Writing About LGBTQ Issues

March 1, 2009

These days, it seems everywhere one turns, issues and themes related to sexuality are in evidence. Movies from the unlikeliest of sources are circulating the country on gay themes—A Jihad for Love—that deals with the problems faced by gay men and lesbians in Muslim communities in India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa, France. Same-sex marriage continues to be a hot issue in this year's election, and the proposed amendment in California to ban same-sex marriage is likely to mobilize voters across the political spectrum, with an impact on whether Barack Obama or John McCain wins that state's large electoral vote.

On my own campus, a private liberal arts college for women, "lesbian" was mostly uttered in whispers twenty-some years ago when I interviewed for the position I now hold. Concerns were expressed that families would not allow their daughters to enroll if it was known that there were out lesbians in the student body—or, God forbid, on the faculty. The Development Office was also concerned that alumnae giving would be compromised, even though well-off lesbian alums might have increased their giving to offset that of horrified conservative alums—the same ones who had dissed these same lesbian alums when they were students years earlier. Everything has changed. The local alternate lifestyle weekly, Southern Voice,1 just ranked Agnes Scott College and Emory University 83.6 points on a 100-point scale for being welcoming to the LGBTQ community—the highest of any colleges or universities in the state of Georgia. Years ago, sexual orientation was added to the list protected identities in the Agnes Scott's policy of non-discrimination, domestic partner benefits are now provided, the student LGBTQ organization is active on campus, lesbian girlfriends walk hand-in-hand or arm-around-shoulder between classes or openly make out on the quad ten feet away from straight couples in similar embraces—and it doesn't seem to bother anyone—and even visiting alumnae don't cluck disapproval.

Perhaps in response to claims that young people need positive role models like themselves, historians and biographers are acknowledging the sexual orientation of persons involved in music through the ages, whether composers, performers, patrons, etc. In preparation for the opening panel discussion of the Committee on Cultural Inclusion at the Atlanta national meeting of CMS,2 I looked through a number of music history textbooks to see what was reported about various gay, lesbian, and transgendered composers and performers. And let me hasten to state that the task for authors of music history survey textbooks is daunting—too much to include and not enough space, let alone time for a two-semester or three-semester course. Here is what I found; there might be more—I didn't read these books cover to cover, but rather looked up the most well-known gay and lesbian composers in the index of each textbook.

Wright, Craig and Bryan Simms. Music in Western Civilization. Belmont CA: Thomson Schirmer, 2006. This textbook had absolutely nothing to say about the sexuality of any gay, lesbian, or transgendered composer. But there is an offset, boxed, special discussion about the Baroque operatic castrato as star, and in the opening paragraph about Bach, is the following statement, "Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel are today the best-known composers of Baroque music. Yet their lives could hardly have been more different. Handel was a man of the world, traveling freely around the European Continent and back and forth to England. Handel had no children, indeed never married. His base of operation was London, a city of a half-million inhabitants. Bach, by contrast was a devoted father to twenty children and something of a stay-at-home, rarely venturing beyond his familial roots in central Germany."3 Wright and Simms almost seem to be suggesting that those with active traveling lives are destined to go unmarried and childless, while those who stay close to home are doomed to an active sexual life resulting in an excess of children.

Of course, I don't think that is what Wright and Simms intended. But it does raise the question as to why say anything about sexuality at all, or for that matter—religious preference, political choice, ethnicity or race—whether the subject is gay or straight, sexually active, impotent, castrated, or indifferent to sex. Here is what the Washington Post's style guide4 states:

"A person's sexual orientation should not be mentioned unless relevant to the story. When it is necessary to mention it, gay may be used as an adjective but not as a noun, except as a plural: gay man, gay woman, gay people, gays. Not a gay. A gay woman may be referred to as a lesbian. Do not use gays and lesbians, since the first includes the second. Rather, to emphasize the inclusion of both sexes, use gay men and lesbians. Use gay rights activist, not gay activist. Not everyone espousing gay rights causes is homosexual. When identifying an individual as gay or homosexual, be cautious about invading the privacy of someone who may not wish his or her sexual orientation known. Do not use terms such as avowed or admitted. "Often, simply reporting the facts obviates the need for labels. Describing a slaying, for instance, should suffice without referring to it as a homosexual slaying. Ask yourself if you would use the term heterosexual slaying. In a recent story, a man "charged" that his former wife "was a lesbian" as if it were a slur, when simply alleging an affair between the ex-wife and the other woman would suffice.

Incidentally, earlier I referred to "gay and lesbian composers" for emphasis because "gay composers," while inclusive, doesn't necessarily mean women will be considered, and I find it clumsy to write or say "gay male and lesbian composers."

Let's see what some other music history textbooks have done, and use the Washington Post style guide as a point of reference. Bonds and Stolba both comment briefly on Tchaikovsky and Schubert.

Bonds, Mark Evans. A History of Music in Western Culture, 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.

Tchaikovsky, p. 492. "He was an intensely private individual who acknowledged his homosexuality privately but otherwise kept it concealed for fear of public condemnation. The strain of this concealment, some have speculated, contributed to his repeated bouts of depression."

Schubert, p. 436. "Schubert was apparently an intensely sensual man of uncertain sexual orientation."

Stolba, K. Marie. The Development of Western Music: A History, 3rd edition. Boston: McGraw Hill, 1998.

Tchaikovsky, p. 549. "For all his adult life, Tchaikovsky's homosexuality was a great concern to him and ultimately interfered with his career. His brief marriage to Antonina Milyukova, which he hoped might offer some solution to his problems, only added to his anguish. It is presumed that his death, on 6 November 1893, nine days after he completed Symphony No. 6, was suicide."

Schubert, p. 441—acknowledges he died of syphilis.

One wonders what purpose Stolba had in mentioning that Tchaikovsky was gay, especially in conjunction with anguish—is Tchaikovsky's music necessarily somber or gray? And Stolba's reference to suicide can hardly serve as a role model for gay students—unless this is just like Hollywood's horror and slasher movies in which, as African-Americans have noted, "brothers start dying" and frankly, so do queers, while clean-cut straight white couples are inevitably the survivors. On the other hand, the discussion of Swan Lake might have included the possibility that the composer was attracted to the story of this ballet as a personal reflection on Tchaikovsky's own conflict with accepting his homosexuality, that led to his suicide at the urging of his circle of "friends" on the basis of honor—hmm, suicide as honor killing because homosexuality brings dishonor on your friends and family… charming, isn't it?

Then there is Schubert—one textbook informing our students that he died of syphilis and another that while he was clearly sensual, we don't know about his sexuality. But again, the authors don't explain to us why these facts are important for understanding his music, or his influence on the direction of music.

Most textbook authors, on the other hand, draw our attention to Gesualdo who found his wife and her lover in an adulterous act, and proceeded to murder both of them. Howard M. Brown states "Always a gloomy, eccentric, and rather willful man, Gesualdo seems to have increased in emotional instability after the event. In 1594 he married again. His new wife, Leonora d'Este, niece of Alfonso I, Duke of Ferrara, brought the Neapolitan prince into contact with the brilliant Ferrarese court, where he lived for several years and where he had particularly close ties with Luzzasco Luzzaschi …"5 followed by a discussion of Gesualdo's increasingly bizarre harmonic and textual treatment that foreshadowed early Baroque seconda prattica. Wright and Simms, at least put a cultural spin on the story, "Gesualdo was not punished by any civil court; death was thought an appropriate reward for adulterous women in Renaissance Italy. Instead of going to prison or the gallows, Gesualdo simply repaired to his country villa until the scandal blew over. Here, in semi-isolation, he was able to cultivate all the more intensely his passion for music."6 Brown seems to draw a connection between Gesualdo's melancholy and emotional instability resulting from discovering his adulterous wife and the murder, and reflected in Gesualdo's strange musical style—or was it because he married Leonora d'Este? Wright and Simms indicate the silver lining in this scandal in that Gesualdo was forced into isolation where he developed his musical style; and curiously, while the justification of murder of his wife for adultery is explained away, the murder of the male lover isn't included on cultural grounds in their explanation.

I've saved the best for last—Peter Burkholder's widely used music history textbook. Dr. Burkholder brings our attention to several composers and actually does a reasonable job of making connections between sexual orientation and music-making. Here are the figures and musical movements for which he provides some commentary relevant to homosexual orientation: Handel, Copland, Britten, the gay liberation movement and disco music as it developed at gay bars.

Burkholder, J. Peter. A History of Western Music, 7th edition. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

George Frideric Handel, pp. 458-459. "Handel never married. … There were rumors of brief affairs with sopranos, but none has been substantiated. Recently, scholars have noted that several of his patrons moved in social circles where same-sex desire was common, and that the texts of the cantatas Handel wrote for these patrons often allude to love between men in coded terms. Whether Handel himself had intimate relationships with anyone of either sex remains open to question."

I'm not completely convinced about the connection made here concerning Handel, but certainly the association with a circle of gay patrons is meaningful in understanding his choice of secular cantata texts.

Aaron Copland, p. 887. "Copland's Jewish faith, his homosexuality, and his leftist politics made him something of an outsider, yet he became the most important and central American composer of his generation through his own compositions and his work for the cause of American music."

The emphasis here is on Copland being an outsider, and its influence on his American musical style. Peter doesn't go on to make specific connections with compositions, but the reference to homosexual orientation and its relationship to musical style makes sense in understanding some driving force that led him to promote American music in the face of the public's overwhelming preference for European.

Benjamin Britten, p. 912-913. "Britten was a homosexual and was the life partner of the tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986). Shown in Figure 34.8 [a photograph of Britten and Pears], the two met in 1936 and lived together until Britten's death four decades later. Britten wrote most of his tenor roles for Pears, and the two collaborated as performers and as producers of the annual music festival at Aldeburgh in England. Several of Britten's operas have themes that relate to homosexuality, including Billy Budd (1950-51) and Death in Venice (1971-74)." Follows with description of libretto of Peter Grimes, "The theme of the individual persecuted by the crowd can be read as an allegory for the condition of homosexuals in a hostile society...."

This is the clearest example in the textbook. Just as some authors have accurately described the importance of relationships between a singer or instrumentalist and a composer and the development of musical style or technique—for example the virtuosic sopranos at Ferrara and early Baroque vocal writing in opera and madrigal, between Robert and Clara Schumann as collaborators in creativity, or special vocal technical ability and timbre of a Cathy Berberian influencing avant garde composers, for example—the relationship between Britten and Pears is significant. Similarly, the choice of libretti in Britten's operas for a gay man makes sense during a period when it was not acceptable to be out.

We are grateful Dr. Burkholder that gives credit where credit is due when he mentions the importance of gays in the civil rights movements of the twentieth century and in the development of at least one popular music genre:

On Independence and Civil Rights, p. 896. "The Civil Rights movement in turn inspired others in the 1960s and 1970s, from student organizations and protests against the Vietnam War to the women's and gay liberation movements."

On Disco, p. 950. "In the 1970s, a new style of dance music known as disco developed in New York clubs that catered primarily to African-Americans, Latinos, and gay men, then become [sic] an international craze."

There is another issue regarding revelations about sexuality. To quote again the style guide of the Washington Press, "When identifying an individual as gay or homosexual, be cautious about invading the privacy of someone who may not wish his or her sexual orientation known."

If one can make a case for revealing the sexual orientation of a deceased person, then I think one is justified in doing so. But when is it acceptable to discuss the sexual orientation of living persons? I believe it depends on the persons involved. When in doubt, ask permission. Some composers and performers are really out and there is no ambiguity: Ned Rorem and Pauline Oliveros come to mind, and one can find CD recordings on Amazon.com with such titles as Gay Classics (a series of at least twelve CDs that don't necessarily feature gay composers, but rather popular music supposedly beloved by gays) and Lesbian American Composers featuring the works of Oliveros, Nurit Tilles, Linda Montano, Lori Freedman, Marilyn Lerner, Paula Kimper, Eve Beglarian, Jennifer Higdon, Annea Lockwood, Madelyn Byrne, and Ruth Anderson. These living composers consented to be included on the recording, so one can probably feel free to mention their sexual orientation provided there is a good reason to do so in discussing their compositions or compositional style or influences.

Stolba has one other reference that tantalizes us with mention of a half-century of collaboration between composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

John Cage, pp. 645-646. "On 13 May 1993 the Wexner Prize, presented annually to the contemporary artist(s) whose "highly original and influential work has consistently challenged convention," was awarded jointly to John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham (b. 1919), whose artistic collaboration lasted almost 50 years."

Unfortunately, Stolba does not explain anything about their relationship, or about the circle of gay composers, music performers, choreographers, dancers, authors, and stage-related personnel that surrounded this couple, let alone how the discussions among members of this wide-ranging group of creative individuals led to so many interesting and important developments in music, dance, and other arts fields of the avant-garde.

This is amplified, however in a brief article online: Module by C.M. Sunday, "John Cage and Merce Cunningham: 1942-1992"7

"The collaboration between John Cage, the composer, poet and artist, and Merce Cunningham, the dancer and choreographer, extended from 1942, when they met at Seattle's Cornish School, and continued until Cage's death in 1992. [Their personal relationship is well established from personal commentary but is not mentioned in the literature because the temper of the time was not "out" as it is today; I do not make anything of it in my report because I respect Cage's view, which is that he resented categories.]"

Clearly a full-length biography or biographical article has more reason to discuss fully the person who is the subject, including much information that isn't necessarily relevant to music. A biography has a different purpose than does a music history textbook or encyclopedia entry. I would like to share some comments from a series of lectures given by Dr. Suzanne Raitt of The College of William and Mary in a seminar on Writing Biography that she directed at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Center in North Carolina about eight years ago.

"There is no standard theory of writing biography. Because biography is considered a popular genre, it has more often been undertaken by journalists than academics. It is important to consider the intentions of the writer and of witnesses used as sources of information. Is the author writing about the subject as the subject saw himself/herself, or as others saw him/her? Is the biography a bad attempt to make sense of somebody's life—manipulating the individual to be predictable?

"The role of the biographer is that of a mediator between and among conflicting voices, between the living and the dead. The biographer is an explainer and interpreter. There are different kinds of biographers: official historians, chroniclers, archivists, tragedians, tellers of cautionary tales with morals, inspirers.

"Nineteenth-century biographies tended to be commemorative and celebratory about the cult of personality—log cabin myths, great heroes, great composers, great performers, national heroes. Most biographies in the nineteenth century tended to be written by family members—to allow someone outside the family to write such a biography would be dishonorable."

A few specific examples present the change in approach in biographical writing: Froude's publications about Jane Welsh Carlyle and Thomas Carlyle, and Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians which essentially ended the Romantic era's practice of writing only in praise of great figures of history.

James Anthony Froude's biographical writings on Jane Welsh Carlyle and Thomas Carlyle8 were shocking due to the revelation of secrets that blemished the history of this Carlyle. Thomas asked Froude to edit and publish Jane's personal papers, five years after Thomas' death (Jane died in 1866, Thomas in 1881), in a way to be a memorial to Jane. Jane's diary and letters were written as a kind of revenge on her husband. Hence Froude's biography did justice to Jane while doing violence to Thomas while exposing the secrets of their marital problems. Froude was, however, following Carlyle's own principles of writing by recounting not only the noble deeds and intellectual greatness, but also personal failures. Ten years after Froude's death, his daughters published his manuscript My Relations with Carlyle9 that exposed more scandalous information, suggesting that the marriage had never even been consummated due to Carlyle's impotence.

"Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918) ended the nineteenth-century approach to writing biography. The four figures he wrote about included Florence Nightingale, Cardinal Manning, Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon. Strachey's tone is ironic, mocking, comic, ambiguity, while sympathetic to his eminent figures. He used biography as a weapon, while lampooning the conventions of earlier biography writing—no longer could one be merely celebratory without any evidence to back up such claims. The heroic images of great English figures are totally debunked. For example, Florence Nightingale is presented as mean-spirited, impatient, and demanding—no "Florence Nightingale, she!" General Gordon, who sought to present himself as a kind of Messiah saving the British from the savage Sudanese, is exposed as gay (p. 194).

"Strachey and Sydney Lee wrote their biographies for the Dictionary of National Biography in a similar way. They did not follow the goals of the editors—to praise England and all things English, including her heroes, by leaving no doubt about their greatness. The figures are instead presented through irony and sardonicism that made it clear that it was in fact not possible to "leave no doubt." Strachey in particular writes a great deal about personality in painting his characters in these biographies, being fascinated by enigmas and the unfathomable. He focused on the tensions between the public image and the real person, between what the persons represented themselves as and what or how they did in fact feel.

"Reviews of these biographies were mostly favorable, as he struck a nerve with post-World War I British society on such issues as bureaucratic and official bungling, indecision, neglect, hypocrisy, etc. And subsequent biography has not flinched from revealing all."

As Dr. Raitt points out, a modern biography might well reveal anything and everything about an historical figure. On the other hand, a music history textbook or encyclopedia article—with limited space—should restrict its discussion of intimate details to those that contribute to the understanding of the individual's contributions to music.


1 Matt Shafer, "Gay on Campus: Ga Colleges Vary Widely on LGBT Issues," 19 September 2008.

2 25 September 2008, Atlanta CMS national meeting.

3 P. 340.

4 http://www.glaad.org/media/guide/style.php. This same website provides guidelines and quotes from the style guides of The New York Times and Associated Press in addition to The Washington Post.

5 Music in the Renaissance (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976, p. 358).

6 P. 225.

7 Connexions http://cnx.org/content/m13248/latest/.

8 Letters and Memorials of Jane Welsh Carlyle (London: Longmans, Green, 1883); Reminiscences of Thomas Carlyle (New York: C. Scribner's, 1881).

9 (London, New York: Longmans, Green, 1903).

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