“Rod” McKuen (April 29, 1933 – January 29, 2015) was an American singer-songwriter, musician and poet. He was one of the best-selling poets in the United States during the late 1960s. Throughout his career, McKuen produced a wide range of recordings, which included popular music, spoken word poetry, film soundtracks and classical music. He earned two Academy Award nominations and one Pulitzer nomination for his music compositions. McKuen’s translations and adaptations of the songs of Jacques Brel were instrumental in bringing the Belgian songwriter to prominence in the English-speaking world. McKuen’s songs sold over 100 million recordings worldwide, and 60 million books of his poetry were sold as well, according to the Associated Press. This is known to many. But what’s not widely known about is McKuen’s queer past and his gay activism work.
McKuen was a longtime supporter of gay rights. not many know that in the 1950s, he held a leadership role in the San Francisco chapter of the Mattachine Society. McKuen also publicly opposed Anita Bryant and dubbed her: ‘Ginny Orangeseed’—and gave benefit performances gay discos in Miami, New York, and LA to raise money for gay rights groups to fight her. He also engaged in AIDS activism for well over a decade, participating in numerous fundraisers in support of AIDS related charities.
The cover for his 1977 album Slide… Easy In album, (pictured left), depicts the arm of 1970’s gay porn star Bruno, his fist filled with Crisco, hovering above a can with the label “disco” on it. The so-called “Crisco/Disco” album featured the song “Don’t Drink the Orange Juice,” released during the national “gaycot” of Florida orange juice in response to the Anita Bryant campaign.
Later that same year the Associated Press asked McKuen if he was gay. He responded: “I’ve been attracted to men and I’ve been attracted to women. I have a 16-year-old son. You put a label on.” By the end of the year, the Baltimore Sun casually described McKuen as a homosexual. While the gay newspaper, The Advocate, in 1976, it had gave McKuen the dubious “Something You do in the Dark” closet case award for refusing to identify as gay.
In 2004, a reporter asked McKuen once again if he was gay. As with his AP interview two decades earlier, McKuen refused to label his sexual activities:
Am I gay? Let me put it this way, Collectively I spend more hours brushing my teeth than having sex so I refuse to define my life in sexual terms. I’ve been to bed with women and men and in most cases enjoyed the experience with either sex immensely. Does that make me bi-sexual? Nope. Heterosexual? Not exclusively. Homosexual? Certainly not by my definition.
I am sexual by nature and I continue to fall in love with people and with any luck human beings of both sexes will now and again be drawn to me. I can’t imagine choosing one sex over the other, that’s just too limiting. I can’t even honestly say I have a preference. I’m attracted to different people for different reasons.
I do identify with the Gay Rights struggle, to me that battle is about nothing more or less than human rights. I marched in the 50’s and 60’s to protest the treatment of Blacks in this country and I’m proud of the fact that I broke the color barrier in South Africa by being the first artist to successfully demand integrated seating at my concerts. I am a die-hard feminist and will continue to speak out for women’s rights as long as they are threatened. These, of course, are all social issues and have nothing to do with my sex life (although admittedly I’ve met some pretty hot people of both sexes on the picket line.)
Singer Rod McKuen died on January 29, 2015 with many new outlets erasing the fact that for over half a century McKuen selflessly and proudly advocated for gay rights while refusing to put sexual labels on himself.
And now you know.