One common stereotype for LGBT people is that they are artistic. So many famous dancers, actors, singers, painters, and writers were/are LGBT. As with other stereotypes, most of the time they are simplistic generalizations, but there is often some truth in them. Why might LGBT people be attracted to artistic hobbies and professions?
The choral director during my freshman year at Goshen College spoke with us about why music is a gift for oppressed groups of people. He specifically addressed the pain of LGBT people, telling us music was one place where LGBT people could be themselves. He wanted the men’s choir to sing a song with Walt Whitman’s text about same-sex romantic feelings. Although we were unable to sing that particular song, we sang Schubert’s “Sehnsucht,” which speaks about same-sex desire, and sang other deeply poignant pieces of sadness and pain. That year of choir had a profound impact on me, as I was not “out” to many people at that time. I was a voice minor, which required a sophomore recital. As I prepared that year and at the beginning of my sophomore year, I put all of the feeling that I felt I needed to hide into my pieces, especially the ones about love and loss.
The majority of LGBT people grow up in heterosexual communities and are assumed to be heterosexual or cisgender. The construction and affirmation of an LGBT identity is often done in isolation as many LGBT people feel that they must hide or repress their expression of love out of fear of exclusion. Art offers a means to express identity and experience in ways that can speak to an LGBT experience without being dismissed by dominate heterosexual or cisgender expectation. LGBT themes that are not as apparent to the majority of cisgender or heterosexual people, can be understood by LGBT people who have felt or feel the same way.
Even for people that are “out,” often have a need for artistic expression. Most art represents cisgender heterosexual relationships, so LGBT people need art that speaks to their experience. LGBT art can be a place to draw awareness to LGBT issues to the rest of society. Instances like Chaz Bono’s appearance on Dancing with the Stars have brought the topic of transgender lives into everyone’s home, presenting a chance for conversation and education about lives that are often misunderstood and/or invisible.
Art can be a powerful tool to promote solidarity for oppressed groups. For example, the civil rights movement used music to unify and protest against racial discrimination. Four-part harmony hymns are a significant part of the Church of the Brethren and Mennonite denomination’s worship and identity. At BMC’s recent gathering the LGBT participants, many of us with histories of rejection from these faith traditions, sang our hymns in part to reclaim a piece of our identity.
At the last two Mennonite conventions the Pink Menno movement organized and participated in hymn sings to heighten awareness of LGBT people within the church. They created a space for allies to join in solidarity with their LGBT brothers and sisters. The Pink Menno hymn sing at the Pittsburgh Mennonite convention was a powerful experience for me. I was amazed to spot an individual who was an estranged church mentor for me in the group singing. This person was not as supportive of my calling to go into the ministry after they found out that I was gay. I went and stood beside them, but they didn’t notice my presence until the singing was over. So surprised and happy to see me, they turned and embraced me in a warm hug. I experienced this as an expression of apology and love without saying a word. I’m thankful to God for using that hymn sing to begin a process of reconciliation.
Art can be a place for LGBT to break their silence and reach out to others. They have a chance to reach out to other LGBT people with common experiences. For those that feel isolated, they can find hope in knowing others understand what they are going through. Knowledge of that shared identity creates solidarity. Art can also create the opportunity for allies in the church to reach out, showing LGBT people they care and are willing to help make the church a more welcoming place.