By Scott Rieker
Director, Emerson Choir
I’ve debated for weeks over whether I should pen this column, because to some folks the subject matter is offensive, or at least controversial. After speaking with several gay kids over the past month, especially about their desire for positive role models, I’ve decided to go to print in a way that tells his story, yet permits his anonymity, to help protect the sensibilities of those who might take umbrage.
Several weeks ago, an icon and luminary in my field passed away after a long and storied career. He was a mentor to—literally—thousands, an inspiration to tens of thousands more, a renowned educator, and a role model for burgeoning (and established) choral musicians. It is impossible to overstate the importance of the impact that this individual has had on choral music.
As the multitude of well-deserved eulogies pours in, it’s heartening to see all of the people who were inspired by his work. He will be remembered using all of the above accolades, and—if a remembrance is particularly bold—he will be referred to as a “lifelong bachelor.” This euphemism is the central tragedy of the story. For all intents and purposes, he was a closeted gay man who never found a way to publicly acknowledge his sexuality.
For him, there was always a socially acceptable front. When traveling, he always brought a female companion and was always publicly in the company of one vivacious woman or another. When appearing in public, he was always reserved and professional. His persona was almost sexless—as if nothing could be more remote from his being. But his actual sexuality was an open secret in some circles, and among the generation two prior to mine, it was almost a badge of honor to have had a dalliance with him.
No one can ever accuse him of acting without integrity, but one component of integrity is being authentically oneself. Matters of faith, places and expectations of employment, social constraints, and rural conservatism all conspired to prevent him from feeling comfortable “coming out.” I lament the “could have been” situations lost, had he found a way to integrate his sexuality into his life. And so he moves into eternity as the iconic mentor, inspiration, educator, and role model, who was also a “lifelong bachelor.”
From this, I would draw a number of conclusions, but the primary ones are these:
- Music is an avenue for self-expression and self-actualization, which expresses realities that often lie beyond the purview of mere speech. Consequently, it is vitally important that this powerful bastion be provided in as many contexts as possible for those who are struggling with any inner turmoil. (And that is all of us…)
- Icons should not be appropriated to “prop up an agenda,” but we must also be honest about the reality of people’s lives. Just as we cannot give a pass to pathological public liars, so must we actively remember the full palette of an individual’s existence. People are good and bad, but—especially for someone who has become iconic—sometimes revealing the “bad” or the troublesome can provide inspiration for those struggling with the same.
- Sometimes our elders need more support reconciling issues that we consider passé. When my elderly cousin married an African-American woman, it was a scandal to no one except himself, and he felt the need to keep their actual relationship secret for too long. When a person of a certain age struggles to come to terms with his or her sexuality, we must be actively supportive, warm, and accepting.
- “Coming Out” is still a thing. It shouldn’t be, but it is. (After all, no one has to say, “Mom. Dad. I think I’m left-handed” or “World, I am ambidextrous.”) The trauma surrounding sexual orientation is real.
- Which brings me to my final point: These conclusions can be integrated by a caring, compassionate community. Especially with the vehicle of music, we can learn to bridge divides and enlarge our circle. So, let’s stick rainbow stickers and equal signs on our choir folds and go make a difference!