erased.
Born in 1942 as Lesley Sue Goldstein, Gore’s family changed their name shortly after her birth, likely to combat rising antisemitism. She and her brother spent their childhoods in New Jersey. Gore’s early years were mostly uneventful—until she turned 16. Her vocal coach at the time recorded a demo that eventually found its way to the producer Quincy Jones. Jones would later go on to work with stars like Michael Jackson, but he and Gore found their start together.
Gore found her first hit single with “It’s My Party (And I’ll Cry If I Want To).” It’s success boosted not only her career but also that of Jones, who quickly became the first black VP at Mercury Records. Gore’s success continued with a new style. When “You Don’t Own Me” was released in 1964, Gore went from a sweet, heartbroken young woman to an independent one. Even years later upon releasing a revised version, Gore felt it was a particularly special song: "It's a song that takes on new meaning every time you sing it." It changed not only the way the public viewed the singer but the conversations that were being had about women. It became an anthem of independence and feminist ideals.
During the hype of her first few releases, she attended Sarah Lawrence College, studying literature. She noted that women there considered pop music uncool. "Had I been tall with blonde hair, had I been Mary Travers, I would have gotten along fine,” the young singer said. Still, she felt it was important to give herself options; music was a far too uncertain path to pursue without a backup plan. In fact, she only toured during the summer and holidays; she enjoyed spending her weekends holed up in the library.
It was in school that she got involved in activism, first volunteering for Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Though she continued to perform music and act in films and television, even working with her brother to create music for the film Fame, she would come back to activism again and again.
Later meeting Bella Abzug, the first woman mentor in her life and a leader in the women’s rights movement, changed her approach to activism. “She kind of mentored me as to what’s important for women and where to put my energies in terms of gay women, and what I could best do to help women in our community and children. And that’s pretty much what I live by now, pretty much where I like to concentrate my efforts. You can only bite off so much, so you gotta know what you want to do.”
There’s something to be said about the fact that a woman whose music inspired so many conversations around men and heterosexuality was herself a lesbian. She lived at a time when heteronormativity was expected, perhaps even more than today. She dated men and women while she was young, but her first serious relationship in her twenties confirmed for her that she was a lesbian. Though she believed that her family and friends understood, she didn’t publically come out until 2004 when she hosted the PBS series In the Life, which focused on LGBT issues. It was easier to let the public assume who she was rather than risk her career—and her future.
During the height of her fame, she allowed and perhaps encouraged the mixed perception of the public. She was a weepy teenager and an independent woman and a teen heartthrob and a young lesbian. She was a complex woman who could not and would not be condensed into easy terms. Though she was not open about being a lesbian yet, she said that she did not hide it. When she did come out in 2004, she said it “was just kind of my way of saying, here I am and this is what I feel I should be doing now, and it was sort of a natural evolution for me as opposed to, you know, this great gong in the head.”
Lesley Gore passed away in New York at the age of 68. Her partner of 33 years, Lois Sasson, stayed at her side.
Her music, particularly her rendition of “You Don’t Own Me,” continues to be a symbol of feminism and women’s rights; it’s been used in film, television, and ads for things like marriage equality and reproductive rights. Upon her death, rapper G-Eazy and singer Grace released their rendition of the classic. Grace said that she has been inspired by Gore’s career and wanted to give the song—and her—the justice it deserved. “It’s so important to go after what you want, to be strong. Lesley’s generation paved the way, so I felt like this was a way to say thank you and to keep that momentum going.”
Gore spent her life in the limelight, and she walked a careful line between personal and private life. We often discuss the idea of coming out as if it is inevitable; for some, it is never. For others, it is a celebration. And for others still, it is quiet and constant. Lesley Gore felt that it was no one’s business but hers, and she came out in her own time. Those around her, she believed, already knew. Whether she worried about her career and safety or just wanted to have something for herself, she made a decision that is only hers to make. Each of us must decide when, how, and if we want to come out; it is a deeply personal experience. No one is owed your story, and choosing to share it is a courageous act.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Farrell, M. (2017). “Forebears: The Teenage Wisdom Of 'Lesley Gore Sings Of Mixed-Up Hearts’.” NPR.
Gaar, G. G. (2002). She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock and Roll. Seal Press.
Glitz, M. (2016.) "Singing Her Own Tune: Lesley Gore Is on Her Second Run of Celebrity-From the "It's My Party" Songbird of the '60s to the out Singer-Songwriter of 2005's Quietly Haunting Indie CD Ever Since." The Advocate.
Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd.
Sinclair, P. (2015). “Lesley Gore: Lesbian, Jewish, Feminist.” My Jewish Learning.
Swartz, S. (2005). “Interview with Lesley Gore.” AfterEllen.