Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (shown here) and the Metropolitan Opera, regularly discusses his same-sex partner in interviews. Photo by Jessica Griffin.

In Brief | Representation and inclusion of LGBTQ+ composers, musicians, and audiences is on the rise at U.S. orchestras.
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We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re coming soon to an orchestra near you. While performers and composers who today would fit somewhere under the LGBTQ+ umbrella have been part of classical music for as long as this music has existed, such musicians have recently been gaining levels of acceptance, visibility, and celebration in the U.S. orchestral world that would have been startling even ten years ago. While queerness is far from universally celebrated, there’s no shortage of brilliant figures working to embrace queer visibility on the orchestral stage. 

Before diving into the rest of this article, a few quick definitions are probably in order, as the language of queerness is somewhat fluid. Recognizing that the acronym LGBTQ+ (for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning, and additional terms) keeps expanding, more and more people are using the reclaimed slur queer as an umbrella term for lives that fall outside cisgender heterosexuality, though it can also function as a specific label for certain individuals. Cisgender, frequently shortened to cis, refers to people who aren’t trans, i.e., people who are the gender everyone assumed they would be when they were born. Trans people, conversely, aren’t the gender everyone assumed they would be when they were born. (In this usage, trans includes nonbinary people, who fall outside the Western system of binary genders; some people prefer to separate out nonbinary identities into a category that is distinct from the cis-trans dichotomy. This usage, in particular, is very much in flux.) 

The array of initiatives, organizations, and individuals tackling LGBTQ+ representation in the classical orchestral scene is so vibrant that even the most cursory sampling of groups and figures is breathtaking: Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who holds two of the most prominent conducting jobs in the U.S. as the music director for the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra, freely discusses his same-sex partner in interviews; the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in Ohio has held an LGBTQ+ career day; the American Composers Orchestra has hired nonbinary musician and writer Aiden Feltkamp as its first director of emerging composers and diversity; the New York–based Luna Composition Lab gives early training to young female, trans, and nonbinary composers. And this is to say nothing of composers and musicians like inti figgis-vizueta, Alex Temple, and Chrysanthe Tan (to name only three) who are building careers in the classical world while being open about their queer lives. The existence of LGBTQ+ individuals in the classical music field isn’t new in and of itself; what’s new is the explicit prominence of queer identity, however defined. 

This abundance may seem sudden, but it has deep roots and many causes. The activism of those seeking to destigmatize homosexuality has built a political climate where embracing gays, lesbians, and bisexuals is less and less controversial, though transgender acceptance lags markedly on this front. The existence of online forums and social media groups devoted to queer issues has helped many people come to terms with their identity with a speed that would have been impossible in an offline world, and queer people increasingly, though not universally, feel safe and supported being open about their identities in all parts of their lives and refuse to go back into the closet. 

While performers and composers who fit under the LGBTQ+ umbrella have been part of classical music for as long as this music has existed, such musicians have recently been gaining levels of acceptance and visibility at orchestras that would have been startling even ten years ago. 

Many initiatives for LGBTQ+ visibility are relatively new, like the Florida Orchestra’s Pride Weekend this past October. Featuring the music of Leonard Bernstein with a variety of local LGBTQ+ groups invited to perform and hand out information in the lobby beforehand, it was a decided success. “The response from the community was overall very positive,” says Daryn Bauer, the orchestra’s community engagement manager, and the organization has plans for a similar event in the coming season, this time bringing more LGBTQ health-and-wellness groups on board. Other groups, like NYC’s avocational Queer Urban Orchestra (founded in 2009), have had LGBTQ representation at the core of their mission from the beginning and have developed an audience specifically interested in the queer composers and performers they feature. “It’s really a blessing to have the audience we have,” Artistic Director Julie Desbordes says, “because they are so enthusiastic about what we do.” 

Even in ensembles and concerts not built around queerness, growing numbers of artists feel an urge to be open about their identities. Erica Snowden-Rodriguez is the principal cellist of the Akron Symphony Orchestra, and she’s recently become more vocal about her queer identity. “If it matters just for one person to see me” as openly queer onstage, Snowden-Rodriguez says, “then I need to be myself, even if it means risking my sense of security.” Alex Enyart, a member of Chicago Sinfonietta’s Project Inclusion Freeman Conducting Fellowship, which is aimed at increasing diversity on the orchestral podium, is, as far as she knows, the only trans orchestral conductor—though she adds, “I would really love to be proven wrong about this!” She believe that visibility is key: “It’s so hard to navigate being trans if you don’t have anyone you can see, and if you search for the words ‘transgender conductor,’ I want people to be able to find me.”  

This openness can come at a personal cost. “After I started being more vocal, there were certain people in the orchestra that I felt a change in, in terms of how we related,” Snowden-Rodriguez says, “and that’s something that, as queer people, we unfortunately have to deal with.” Sara Davis Buechner, a multi-award-winning pianist who has been open about being transgender for more than twenty years, alluded to off-color remarks that she’s heard from agents. “Normally, in polite society, people don’t really say things to your face, but every now and again people let their guard down and you find out what they really think,” she says. 

Identity Politics 

If there are personal challenges to being out yourself, there are also challenges that come from trying to program LGBTQ soloists and composers. You can’t necessarily tell whether someone’s queer just by looking at them, and some people view their sexuality and cis/trans status as private matters that they don’t want to broadcast. Even with the best of intentions, mistaken assumptions sometimes lead to sticky situations. “We had a soloist one time who we thought was gay, but it turned out he wasn’t,” Dawn Harms, the music director of San Francisco’s avocational Bay Area Rainbow Symphony (founded 2008), recalls. She tries to program an LGBTQ+ soloist on every concert, but this time it didn’t work out. “I had to ask him about it and it was very uncomfortable,” Harms says. The Bay Area Rainbow Symphony also once programmed a Brazilian musician who had to stay strictly closeted for fear of violent homophobia in their home country. Desbordes is sensitive to these concerns. “The first thing that the Queer Urban Orchestra is is safe,” she says. “It’s safe for anybody with any form of identity and any form of public expression of that identity.” 

Growing numbers of artists feel an urge to be open about their identities. Still, even when they are out, artists may not want to foreground their queerness at all times. 

Even when artists are out, they may not want to foreground their queerness. “It’s a really personal conversation,” conductor Alex Enyart says, of whether or not to highlight a performer or composer’s LGBTQ+ status. “For a queer soloist, what they want more than anything might be to have a standard orchestral experience without anyone making a big deal about this aspect of who they are.” And indeed, as an orchestral soloist, Buechner has sometimes felt tokenized. The dean of one music school where she once taught would greet her on every occasion by saying how proud he was to have hired a trans pianist. “It was so insulting,” she says. “You’re saying you didn’t hire me because I can play the piano great, or because I’m a fabulous teacher, or because I play chamber music like nobody’s business—you hired me because I look good on your faculty diversity page?” 

The idea that people are putting personal identity before artistic quality echoes certain complaints that focusing on issues of underrepresentation bastardizes music by politicizing it. While Harms, Desbordes, and Buechner all point out that there’s plenty of stellar music that’s been excluded from the standard orchestral repertoire—“We live in a world with so much cuisine, why are you always getting a burger and a milkshake?” Buechner quips—no one I spoke to saw politics and music as being at odds. 

“I’m in a circle where people see art and politics as inseparable,” Zach Manzi says when I asked him about charges of politicizing music by focusing on LGBTQ+ issues. Manzi is a clarinet fellow with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach. Fellows of the New World Symphony develop chamber programs to engage new communities in classical music in new ways, and for his project, Manzi, with the help of local trans groups, organized an evening where trans people could tell their own stories accompanied by music performed by New World Symphony musicians, followed by a powerful candle-lighting ceremony in honor of those killed by transphobia. Enyart says that she’s gotten to a point where she likewise struggles to disconnect politics from music. “Once you see how meaningful it can be to meld art and politics, it’s hard to want to do it in some other way.” Snowden-Rodriguez is blunter: “Yeah, maybe we are politicizing it, but for me it’s a change to a direction that’s more just.” 

The push for diversity in orchestral programming extends beyond LGBTQ people, of course, and recognizes that queer people may also be targeted by other forms of societal marginalization. “Being both queer and a person of color is a different experience,” Snowden-Rodriguez says. “There’s an extra bridge that you have to cross there.” Those responsible for programming take different approaches to this issue. Desbordes says that for her, “it’s very organic to select who we work with, and it happens to be the case that it’s been intersectional, but that wasn’t intentional.” (Intersectionality can refer to the ways that seemingly different forms of oppression, like sexism and racism, interact in mutually reinforcing ways in the lives of those who experience both.) Harms, on the other hand, carefully ensures that there are composers from specific identity categories on each concert, and will present a concert this coming February exploring the intersection of anti-Semitism and homophobia in the Holocaust. 

This gets at the larger truth that there is no singular LGBTQ experience that can be adequately represented by one piece or event. “Every city is unique, every community is unique, and every person within those communities is unique,” says the Florida Orchestra’s Daryn Bauer. “Listen to your community.” Zach Manzi emphasizes the need for reciprocity: “When I first started reaching out to the trans community, they said, ‘If you want to do an event with us, start coming to our events.’ You can’t impose your vision on a community, it’s essential to talk to them.” Erica Snowden-Rodriguez concurs: “Any initiatives to make the orchestral world more diverse need to have people who are part of those groups in on the conversation, and really leading the conversation.” Those conversations may be difficult, but they serve a worthy goal. “Our flag, the pride flag, is many colors,” Julie Desbordes says, “not just one or two. We need them all.”   

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Symphony magazine.

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