Last year, as part of the LGBT+ Showcase, I decided to organise some performances of some classical music because I thought it should be included with the other wonderful talents on show. This led me to think about really why I wanted to include these performances of music that most people in the room had never heard of, probably didn’t care too much about and maybe didn’t even enjoy.
But I knew that including classical music, even though most people listened to different genres, was important. Not just because I enjoy the music or I study it but because I really had a gut feeling this was important for people to hear. I hoped this could change their perspectives on what is part of our collective history.
I believe that if we want to have a progressive and accepting society today, we have to acknowledge all parts of our culture and history. So writing this, I’m just going to express some thoughts on this and what I hope we can all do to gain another, hopefully insightful perspective. Now, I’m no historian so I won’t try to overstep my bounds, this is just a topic that interests me, but I hope this is a good read and maybe I’ll even throw in some jokes for you.
Music’s hidden LGBTQ+ history
I probably know most about music’s hidden LGBTQ+ history so I’ll start there. You won’t BELIEVE the effect LGBTQ+ individuals have had on music history… or maybe that does kind of make sense to you, gays do have quite a presence in pop music today. Anyway, there were so many LGBTQ+ composers and they weren’t just small names either. They’re the big names I learnt about, the ones who have shaped and reshaped music as we know what, the ones who have ultimately influenced music made today.
During Pride Month, I read an article about these composers and my first thought was ‘WHAAAAA?!?!’ How did I not know so many of them were, ya know *limps wrist*? Why was this not taught in school? Why is it not mentioned in my lectures (except Dr Beard’s ones, he’s my fav)?
Surely, it is an important factor in Schubert’s love music, surely Tchaikovsky’s isolation from being LGBTQ+ was a factor in influencing his really distraught 6th Symphony, the list could go on. You know film music, specifically superhero music? You can thank gay composer Aaron Copland for that. In fact, what we hear as American sounding orchestral music is entirely down to this group of gay (all white male) composers around the 1930s-50s.
Copland is often called the ‘Dean of American music’ but music scholar Nadine Hubbs thinks it’s more appropriate to call him ‘America’s gay daddy’. What would American’s think about this knowing they owe a big part of the culture to a gay man? Would there be as much of a problem with homophobia if his true self wasn’t swept under the rug for so long? Would any of us in the LGBTQ+ community be facing the same problems we do if Handel, Britten, Dame Ethel Smyth, Poulenc, Corelli, Chopin, Barber, Cage, Saint Saens, etc had been acknowledged fully? It’s hard to say what could have been but I think at least it would be somewhat comforting to have known, to not feel distant from history with their representation.
History and Culture
The classical world needs to get over it’s obsession with white men.
A great example of history and culture swept under the rug would be Angela Morely. A trans women who did A LOT in the world of media music and was the first openly trans person to be nominated for an Academy Award. Truly an icon. She was one of the people who arranged the music for Star Wars (a big god damn deal for culture as we all know) and also composed the music for the original Watership Down, just to name two of her biggest achievements. However, most people only ever remember John Williams when they think of Star Wars; a white cisgendered heterosexual. Why do people want to forget the diversity that makes their culture and history? Many reasons, but don’t you think we’d live in a more accepting society if we had learnt about the diversity that was always in our history?
The first C Section
Another trans person who is undeniably important is trans man James Barry, the surgeon who performed the first successful c section. According to The Lancet, 21% of births worldwide are born through c section every year. That’s roughly 29.7 million people who have been saved because of this procedure. Just IMAGINE that number of people, no, really try to. You can’t.
The impact of this trans man’s legacy is mind boggling. It is crazy to read about him being addressed with the wrong pronouns and with his dead name. James Barry never openly came out as a trans man but that was because he was born during the Victorian era, notorious for repressing many aspects of sexuality and gender beyond the accepted binary.
It’s really sad to see him deadnamed by some articles and for The Guardian to make the claim that he had to hide his assigned gender in order to make it into the male dominated medical profession.
If we didn’t have this transphobia around James Barry and learnt how a trans icon saved so many lives and if we recognised all trans people in history, would trans people be as forgotten about and marginalised as they are today?
Again, it’s hard to tell but it certainly sounds better than what we have.
The first women in space
Another few examples and then I’m done I promise.
Leonardi Di Vinci and Michelangelo are fairly well known to be LGBTQ+ but did you know Sally Ride, the first woman in space, was a lesbian? Children idolise astronauts so just think how nice it would be if they could also have idolised a lesbian. If I saw a child say how they love this astronaut and that the astronaut is also LGBTQ+ and they think that’s pretty cool too, I think I’d cry. Think how nice it would have been to look up to someone like that while you were in the closet, someone so inspiring as an astronaut.
James Baldwin is widely thought of as the 20th Centuries’ Van Gogh in terms of general artistry. He has written famous books such as Notes of a Native Son, Giovanni's Room, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and Another Country and is very influential in literature today. As a black man, he’s made insights into race and sexuality and has been quoted by the Black Lives Matter movement numerous times.
Not enough people knew about Alan Turing’s horrible experiences until the Imitation Game (2014) and I’m willing to bet a lot of people still don’t. Nijinsky was a hugely important ballet choreographer and pretty much single handedly reshaped ballet and not many people know about his sexuality. (I also think he’s SO attractive, just google ‘Nijinsky Faun’).
So many forgotten
There are SO MANY forgotten LGBTQ+ people in our history and it sometimes is hard to find good information on them. We’re fortunate to know about the wonderful activists like Harvey Milk, Marsha P Johnson, Silvia Rivera, etc and some of the many forgotten figures I’ve mentioned but think of all the people we don’t know about!
I personally remember feeling very isolated when I was in the closet and sometimes I feel robbed of my childhood and teenage years before uni. It makes me angry that there could have been all these people like me to look up to and feel less isolated.
Our history really shouldn’t be overlooked and it’s impact can’t be underestimated. Who writes the history books have real power and how we view the past has huge impacts on what we say and what we think.
Not convinced still? Putin and his government have made it their mission to deny that any of their important historical figures were LGBTQ+, composer Tchaikovsky is very important to Russians’ pride but undermines Putin’s campaign of homophobia. Here’s a piece of history that is used oppress people, no small matter.
So, I’ll say it again: if we want to live in a better society, live in a progressive world that accepts diversity and celebrates it, we have to celebrate all parts of our culture and history. Those two people weren’t just really good friends who lived together and slept together as friendly gestures, they were gay! We have to celebrate all parts of our history and culture for what it actually is.
Thanks for reading x
Conor Biddington | He/They | Third Year | School of Music