The Queer Gaze (in music, and outside): an unsubstantiated rant at 2 a.m.

The cisgender, heterosexual gaze is prevalent in academics. It’s prevalent in everyday life: from casual conversation, to journalism, to amateur and expert commentary. This is undoubtedly influenced by proportion in the population (most people, perhaps even queer people, will not look at situation with a queer gaze, even when it is obvious or necessitated), but also due to lack of education, lack of prior or established literature in this field, and conservative political bias. As a queer, specifically non-binary person (and an aggressively political one at that, who is frankly extremely sick of this bias), I feel compelled to offer my perspective on this; perhaps to educate, perhaps to stir the pot, primarily to vent.

Musicological academia is extremely socially conservative. As much as most (at least in my circles, and at the York University department) are left leaning, this political leaning is primarily directed towards economics (democratic socialism, or at least support for the Labour party), or feminist theory focussing primarily on cisgender women. This is also reflected in academic literature, composition, and performance (please correct me if I’m wrong; this analysis my simply be the result of my own frustrations). At the same time we (and here I am including myself) forget to recognise and challenge the reality that Western art music is dominated, and predicated on the promotion of white, European/American, cisgender, heterosexual, conservative agendas; the concept of ‘art music’ in general functions to maintain these agendas, as well as classism through self-perpetuation. Its associated academia; journalism; compositional, performance, and listening practice, reflect this. I’d argue that even ethnomusicology has some way to go in this regard.

A warning: do not be fooled by the current state of ‘queer studies’ in musicology. A cursory glance at the literature reveals that ‘queer’ here only refers to primarily white, exclusively homosexual, cisgender, male (with the exception of the occasional mention of Pauline Oliveros) composers – Tchaikovsky, Poulenc, Bernstein, Britten, Cage etc. This ignores bisexual (may I mention Beethoven), pansexual, asexual, transgender, non-binary, people – also PoC. If a topic is not intersectional, it has very little place in 2018. I also do not accept the argument that these people are too rare to warrant common mentioning. Firstly, to ignore these ideas is to remain apolitical, effectively conservative in a lack of desire to address the issue. Secondly, I would question the perceived frequency of examples. At York University there is a push to include more female creators in the syllabus, and I have felt some tacit or suggested resistance to this (although not maliciously so). Personally, I am utterly convinced (or at least have convinced myself) that historically, and certainly in the 20th and 21st centuries, the numbers of male and female composers is incredibly close. The issue is that female composers may be unpublished, written under a pen name out of necessity, or falsely attributed to male composers out of a political agenda (a great example of this is Fanny Mendelssohn, who I would argue was a superior composer to her brother Felix – who in fact discouraged Fanny from composing – and much of whose work was falsely attributed to Felix). I have little doubt that a similar case surrounds queer composers.

I now move on to more general, and self-indulgent extra-musical cases. I recently finished reading The Legend of Korra: The Turf Wars in which the relationship between two female protagonists Korra and Assami is explored (complete with very realistic coming out scenes, and descriptions of various cultural issues). This relationship was much criticised (by ignoramuses) for being forced, and only made explicit in the final few seconds of the anime. It is very well documented that the heterosexual gaze results in instances in which platonic, different sex pairs are seen as romantic, and completely erases queer romances, viewing them as friendships. In contrast, a queer gaze provides a more balanced perspective. After rewatching the anime, it’s evident to me that Korra and Assami’s relationship very blatantly, and very organically evolved. (At this point I also want to mention my favourite paring: ‘Bubbline’ from Adventure Time, and the intense feeling of vindication at their kiss in the finale).

Enough diversion, back to the arts: this erasure is similarly commonplace, either completely ignored, or dismissed. Take for example Elizabeth Barret Browning and Virginia Woolf (both bisexual), Emily Dickinson (gay: never married, lived alone, wrote sexy letters to Susan Gilbert Dickinson), as well as many visual and performance artists. My favourite example is the genius harpsichordist and innovator Wanda Landowska, who lived with her ‘student’ Denise Restout for much of her life; and yet many biographies fail to even suggest that they were partners. I unapologetically suggest that these examples are blatantly obvious, yet all too little discussed (especially discourse as to how their sexuality relates to their creative output), either due to simple ignorance, or more complex political bias in the ‘academy’.

I will concede this: this bias is far less prevalent in ‘popular’ music. Many artists are very openly queer – popular music tends to be more politically, contemporarily conscious, as does the critical reaction towards it. Apart from the top 40 (which is produced hand-in-hand with the capitalist system), it is more engaged with contemporary issues, more concerned with progressing the art (both in subject and object), and more democratic – engaging with the audience and audience feedback, without the desire to maintain or be a mechanism for class division. Nevertheless, the issues of queer erasure (resulting from the straight gaze) still exists. I have seen commentary and reviews of Hayley Kiyoko (the writer of Girls Like Girls) assuming that she is heterosexual. Many vocal pundits dismiss artists who identify as pansexual, or non binary (for example Miley Cyrus) as simply hopping on a popular bandwagon, or even mentally ill. Finally, some academic literature (which often tends to be dismissive of popular music on elitist aesthetic grounds) doesn’t properly engage with these issues (or discusses them in binaries, limiting themselves to heterosexual/homosexual, male/female).

What is being done about this? It makes me euphoric that many calls for scores are now highlighting not only cisgender women, but also binary and non-binary trans people. However, I also want to address one particular instance which I am arguably too fixated on: namely, the masterclass and round table discussion at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival for female-identifying composers last year. On the positive side, the language of the advertisement included trans women. Here is where the positivity stops. No trans women were represented at either the masterclass or the discussion (again, do not dare argue that they do not exist). Fairly or not, this imbalance has to be attributed to a lack of proactivity on the part of hcmf. Secondly, while this language decreases the number of people excluded, it also increases the degree to which other people are excluded – what I mean is that rather than addressing discrimination, this decision simply increases the invisibility of trans men and non binary people. I still regret not being more vocal about this at the event.

Finally, why does this matter? I feel like this should be self evident, but here’s a little more detail: art engages with culture. Art engages with society. This is what distinguishes it from craft. Writing about, even thinking about music from a queer perspective benefits every single person who creates, writes about, or engages with Western art music in any way, even tangentially. If there’s anything that the increased recognition of female composers has taught us, it’s that the problem is not with a lack of female composers, but a lack of representation, and tacit or even active discouragement. Let’s not allow this to happen with queer creators.


An addendum written after sleep: I understand you may read this essay as too vitriolic, or biased towards a particular, minority view (I feel the same way). To this I respond: “come at me, bro”.

Circumstances of authorship: this essay was written between 2 and 4 a.m. on an extreme caffeine buzz.

Finally, finally: two great article addressing these issues far more coherently:

https://medium.com/@nebalmaysaud/composers-gender-equality-is-for-everyone-36b632113d20

https://van-us.atavist.com/breaking-binaries

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