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What It’s Really Like Being LGBT+ in the Arts

2019-06-30T00:33:08+00:00

 

Pride month—one of my favorite months of the year—is coming to a close. It’s been, as always, a delightful chance for my LGBT+ friends and me to celebrate who we are, be more open about our usual selves, and in some cases even come out for the first time. Though there are still many people out there who would rather have us not exist, and the fight against discrimination both legally and in everyday life is far from over, we have come a very, very long way since the dawn of the new millennium. And I’m excited to play my tiny role in our making history.

Being in the arts and humanities field for a living, we may statistically have more liberally minded people in our camp. Our discipline is, at least stereotypically, filled with LGBT+ people and their allies more so than other career paths. Our corner of the world comes across to many as an eccentric safe haven where everyone can be themselves.

With that, as with any stereotype, comes a slew of misconceptions. And I want to try to set those misconceptions straight (no pun intended).

So without further ado, here are seven things that you may not know about LGBT+ people in the arts!


 

 

1. Not every LGBT+ artist wants to be seen as such.

I am a composer. I am also a composer who happens to be queer.

In my opinion, even though my identity as an LGBT+ person is an important part of my life, it’s actually one of the least interesting things about me. I’m not one who defaults to being visible or a blatantly obvious member of my tribe. Some people call it “straight acting,” even though I despise that term. In fact, I suspect a small handful people who read this blog post did not previously know that I’m part of the LGBT+ community. It’s something they may have speculated about (if they cared), but they could only guess one way or another.

This by no means makes me ashamed of what I am. But for multiple reasons—some of which I’ll talk about below—I prefer to keep my queer identity reasonably quiet. It’s for the most part not relevant to what I do as a musician, and certainly not what I do as an educator. So I only bring it up when it feels necessary. Usually during Pride month.

Is it important that I be seen? To be honest, I’m not 100% sure. I suspect that it is important and appropriate to a certain degree. But I also don’t want it to be a big deal. I don’t want to be seen as the “gay teacher” or the “gay musician” (for one thing, gay isn’t how I personally identify anyways). Like I said at the start… I’m a composer who happens to be queer. It’s just a fun tidbit about me.


 

 

2. Our sexual and gender identity can deeply influence our art.

That fun tidbit about me, however incidental I want it to be for me, still has a huge impact on what I do professionally, and obviously day-to-day life. It of course has an impact on what patronages I support, what publishers I’m most keen to work with, and the subject matter for some pieces I write. That said, I’ve long suspected that it goes deep enough to influence the sound of my music itself!

During my masters, I took a musicology class on Baroque music where we each had to lead a seminar discussion on some assigned articles. As it happened, I was given two class days to discuss an article that discussed Handel’s sexuality and whether or not he might have been gay. I decided to structure the discussion into two parts, one for each class day: “Was Handel gay?” and “Why in the world would it matter if he were?”

I half expected the second day to be a dull discussion of “of course it doesn’t matter!”, but I ended up being very surprised. We had discussed several 17th– and 18th-century gender theories in class previously, and we tried to see how those ideas of masculine and feminine thought could be seen in Handel’s writing style. If there was such a thing as “masculine music” and “feminine music” during that time… could there be, in fact, a concept of gay music that brought the two together in a subtle way?

And we determined that, although it was impossible to say for sure, there was a strong possibility it could very well be a thing. Nothing obvious to the modern or contemporary listener, and certainly not to the everyday lay listener. But if an artist embraces a different set of expectations than the cisgender-heterosexual norm, what gender norms left in the art world will similarly be embraced differently.


 

 

3. We still experience discrimination, even and especially professionally.

I’m going to start this section with a huge caveat: I am a cisgender white male who had a safe and secure middle-class upbringing. My life is full of more privilege than I can likely acknowledge. What discrimination I face in the arts isn’t nearly as prominent as that of women, people of color, transgender people, etc. And my economic status provided me with enough opportunities to pursue my dreams more so than those below the poverty line.

But I’ve still had to be careful about what professorships or grants I apply to.

Teaching job at a school that has a clause on “adhering to Christian values?” Can’t apply to that. State college in a small red-state town? Probably not a good fit. Right-to-work state without explicit protections for LGBT+ people? Definitely thinking twice on that.

Like I said at the start, there are reasons I keep my queer identity reasonably quiet.

And as someone who is also a church musician, obviously there’s tension with certain denominations. One church I worked with once had several people trashing homosexuals while I was there, so I kept myself quiet enough to avoid conflict. I never took another gig with them after that.

And I’ve had several friends who haven’t been so lucky. One in particular I’m thinking of was dismissed from an extremely prestigious church job before he even started on payroll. All because a congregation member filed a complaint that he had a long-term male partner.

There are safe havens working in the arts. But the art world is not one giant safe haven by default.


 

 

4. Many of us work in religious venues, and we can be religious ourselves.

The most discrimination in the arts that I’ve seen has been through religious venues.

All the same, out of all my church musician colleagues, I actually know more gay and bisexual organists than I know straight ones. Probably because I work for an Episcopal church, one of the more liberal and affirming denominations in American Christianity. And a lot of LGBT+ people like playing the organ for some reason, apparently.

Unless you’re part of an extremely conservative church denomination, there’s a very good chance that there’s at least one LGBT+ person in your church choir, out or otherwise. Some people do it solely for the paycheck (for churches that hire extra choir members). Others do it out of an appreciation for sacred music.  Others do it out of their own religious devotion (and yes, LGBT+ people can still be religious). I, personally, do it for a combination of all three.

Religion and art have been tied together for thousands of years if not for the entirety of recorded history. In a pre-literate culture, the easiest way to communicate mythology and religious stories was through art. And when the church was one of the most rich and powerful institutions in the world, they were prime patronage for commissioned artists.

So it makes perfect since that artists of all types will be drawn to religious venues throughout history. And some of those artists will be LGBT+. Michelangelo, the painter of the Sistine chapel, immediately comes to mind.


 

 

5. Our field probably isn’t as open-minded and supportive as you think.

I remember one or two years back being part of a prominent Facebook group for classical musicians and classical music fans. One Pride month, some people decided to do a segment on a daily post featuring a prominent LGBT+ composer, either historical or current. It was a neat read for multiple artists, and I learned a lot of cool things.

The comments for every single post had a motley crew of people complaining. “Why does it matter if they’re LGBT?” “Should we feature straight musicians next?” “We should just be looking at their music.” “The only reason this composer is talked about is because they used their sexuality to get noticed.” And so forth and so on.

When I lived in the south (Miami doesn’t really count as the south), I sometimes heard good-old-boy musicians complaining about “all of the f*****s” in the music industry. LGBT+ music students in school were mocked incessantly behind their backs. Old friends—emphasis on “old”—were part of this, and now they’re directing high school bands and choirs where they likely have more than one LGBT+ student.

This was a decade ago, and we’ve come leaps and bounds since then. But some areas haven’t advanced as smoothly even by the most well intentioned of people. One person I knew from school was telling me about a transgender high school student that he had in his choir and how he felt somewhat clueless on how to navigate his/her/their journey in the group (I’ve since forgotten what pronouns the kid chose to use, hence the ambiguity). These are things that a lot of music educators just haven’t learned how to handle yet, if they’ve even had a reason to give it any thought at all.

So when I hear straight musicians griping about LGBT+ visibility, I can’t help but roll my eyes.


 

 

6. Not all of us are out.

Speaking of visibility… you’ve probably seen by now in this post why some LGBT+ artists keep that aspect of their lives completely to themselves, even to the point of staying mostly or completely closeted. I can think of seven musicians off the top of my head who have told me and a select few others their orientation but still haven’t told the community at large—sometimes even their close straight friends or family members.

That number would have been nine as of two weeks ago. Two have since had the courage to come out publicly, thankfully with tons of love and support behind their backs as they did so.

I suspect at least two of the other seven would be disowned by their family if they ever came out. I hope I’m very, very wrong.

This is one of the reasons why I constantly stress to people, especially educators, to never assume that just because you know an LGBT+ artist’s orientation, everyone else must know too. And another thing I stress this that “coming out” is not just one singular event; every single time I meet a new client, student, or collaborator, I have to decide for myself whether or not that person can be trusted with knowing about this part of me yet.

A good rule of thumb is to never bring up something that could indicate someone else is LGBT+ unless they bring it up first. Coming out still isn’t 100% safe, and no one should be outed without their explicit consent.


 

 

7. Not every LGBT+ artist is “proud” to be.

This will involve telling a bit of my own very personal story: I didn’t come out to the general public until I was 25 years old. I started hinting at it—tiny, tiny hints—at age 14, told the first person explicitly at age 20, and gradually worked my way up to talking about it openly. And that wasn’t entirely because I was afraid of people hating me for it. I already knew that most of the people who mattered wouldn’t really care at the end of the day.

The reason it took me so long was because of one specific person’s judgement of me for being queer: myself.

I didn’t like the fact that I was queer, even though I was surrounded by other LGBT+ people and liked them enough myself. I still didn’t fit in with that community. To be honest, I didn’t fit in anywhere (don’t many artists feel that way?). And I blamed it on my queerness, which of course made me not particularly proud of it. Add in that I was brought up extremely religious in a conservative denomination, and you’ve got a good dose of what we call now “internalized homophobia.”

And that definitely had an impact on the music I wrote during those years. If you listen to pieces from my portfolio from 2005 to roughly 2010, a lot of those pieces are intense and angry. And I don’t think any of them were exactly joyful.

I’ve since changed my tune (I know, enough with the puns). As I grew more accepting of this part of myself, with that came more pride in who I am and what I’ve been through. And with that came a neat change in my writing style. There were more moments of calm, and I exchanged a lot of turmoil for triumph. More of my endings were “happy” sounding. Even the pieces I wrote that were explicitly about mourning had a softness and peace to them. Retroactively, it’s fascinating for me to watch.

But not every LGBT+ artist I know, especially the ones who are still closeted, has shared that journey. And not every LGBT+ person I know—even the out ones!—likes the fact that they are LGBT+. Some of them still to this day wish they were straight instead of gay/bi/queer/whatever.

To put all of this simply, I’ll close with an eighth point…


 

 

8. Being LGBT+ in the arts is just like being LGBT+ everywhere else.

It’s not that we have an easier time in the arts. It’s that, for whatever reasons, there’s more of us here. And I’m not even sure how true that is either.

I think many people are under the impression that we have an easier time than people in other fields. That we automatically have job security, societal security, and security in our own identity. But those aren’t guaranteed any more than they’re guaranteed in other career paths. Every LGBT+ person has had a rough road. And that road doesn’t get any easier without more visibility, acceptance, and education.

So… guess I should be visible after all.

And what better time than Pride month, at least what’s left of it?

Happy Pride, everyone! And thanks for reading to the end.

About the Author:

David Pegel is an active composer, performer, and music educator. He currently resides and works in the Miami metropolitan area.

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