The Double Lives of Queer Church Musicians

I came out as bisexual/pansexual on all of my social media at 27 years old, in June of 2020. I had quietly been out to my inner circle since I was 25. The weight that left my soul was indescribable. But it reminded me of the fresh wound that still maintains potency to this day. This full integration of my mind, body and spirit on all levels made me realize how detrimental it was living with the knowledge that I was considered “other” for all these years.

I made a pact with myself. I would tell the truth about a facet of my life that I spoke rarely about. Up until now, I had been living a double life as a church musician. This past summer, the tweet below by Jonathan Merritt went viral. Although we snicker, the heartbreaking reality and emotional abuse queer musicians endure serving God and community while dying privately is an ongoing problem we need to bring into the light.

A tweet from Jonathan Merritt that reads, "Also, happy pride to all the Southern Baptist choir directors and their 'roommates.'"

The way we know is in our bones. The way I felt when I first heard John Rutter’s “Agnus Dei” at 15 in my own church sanctuary was the same way I felt the first time I kissed a girl. Around the time I heard this piece, I was struggling deeply with my faith and sexuality. I liked boys a lot. But I also liked girls a lot. I didn’t know what that meant and the fear behind that was suffocating.

Sitting in my pew during an Easter rehearsal, I listened as it was explained to us that “Agnus Dei” was a choral requiem which translates to a mass for the dead. The ancient Latin text: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: dona eis requiem translated to: “Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant Them rest.” I loved it. It didn’t use pronouns (not that I even knew what those were at the time) and was describing exactly what I had been desiring for so long: rest. This music knows what it is to want.

In college, we studied how choral church music was deeply influential to the political and socio-economic landscape. Funded and manipulated by leaders of the day, mainly straight white men, the money and gorgeous cathedral environment helped others like me hide in plain sight. Much of our sacred choral literature was penned by queer people serving the ruling religious patronages of the time period. Patronized by the rich and the royal, composers and conductors were commissioned to write music that challenged the senses towards a Higher Being and experience. Sometimes even, to prove a point or challenge the status quo. You were guaranteed housing and financial stability as well.

To me, it made perfect sense to stay until I could no longer justify its toll on my health in all areas. We stay for the love of the sacred texts and music, and our communities become our families and social circle. Some choose the career to foster their spirituality, or simply because we have in some ways more creative, financial, and professional control over our hours and environment than we do in the school system. If we can hold our duality in this way, we help influence the next generation of closeted choral kids. Leaving mine behind was one of the hardest choices I ever had to make.

We have covered the “why” of staying in the job, but we have yet to touch on the overstepping of boundaries, religious guilt, and PTSD that often accompany living a double life in the church.

Nathan Peace, an Episcopalian music director who is openly gay, spoke to his experience: “There is a certain hypocrisy in the ability of my previous church environments to celebrate my playing while simultaneously denying queer people the ability to ‘minister’ in the church. What is my music then, if not active ministering?”

Nathan is one of the few music directors I have met who had the opportunity to be open about his sexuality even in a non-affirming church. He still endured preparing and performing worship every week, just to have the clergy deny his identity and spirituality right from the pulpit. He decided to suffer through the position to gain musical growth and the resume boost he needed.

A professional musician named JJ Williamson identifies as a pansexual cisgender black man. He grew up surrounded by church music and God’s calling to be worship leader. He attended a private Pentecostal college to pursue a music degree and travel with the school’s leading Christian a cappella group. He endured racial harassment often being the only male black performer until he graduated. Still loving God and music, he accepted an offer to be the choir director at a prominent Church of God in the Birmingham area. The experience led him to walk away from the church entirely and identify as agnostic.

“I worked at a church in the Southeast as Trump was running for president. When I tell you that I’ve never felt so out of place and alone in my actual life, I truly mean it. I’m over here trying to bring modern and relatable sounds to the praise and worship experience (while also not forgetting about the choir) and I had old ladies rudely bursting into my office to sit down and tell me that ‘Blue Lives Matter’,” JJ recounted. “I began to speak out against racism and homophobia and I was met with ‘sit-downs’ and lunches detailing how I shouldn’t be vocal or involved with either as my own agent if it doesn’t align with how the church will (eventually) present their view on such matters. I was betrayed and left hanging by people I assumed wanted the best for me.”

Many of my colleagues and I have left church music leadership entirely. We are rarely trusted as professionals or respected as human beings with our own choices and personal lives.

As for my own experience, I accepted a full time position in Southern Mississippi having completed my graduate degree, a few years before I decided to come out. At the same time, I embarked on my first queer relationship. The church was Methodist and I was not asked, but it was extremely clear that being genderfluid or homosexual in any way was not to be tolerated. I had already been let go from another local church for being “one of the gays.” I wanted the job and I felt I could keep my lives separate while I gained some experience. I was so used to denying my identity to get by and make money that it didn’t occur to me yet that this wasn’t good for me. Immediately, I stuck out. Students who sensed my queerness came to me for a safe space to confide in through their voice lessons. They warned me, “People around here get beat for being gay.” They begged me to be careful and not accidentally out them.

I was 25 years old, trying to grow a program, meet the requirements of the church, and have my own privacy and not live dictated by the standards of people who wanted me to model their idea of a perfect woman and meek choir director. Sexism was rampant. It was obvious the male director before me had gotten away with honesty and leadership that I could not simply because of gender. I was pulled aside and reprimanded by old ladies over my business attire on Sunday mornings, snarky mamas who wanted to find dirt on me would stalk my Facebook to find things to report.

I met some people who were life-changing to encounter and had some special moments as a musician and spiritual person, but my own identity was shrinking as well as my mental health. I couldn’t please anyone and I was looking over my shoulder at all times paranoid to even go out in public with my girlfriend. The entire experience burned me out and broke my heart as someone who had grown up as one of them.

Many of my colleagues and I have left church music leadership entirely. We are rarely trusted as professionals or respected as human beings with our own choices and personal lives. Thankfully, more conversations around this topic are happening and I feel called to chronicle my experiences and those of others.

I know at this point in my life I would never direct in a church setting again. I am thankful to be singing for an Episcopalian church after a hiatus as a professional chorister. The community is peaceful and engages in taking care of others from all backgrounds and ethnicities. My choir is directed by queer clergy and is filled with fluid identities who are celebrated and affirmed. I am 29, and it is the first religious space I have ever felt safe.


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Cat Dean

Cat has written 1 article for us.

22 Comments

  1. thank you for this piece! my heart. i’m a queer organist who was closeted for much of her professional life and it’s so good to hear from others who have grappled with religious hypocrisy & the complicated nature of being an LGBTQ church musician. all the solidarity!

    • Thanks so much for writing this piece, it is heartbreaking always to hear the first bit of your story. Made up that you found safe church now though.

      When I started reading Autostraddle back along I was amazed by how inclusive a lot of church was in the US. To be honest it was around the time that the Episcopal Church in America and Canada was being booted out of The Anglican Communion for performing equal marriages. And supporting LGBTQI+ clergy. So we may have just got the affirming side of the story.

      I’m an Anglican Priest, (worked as a Methodist minister too). I still can’t marry my partner, although we can be civilly partnered. We raise our kids together in the vicarage/manse and though I hate the hypocrisy of the institution at its highest levels, I am blessed to be surrounded and supported by a people I love, we are ‘Inclusive Church’ and are just about to begin an ‘Open Table’ worship, particularly for LGBTQI+ people. All our services are open and we love our increasingly diverse and crowded table. Our traditional congregation welcomed us as a family and welcomed new folk as they came too, seeking sanctuary.

      It was the choir where I was chaplain that spoke for me, particularly in Compline,as I was coming out. Compline and The Angus Dei, are both little deaths and accompany transition.

      Thank you again for persevering… you will find the CD/MD post when and where it’s right. I have no doubt.

      • Thank you so much Justine. Yes, I was working in the methodist circles and it happened to be right when they had their schism about LGBTQ+ marriages and clergy. Episcopalians are really the only denomination I can trust to work in at this point on a regular basis. My current choir is run by a gay man and his partner/husband works our sound! They are wonderful and it’s a joy and healing experience to be there.

      • Thank you so much Justine. Yes, I was working in the methodist circles and it happened to be right when they had their schism about LGBTQ+ marriages and clergy. Episcopalians are really the only denomination I can trust to work in at this point on a regular basis. My current choir is run by a gay man and his partner/husband works our sound! They are wonderful and it’s a joy and healing experience to be there.

  2. Wishing you all peace and joy. I’m a queer musician, hymnwriter and progressive sacred music composer and feel profoundly grateful to have found a space in the United Church of Christ (both of my pastors are queer and my congregation’s moderator is a transman). I hope it is okay to mention here that I write free-use (no-cost), no-licensing, social justice-focused sacred music. If anyone wishes to explore it in case it might bring them some joy or peace, please visit my website, https://queersacredmusic.com. This is not an ad. I am not selling anything, just offering some inclusive worship music for free.

  3. Thank you for this. I’m not religious myself, but I am currently working at a very conservative religions school. Although I enjoy what I actually do, I’m really struggling with the environment and the restrictions on what we can discuss and make available to the students. I’ve also never been closeted at work before, and it’s proving much more difficult than I anticipated. I relate a lot to what you’ve written about here, especially the hypocrisy of welcoming queer people’s work while denying them the ability to be open, and about the toll that being closeted in that kind of religious environment can take on your mental health. I’m glad that you were able to find a religious space where you feel safe!

  4. Hello, and thank you for sharing this. I used to play the pipe organ, and used to really love classical and coral music. I still do, in the deep recesses of my heart, with my taste in music did a complete 180 when I came out for some reason. I think I just needed a break from sacred music for a while because I have been on a spiritual exploration journey, and I don’t identify as Christian anymore. It is still a bit hard for me to hear sacred choral music, filled with all of the traditional Christian narratives, when now, I identify more with nature as divinity. but I think I still love the music, especially at Christmas time.

    • I had to take a break for almost 1.5 years. I still can only do it in small doses without it being triggering. Totally understand. I also am no longer Christian, I read tarot for people on the side now lol. I am deeply spiritual and I love the music for the way it can connect me to spiritual experiences and my Body, but its a long road.

  5. thank you so much for writing this! i was raised deeply catholic and sang throughout my childhood, went deeper into youth groups and camps as a young teenager, then, with my family, cut all things church off completely over its mishandling of the sex abuse crisis and local corruption. it’s so difficult to articulate what catholicism means to me, what god means to me. at one point, i wrote the line “i only believe in God at springtime and when music is playing” because regardless of all the ugliness around, i mean, you know how the music feels inside you. it’s been so nice to see my experiences articulated the way you’ve put them here. <3

  6. So glad Autostraddle published this perspective! I think it’s really important to document this experience.

    I’m a freelance musician and I’ve worked in churches my whole career. Even in my blue-state metro area, the homophobia and racism in churches in conservative parts of town is rampant. I spent five years working for three different Catholic churches; after being openly discriminated against at all three for my religion (i.e. general Christian not specific Catholic) and gender when music director positions opened up, I’m capital-D Done.

    I took a large pay cut to play in a band with good friends for a contemporary service at a Lutheran church and it is so much more tolerable. I think if I didn’t have PTSD from my religious childhood I would actually be enjoying it.

    It is so sad that classically educated musicians have to choose between enduring rampant discrimination or eliminating a huge range of employment opportunities from our career options. In California churches get away with it because musicians are contractors not employees..and because nobody regulates the Catholic church’s employment policies.

  7. Thanks so much for this article. It really spoke to me especially about the complexity of being queer and being musically active in church. I’m a 25yr black bi woman in a pentecostal church. And I love being a Christian and being a chorister but the homophobia is rampant and pervasive. I’m happy being Christian but I won’t lie that I’m not struggling spiritually and feeling fatigued. I’m out but only to friends and my brother. Definitely not out to wider family and not to the church.
    I love leading praise and worship but I end up often feeling like a fraud or feeling guilty. I’m tired of hiding, I’m tired of being afraid of being discovered, and I’m tired to lying and pretending to agree with the homophobic sermons.
    So, this article was a revelation to me that I’m not alone. There are other queer worship ministers going through the same thing. Thanks for writing it.

    • I completely understand and felt the exact same way you do right now. Ironically, I am a tarot reader now and I am more connected to music and my spirituality than I ever have been. I had to really fight to make time for myself to get me through that time in my life. My DMS are open to you anytime. <3 Thank you for your words.

  8. This is precisely why I left the church and haven’t looked back. I knew I was queer and didn’t want to have to hide that part of myself (this was before I even was out). But I loved reading your piece nonetheless. Thanks for covering this — I could read more!

  9. Thank you very much for this article. She talked to me about the challenges of curiosity and activity in music, and especially in church. I am a 25 year old black woman of Pentecostal church. I love being a Christian and being a dresser, but homophobia is very common. I was happy to be a Christian, but I didn’t lie, so I didn’t get tired or tired spiritually. I was abroad, but only for friends, brothers and sisters. Definitely not a big family or church.
    I love to praise and worship, but I always feel betrayed or guilty. I’m tired of hiding, I don’t want to explore, I don’t lie and I don’t receive anti-gay teachings.
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