Pete Burns: An Unacknowledged Scouse Icon

Posted on: 6 February 2024 by Francesca Foulkes in 2024 posts

A photograph of Pete Burns performing

In honour of LGBT+ History Month, BA International Relations student, Francesca Foulkes talks about Pete Burns, an often-overlooked queer Scouser whose story highlights the ongoing marginalisation of LGBT+ and gender non-conforming people, especially in the music industry.

Born on the Wirral in 1959, Pete Burns dropped out of school at age 14 because of the discrimination he faced for his unconventionally androgynous appearance. He then began working in a record shop and formed his first band, which by 1980 had been renamed Dead or Alive. In 1985, their groundbreaking single “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” hit No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart, catapulting Dead or Alive and Burns to fame. In his personal life, Burns married Lynne Corlett in 1980, but they divorced amicably in 2006 and Burns entered a civil partnership with Michael Simpson in 2007. Although he was frequently questioned about his gender identity, Burns reiterated that he was a cisgender man but loosely categorised his sexuality as “queer”, stating that “There’s got to be a completely different terminology and I’m not aware if it’s been invented yet. I’m just Pete”.

Throughout his life, Burns was targeted for his gender-non-conforming appearance and perceived bisexuality. In 1980, the registrar conducting his marriage with Corlett cruelly asked which one of them was the bride, and in 1985 his limousine was mobbed by teenagers yelling homophobic slurs. When his Greatest Hits album was released in 2003, his record company marketed it exclusively to the LGBT+ community, demonstrating their doubts that an openly queer star could produce an album that would be popular with a heterosexual audience. Despite this, Burns remained positive, and later in life, he refused to let go of Simpson’s hand when they were in public and believed that same-sex couples should have the confidence to express their love for one another without fear of what people would think. He donated part of his earnings from his appearance on Big Brother to Mermaids, a charity for transgender youth.

Although it would be nice to think that the hostility Burns faced is a thing of the past, the music industry is still rife with discrimination. A recent Government report found that misogynistic discrimination is endemic throughout the music industry alongside rampant homophobia and transphobia. Furthermore, in the UK, hate crimes targeting transgender people have risen by 56% from 2021 to 2022 and homophobic hate crimes have risen by 41% in the same period. As we remember Scouse queer icons like Pete Burns, we must remain conscious of a political climate that is becoming increasingly hostile to LGBT+ individuals, both in the music industry and across society more broadly.