It would have been enough if Gloria Gaynor’s legacy was just “I Will Survive,” the definitive, 1978 disco chart-topper that became a gay anthem as the community went on to face the AIDS crisis in subsequent years. But “enough” was not going to cut it for the mirrorball queen.
In 1983, Gaynor blessed the gays once more with “I Am What I Am,” a shimmering spin on one of the most memorable tunes from Broadway’s La Cage aux Folles. And make no mistake –– while the release didn’t match the commercial success of Gaynor’s biggest hit, it made an indelible mark on the LGBTQ+ community. RuPaul even said it brought him to tears.
It’s no coincidence that a club-kissed reimagining of “I Am What I Am” found an audience with the gays, considering it originated in Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s groundbreaking (and uber-queer) musical.
La Cage aux Folles centers on a gay couple working in a French night club. While Georges manages the joint, his flamboyant partner Albin handles entertainment, donning drag to perform as Zaza. When the arrival of a conservative politician threatens the club’s future, Albin is asked by his lover to tone it down. His response? “I am what I am.”
Serving as the act one finale, the song leaves audiences with something to chew on, as Albin’s performance goes from plaintive to powerful. “I am what I am / I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity,” he declares. “I bang my own drum / Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty.”
The tune found its way to Gaynor via producer Joel Diamond, who immediately heard its pop potential. Having produced her fifth album, Diamond quickly recruited the singer to bring his vision to life alongside Shep Pettibone (the eventual co-writer of Madonna’s “Vogue”), who mixed the track.
Channeling her trademark disco vigor over a pulsating beat, Gaynor brought triumph and ownership to the lyrics, belting, “Life’s not worth a damn ’til you can shout out / I am what I am.” Rising above snappy synths, authority transforms into empowerment as the song fades out with bold affirmations of “I am strong,” “I do belong,” and “I am as good as you.”
The single peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart and was an international success, finding resonance with LGBTQ+ people around the world.
In 1984, Sandra Mihanovich, a queer Argentine pop singer, released a Spanish version that remains a staple at Buenos Aires pride marches. The Drag Race All Stars 2 cast later performed the song at a 2016 tribute event to Fierstein. And Aqua (the Danish pop masterminds behind “Barbie Girl”) released a stripped-back cover in 2021 to commemorate Copenhagen’s WorldPride. Recently, the Broadway version appeared in the latest season of Ted Lasso, underscoring a tense moment after Colin (Billy Harris) comes out as gay to his team.
“I Am What I Am” may be the definition of a gay anthem, but Gaynor’s record with the LGBTQ+ community hasn’t always been spotless.
When asked if she thought homosexuality was a sin in 2007, Gaynor’s answer was nebulous to say the least (“I want to lead them to Christ and what he has for them,” she said.) And at a 2014 performance at The Abbey, the singer allegedly requested the WeHo club remove its go-go dancers before taking the stage. Her rep told TMZ that she wasn’t homophobic but avoided provocative displays for religious reasons, which… is a fair critique if you’ve visited The Abbey.
But at the end of the day, “I Am What I Am’ will always belong to the community. Not only was composer Jerry Herman openly gay, but Diamond (Gaynor’s producer) still refers to the track as the “official gay anthem for the world.”
The song’s self-assured statement of identity continues to uplift LGBTQ+ people –– and for that, Gaynor remains grateful. “People have shared many personal stories about how the song has uplifted, encouraged and inspired them,” she told uDiscover Music in 2020. “It’s always encouraging to me to know that I’m not just here on this planet taking up space, that I’m really doing something for others and being a positive influence in other people’s lives.”