21 Of The Most Famous LGBTQ Composers You Should Know

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The LGBTQ community has been a major force in the music industry for centuries. From Broadway theaters to opera houses all over the world, these talented composers have been making a huge mark on the music scene through their compositions.

If you’re looking to explore some of their music, this list of 21 famous LGBTQ composers is a great place to start. Let’s jump in.

1. Georg Friedrich Handel

Georg Friedrich Handel

Generally recognized by most music historians as gay, there’s no concrete evidence that Georg Friedrich Handel actually was.

However, according to various authorities on his work, there is a clear homosexual subtext in many of his compositions. 

Handel’s best-known compositions were written for kings and queens, notably George I and Queen Anne of England.

Beethoven described Handel as “the greatest composer to ever live.” High praise coming from someone many people think is the literal greatest composer of all time. 

2. Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Considered one of the greatest opera composers of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten was born in Britain in 1913.

When it was frowned upon and even dangerous to do so, Britten was open about his homosexuality and relationship with singer Peter Pears. 

Some of Britten’s most famous opera compositions include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Turn of the Screw, and Death in Venice

He’s considered a national treasure by most in the UK and actually passed up an opportunity to be buried in Westminster Abbey to be buried next to his lover instead. 

3. Jean-Baptiste de Lully

Jean-Baptiste de Lully

Jean-Baptiste de Lully was a master of French baroque best remembered for his operatic compositions.

Born in Italy in 1632, de Lully lived most of his life in France, working in the court of Louis XIV.

In 1661, he was made a full French subject. 

Although Jean-Baptiste de Lullu kept a wife and a mistress, it’s generally believed that they were both cover for his homosexual preferences.

At the time, homosexuality was strictly forbidden.

However, de Lully found himself extremely wealthy and successful at the end of his life, despite being embroiled in several scandals. 

4. Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns

A composer during the height of the Romantic era in France, Camille Saint-Saëns was a legendary French composer and conductor, former child prodigy, and successful freelance pianist/organist. 

Camille Saint-Saëns led a tumultuous private life fueled by society’s disdain for homosexuality.

He married a much younger woman at the age of 40 and treated her badly, most likely due to his resentment over being unable to marry who he’d like. 

5. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky left behind a legacy as Russia’s most famous composer, a master responsible for shaping the tone and direction of the Romantic Era for years to come. 

While no one can question his reputation as the world’s foremost Russian composer, his sexual orientation has been an intense subject of debate for decades. 

However, in recently revealed letters, Tchaikovsky expressed his love for men, confirming his legacy as one of the most famous LGBTQ composers to ever live. 

6. Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein

The first conductor from the United States to ever receive widespread international acclaim, Leonard Bernstein was also one of the most accomplished composers to ever live.

He penned the legendary musical West Side Story as well as the controversial MASS. 

His personal life wasn’t free from controversy either.

While married to a woman, Bernstein engaged in multiple sexual and emotional relationships with men.

Bernstein was most definitely part of the LGBTQ community, no matter his specific sexual preference. 

7. Ethel Smyth

Ethel Smyth

Born in England in 1858, Ethel Smyth was an accomplished composer and influential member of the women’s suffrage movement since the early 20th century. 

Though marginalized in the music community because of her sex and gender, Smyth still became the first woman composer ever granted damehood. 

Smyth was very open about her identity as a queer woman.

She often wrote of her preference for women and made no effort to conceal that she was a nonconformist in a conservative society. 

8. Francis Poulenc

Francis Poulenc

Part of the influential group of new wave composers known as “Les Six” in the 1920s, Francis Poulenc became one of the most well-known French composers of the 20th century. 

Despite having a difficult connection with his sexuality regarding religion and society, Poulenc engaged in many homosexual relationships throughout his life. 

With hundreds of compositions that are considered staples in their respective genres, Poulenc remains one of the most significant LGBTQ composers in history. 

9. Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland

Aaron Copland was among a small number of highly respected American classical composers who pushed the boundaries on what classical music meant in America and internationally. 

By incorporating jazz and folk into classical compositions, Copland composed uniquely American pieces like Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring

Although Copland was very private about his personal life, it’s known that he had relationships with several men, many of whom were significant movers and shakers of the time.

It’s thought that his troubled queer identity influenced the direction of many of his compositions. 

10. Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn

Born in Ohio in 1915, Billy Strayhorn spent much of his childhood between Pittsburgh and North Carolina, where he learned piano from his grandmother. 

After racism prevented him from becoming a classical composer, Strayhorn turned to jazz in his early 20s and composed some of the most memorable jazz pieces ever written. 

Strayhorn was also one of a small number of openly gay men in the Pittsburgh jazz scene and the American music scene in general. 

11. Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

An accomplished composer of both vocal and instrumental music, Samuel Barber, was a Pulitzer price winning American composer of the 20th century. 

Born in 1910 in Pennsylvania, Barber saw his compositions played by significant orchestras in Rome and New York City by the time he was 28. 

Barber was the romantic partner of Gian Carlo Menotti, another significant Italian-American composer, for over 30 years.

The couple was fairly open about their sexual nonconformity, even during the very conservative era they were composing in.

12. Pauline Oliveros

Born in Houston, Texas, in 1932, Pauline Oliveros became one of the most influential experimental composers of the 1960s.

She was a founding member of the influential San Francisco Tape Music Center, serving as the director for several years. 

Oliveros is known for her conceptualization of “deep listening” and “sonic awareness.”

She explained that these concepts were directly linked to her unique identity as a queer woman.

She was an out lesbian and staunch supporter of the second wave of feminism.

13. Rufus Wainwright

Canadian-American Rufus Wainwright is a GLAAD Award-winning singer/songwriter who overcame several hardships over the course of his life. 

While he’s best known for his solo albums, he’s also composed the soundtracks for several movies, as well as acting in a couple of films himself. 

Wainwright became one of the first openly gay singers on any major record label in the 90s and early 00s, saying, “… with Dreamworks Records, I emphatically stated to them that I was gay and that I wasn’t going to hide that.”

14. Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison was a trail-blazing gay American composer born in Portland, Oregon, in 1917 known for his experimental compositions influenced by global music traditions. 

Exposed to a wide range of musical genres during his formative years in the San Francisco Bay Area, Harrison was a pioneer in the compositional world.

His introduction of new instruments, alternative toning, unique song structure influences new music to this day. 

Operating completely against the grain of his time, Harrison was an out gay man who composed several significant pieces dealing with the realities of being gay, including his opera, Young Caesar. 

15. Wendy Carlos

Wendy Carlos was a hugely influential experimental music composer who wrote Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange score in 1971.

Carlos lived for years as a closeted trans woman and fully came out in a Playboy magazine exclusive interview in 1979.

Her courage to do so during an intensely intolerant time cemented her reputation as one of the most respected composers of the LGBTQ community. 

16. John Cage

John Cage

John Cage was an avant-garde composer whose works influenced the development of a range of arts outside of music, including dance, painting, poetry, and performance art. 

Although Cage was married to a woman for ten years, he eventually divorced and was in a committed relationship with famous dancer Merce Cunningham. 

Cage is ironically best known for his composition 4’33”, where the performer remains silent onstage for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

17. Julius Eastman  

Julius Eastman was an American composer who never saw the monumental success other composers on this list saw in their lifetimes.

Eastman is best remembered for his work in musical minimalism, an avant-garde approach to emerging classical trends of the 70s and 80s. 

He was a proudly gay black composer, achieving critical success for a time but eventually fading out of the musical world completely.

His sexual orientation and race impacted his career opportunities, and it wasn’t until after his death that his full genius was really appreciated. 

18. Elton John

One of the most famous LGBT singer/songwriters to ever live, Elton John is a legendary composer from England who’s had an enormous impact on the world through his music. 

Born in Middlesex, England in 1947, Elton John eventually came out as bisexual during an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine in 1976.

Since then, he’s been an icon of the LGBTQ community and an advocate for marriage equality and equal rights globally. 

Some of his most famous songs include “Rocketman” and “Tiny Dancer.” 

19. Jennifer Higdon

Jennifer Higdon is a Music Pultizer prize-winning composer who is also an openly gay woman.

She’s best known for her classical compositions, including her Violin Concerto that won her Pulitzer in 2010. 

However, Higdon is also famous for her vocal and choral works, all of which are stylistically minimal and relatively experimental compared with her peers. 

Higdon’s compositions have been played in concert halls and venues around the world, and she’s one of the most sought-after LGBTQ composers alive today. 

20. Cole Porter

Cole Porter

Cole Porter was an American songwriter and composer whose work was featured on Broadway and in many feature films. 

Though Porter was married to one woman for 34 years, it’s generally agreed that he was a closeted gay man.

He was known to have had long-standing relationships with several men significant in the art world. 

Some of his most famous songs include “Night and Day” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.” 

21. Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly by Steven Psano (CC BY 2.0)

Nico Muhly is regarded as one of the foremost queer composers alive today, taking his #MeToo themed opera Marnie to the MET recently. 

Born in Vermont in 1981, Muhly attended Juilliard and worked with artists like Björk before releasing his own compilation of works. 

Muhly is known as one of the most hard-working composers on the scene today.

At a relatively young age, he’s released an impressive discography alongside wildly successful commission pieces.

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Written by Dan Farrant
Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.