21 Of The Most Famous LGBTQ+ Composers You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

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.

As we delve into this list showing 21 of the most famous LGBTQ+ composers, let’s take a moment to appreciate their immense contributions to the world of music. Each name here tells a story of struggle, triumph, and unyielding passion for music. Let’s jump in!

1. Georg Friedrich Händel

Georg Friedrich Händel

The German-British Baroque composer Georg Friedrich Händel is famous for his operas, oratorios, anthems, and organ concertos. Born in 1685 in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg (now Germany), Händel moved to London where he spent the bulk of his career and became a naturalized British subject in 1727.

Generally recognized by most music historians as gay, there’s no concrete evidence that Händel actually was. However, according to various authorities on his work, there is a clear homosexual subtext in many of his compositions. 

Händel’s best-known compositions were written for kings and queens, notably George I and Queen Anne of England. He wrote works such as Messiah, Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks, which continue to be critically acclaimed.

Regardless of his personal life, there’s no denying the significant impact Händel had on the world of classical music.

2. Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

Next up is Benjamin Britten, born in Britain in 1913. He is considered one of the greatest opera composers of the 20th century.

When it was frowned upon and even dangerous to do so, Britten was open about his homosexuality and relationship with singer Peter Pears. The two met in 1937 and soon became partners, maintaining a lifelong companionship that lasted until Britten’s death in 1976.

Britten’s music is known for its emotional depth and brilliant orchestration. Some of his 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 he 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

Born Giovanni Battista Lulli, Jean-Baptiste de Lully was a pivotal figure in the world of 17th-century French music. He was a master of French baroque best remembered for his operatic compositions, like the much-celebrated Armide.

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 de Lully kept a wife and a mistress, it’s generally believed that they were both cover for his homosexual preferences, because 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. He passed away on March 22, 1687.

4. Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns

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.

Among his most notable compositions are the Danse Macabre, a tone poem based on an old French superstition about death, and Carnival of the Animals, a humorous musical suite that has become particularly popular with children.

Saint-Saëns led a tumultuous private life fueled by society’s disdain for homosexuality. It is said he denied being homosexual but rather admitted he was a pederast. 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

Next is the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. A master responsible for shaping the tone and direction of the Romantic Era for years to come, he left behind quite a legacy, like the ballets Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and Sleeping Beauty.

His life was marked by periods of intense creativity followed by bouts of depression and self-doubt. Despite his personal struggles, Tchaikovsky remained devoted to his music, pouring his heart and soul into each composition.

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. This modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is filled with memorable tunes that beautifully blend classical music with jazz and Latin rhythms. Another notable work is the controversial MASS.

Bernstein’s personal life wasn’t free from controversy either. While married to a woman, he 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.

Her compositions span a wide range of genres, from chamber music and choral works to operas and orchestral pieces. One of her most well-known works is “The March of the Women,” a song that became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement in the UK.

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 was openly gay, a fact that was not commonly accepted during his time. This often put him at odds with himself and society.

However, it also had a profound influence on his music. Many of his compositions are imbued with a sense of longing and melancholy, perhaps a reflection of his inner struggles, like Dialogues des Carmélites and Sonata for Oboe and Piano.

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

Hailing from Brooklyn, New York, Aaron Copland was among a small number of highly respected American classical composers who pushed the boundaries of what classical music meant in America and internationally. 

Copland’s compositional style is deeply ingrained in the fabric of American culture. 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. He spent the majority of his career working closely with the legendary Duke Ellington and composed some of the most memorable jazz pieces ever written, like “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Lush Life.”

Strayhorn was also one of a small number of openly gay men in the Pittsburgh jazz scene and the American music scene in general. His sexual orientation, in many ways, informed his approach to music and life. It gave him a unique perspective, which he channeled into his compositions.

11. Samuel Barber

Samuel Barber

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

Born in 1910 in Pennsylvania, Barber’s musical journey began at a young age. His aunt was a leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera, and his mother was an accomplished pianist.

By the time he was 28, Barber saw his compositions played by significant orchestras in Rome and New York City. One of his most significant works is the opera Vanessa. Premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1958, this piece won Barber the Pulitzer Prize for Music.

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. Oliveros was unafraid to address issues of gender, race, and sexual orientation, and her life work emphasized inclusivity. This brave stance made her a trailblazer, not just in the realm of music but also in advocating for LGBTQ+ rights.

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, like Moulin Rouge!, Shrek, and The Aviator, 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 1990s and early 2000s, 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

Next up is Lou Harrison, a trail-blazing gay American composer born in Portland, Oregon, in 1917. He was 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, and 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

From Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Wendy Carlos is a name that shines brightly in the realm of music. She is not just a composer, but also an accomplished keyboardist and an innovator in the field of electronic music.

Carlos rose to prominence with her album Switched-On Bach in 1968, where she presented a selection of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works meticulously performed on a Moog synthesizer.

Her work on the scores for iconic films like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, in 1971, and The Shining further demonstrated her range and versatility as a composer.

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

Next up, we have John Cage, 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. Together, they collaborated on numerous projects, intertwining music and dance in innovative ways. 

Cage’s work was deeply influenced by Eastern philosophies, particularly Zen Buddhism, and this is reflected in his compositions. He is best known for his composition 4’33”, where the performer remains silent onstage for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

17. Julius Eastman

New Yorker 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 1970s and ’80s. Notable works include Gay Guerilla, Crazy Nigger, and Evil Nigger.

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 in 1990 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, 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. In 2014, he married his long-time partner David Furnish, and they have two sons together.

Some of his most famous songs include “Your Song,” “Rocketman,” and “Tiny Dancer.” Another major contribution John made is to the soundtrack of the animated hit The Lion King. His song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” brought him an Academy Award for Best Original Song.

19. Jennifer Higdon

An acclaimed contemporary classical composer, Jennifer Higdon is also an openly gay woman. She is married to her long-time partner Cheryl Lawson, whom she met in high school.

Higdon is best known for her classical compositions, including her Violin Concerto, which won her the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2010. Not only this, she 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

Born on June 9, 1891, in Peru, Indiana, Cole Porter was an American songwriter and composer whose work was featured on Broadway and in many feature films.

One of Porter’s most famous works is Anything Goes, a musical that premiered in 1934. The show was a smash hit, and its title song quickly became a standard. Other notable compositions include “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Night and Day,” and “You’re the Top.”

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.

21. Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly by Steven Psano (CC BY 2.0)

We close this list with Nico Muhly, who 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.

Despite his young age, he is known as one of the most hard-working composers on the scene today. Already he has released an impressive discography alongside wildly successful commission pieces.

One of Muhly’s most notable works is his opera Two Boys. Premiered by the English National Opera in 2011, it was later staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2013. The opera delves into the complexities of online communication and identity, a theme that resonates deeply in our digital age.

Summing Up Our List Of Famous LGBTQ+ Composers

As you have read, the music world has been greatly influenced by a host of remarkable composers who were, and are, part of the LGBTQ+ community. Their unique perspectives and experiences helped shape the landscape of music.

We hope that this article provided new light on their amazing works and has introduced you to some new favorites!

If there are any composers we didn’t mention, we would absolutely love to hear from you. Your thoughts and suggestions are invaluable in helping us recognize and celebrate the full spectrum of diversity within the music world.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of 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. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.