The Sound of Pride: Celebrating LGBTQ+ Composers & Musicians

A collage of three musicians: Stefan Smith, Demi Lovato, and Ethel Smyth.

June brings with it rainbows galore and an upbeat, familiar soundtrack. But beyond “I’m Coming Out” and “Born This Way,” a wide array of queer experiences and voices can be found within the work of LGBTQ+ composers and performers. 

At Merit School of Music, fostering inclusion is vital to our mission. When students see themselves represented in the music they play, it unlocks possibilities and empowers them to realize their potential. This month, we invite you to explore the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ musicians, both past and present.

Here are ten songs to help you celebrate this Pride Month and all year long. 

1. FACULTY PICK: “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” by Billy Strayhorn

We kick off our playlist with a pick from Merit’s Guitar Department Chair, Bob Sherman. An openly gay Black man and civil rights advocate, Billy Strayhorn was a famed composer, lyricist, pianist, and arranger of the 1930s-60s who frequently collaborated with jazz legends including Duke Ellington and Lena Horne. 

“Billy Strayhorn overcame obstacles I cannot begin to comprehend on his way to producing some of the most beautiful music ever written.”

Bob Sherman, Guitar Department Chair

Guitar Department Chair Bob Sherman smiles at the camera.
Demi Lovato poses, resting her hand on her face.

2. “Good Place” by Demi Lovato

Demi Lovato is a chart-topping Latinx pop singer, songwriter, and actor who rose to stardom on the Disney Channel in 2008. Identifying as a queer non-binary person, Lovato is one of the most popular openly LGBTQ musicians of our time. 

3. FACULTY PICK: “Frozen Memories” by Stefan Smith

Stefan Smith looks down, holding a viola.

“Stefan Smith is a violist, composer, recording artist, and an openly gay man. He is so inspirational to me because I’m also an openly gay Black man, and I don’t need to explain why that is so rare to see in our field. Stefan has been principal violist of the Oscars orchestra, has recorded for many major films, is an awardwinning composer for his own movie scoring, and has performed with top-tier orchestras. I really want students at Merit, especially Black and Queer students, to know that we do have representation in our field, and it is also at the highest, most visible levels as well. The piece I wanted to share by Stefan is from the new DC Animated movie Batman: The Doom That Came to Gotham titled ‘Frozen Memories.'”

Wilfred Farquharson, Viola Faculty

Wilfred Farquharson smiles at the camera, holding a viola.

4. “Remember This” from The Mad Ones by Bree Lowdermilk and Kait Kerrigan 

Bree Lowdermilk is a transfemme non-binary composer of contemporary musical theatre in collaboration with lyricist Kait Kerrigan. Their musicals have enjoyed Off-Broadway and national tour success after the 2006 production of Henry and Mudge, as well as finding a robust online audience for their intimate, emotional musicals and song cycles. 

5. Sonata for Piano Four Hands III. Final by Francis Poulenc 

20th century French composer and pianist Francis Poulenc is considered by some the first openly gay composer. Poulenc was largely self-taught as a composer, known for both light-hearted and religious themes in his work. In the wake of World War I, he joined with five other composers to form Les Six, a cohort of composers united in reaction against Romantic and Impressionist movements.

Simon Cegys and Robert Tang, students of Mio Isoda-Hagle, perform Sonata for Piano Four Hands at Merit’s Gala 2023, accompanied by the clinking of 350 guests enjoying dinner.

6. STAFF PICK: “Queen” by Perfume Genius 

Singer Perfume Genius stands in front of a pink and black inkblot backdrop.

“Musician Michael Hadreas, better known by his stage name, Perfume Genius, uses his synthy indie pop to explore themes of gender identity and self-discovery. He aims to help LGBTQ+ people feel seen for exactly who they are, not who people might assume they are or want them to be. In his song “Queen, he references stereotypical queer insults in an attempt to reclaim them. The song champions being fully yourself, regardless of how it makes other people feel.” 

Laura Stillman, Director of Marketing & Communications

Marketing Director Laura Stillman smiles at the camera.
A black and white portrait of Ethel Smyth.

7. “The March of the Women” by Ethel Smyth 

Ethel Smyth was a prolific English composer of operas, choral and orchestra works, and chamber music in the late 19th and early 20th century. Throughout her long career, Smyth was romantically linked with several women, including Virginia Woolf. A vocal supporter of women’s suffrage, “The March of the Women” became an anthem of the movement in the UK.

Singer girl in red sings and plays guitar, standing on stage in front of a microphone.

8. “girls” by girl in red

Norwegian singer-songwriter Maria Ulven Ringheim, or girl in red, broke onto the indie music scene in 2015 after uploading her self-produced music to SoundCloud. After numerous streaming hits and several EPs, she released her first studio album, If I Could Make It Go Quiet, in 2021. Ringheim’s music is heavily influenced by her gay identity, frequently reflecting on mental health in relation to the queer experience.

9. FACULTY PICK: “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” by Julius Eastman  

A black and white photo of Julius Eastman working on a composition.

“Julius Eastman was a controversial figure in the music industry, closely associated with minimalism. In his short career, he was able to study with the likes of Zubin Mehta and Pierre Boulez. He was a visionary who broke the boundaries of classical avant-garde music in the 1960s and 1970s, collaborating with the likes of John Cage, Mortan Feldman, and Lukas Foss of the Center of Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, NY. Please enjoy his recording “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”, recorded in 1979, in part thanks to the Aaron Copland Fund for Music.”

Akshat Jain, Tuba & Euphonium Faculty

Tuba & Euphonium Teacher Akshat Jain poses holding a tuba.
Jerry Herman poses with his arms crossed in front of posters of several of the musicals he composed.

10. “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles by Jerry Herman

How better to end our playlist than with a quintessential gay anthem celebrating authenticity, vulnerability, and self-actualization? After a 30-year career composing popular iconic, campy musicals like Hello, Dolly and Mame, Jerry Herman’s La Cage Aux Folles broke barriers as the first Broadway hit centered around a gay couple. While Gloria Gaynor’s disco cover of the song can be heard around the world during Pride Month, there is something incredibly moving about the defiant, emotional, and joyful declaration of “I Am What I Am” in its original context. 

Hear these songs and many others on our Celebrating Pride playlist on Spotify. Happy Pride, this month and always!

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