14 Of The Most Famous LGBTQ Piano Players You Should Know

Written by Robert Jackson
Last updated

Many LGBTQ individuals have left indelible marks on worldwide music culture since as early as the 1800s. Being an over 300-year old instrument, the piano has amassed an enormous legacy itself. These great musicians have forever changed what it means to be a pianist in the past and present.

In this list of famous LGBTQ piano players, we’ll discuss each artist, a small chunk of their musical achievements, and their lives as LGBTQ individuals. Some of them faced difficult hardships and censorship, but their music was absolute. 

1. Liberace

Born in Wisconsin, Liberace was always a man of grandeur.

His musical career took off during the 40s and 50s as he premiered in Soundies (music videos) and performed live.

He played at clubs and private parties with his sights on entering the world of movies and television. His instrument of choice was a giant gold-leaf-covered Blüthner grand piano.

Liberace always had a complicated relationship with his sexuality. Several informal and formal romantic allegations with Cary James Wyman clashed with his conservative opinions.

As his show business profile grew, so did his number of male and female lovers. Even if he could not reconcile with himself, Liberace stands as a 50s LGBTQ idol. 

2. Jean-Yves Thibaudet

Famous French pianist Jean-YvesThibaudet was born in Lyon, France, and is an influential modern pianist.

He started learning the piano at age five and continued to achieve it throughout his youth.

He has since collaborated with many famous international orchestras like the New York Philharmonic and the Orchestre National de France. Transcribing parts of classic operas is one of his specialties. 

He lives a pleasant life with his partner Paul in Los Angeles. Being a man of commitment and acceptance, Jean-Yves will not agree to any invitations to parties or venues where his partner is not welcome.

At the age of 60, Thibaudet is still vibrantly contributing to piano culture worldwide.

3. Elton John

Famous rock and pop piano player Elton John started as a pub pianist in the 60s and enjoyed a successful string of hits in the 70s.

His 1997 single “Candle in the Wind,” a tribute to Princess Diana, is the best-selling chart single of all time. Since then Elton has earned five Grammys and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.

Elton John struggled to find the right partner, ending several marriages soon after they started.

He told Rolling Stone that he was bisexual in 1976 but was uncomfortable in relationships until he came out as gay in 1992.

John and his former advisor, David Furnish, wed in the UK in 2014 after a nine-year civil partnership. 

4. Patricia Barber

Patricia Barber is an American jazz pianist with a unique voice and style. She started humbly learning piano, saxophone, and singing in high school.

Despite her career not taking off quickly, Patricia always stuck to her style and slowly climbed into Chicago jazz stardom.

She has released 13 studio albums since 1989 and won a Guggenheim Fellowship award in 2003. 

While Patricia Barber has publicly stated that she is a lesbian, she prefers not to emphasize it too much for her media exposure.

While she does not try to hide her sexuality, she continues to make a name for herself in the world of jazz piano. She was interviewed for Gay & Lesbian Times magazine in 2008. 

5. Vladimir Horowitz

Vladimir Horowitz was born in Russia but had his American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1928. He is known for his energy while playing and his signature virtuoso technique.

He traveled around the world playing classical piano and recording records.

Later in his career, he took seven pupils under his wing to carry on his legacy as one of the world’s greatest classical pianists.

Horowitz denied several allegations of homosexuality despite his marriage to Wanda Toscanini. Despite this, rumors circulated about affairs with his partner, Kenneth Leedom.

Horowitz underwent psychiatric treatment to change his sexuality in the 40s, a denial that continued until his death. 

6. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was undoubtedly one of the most famous classical composers of all time, he was also an accomplished pianist and was responsible for timeless compositions like Swan Lake and 1812 Overture.

He was the first Russian to leave a lifelong impact on music, starting with his graduation from the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1865. He exhibited a fantastic creative range across his works.

While Tchaikovsky stated unabashedly in letters that he was a homosexual, this news faced extreme censorship from the Russian government.

Much of what we know about Tchaikovsky’s personal and sexual life has come to light only recently, but he continues to be an inspiration for pianists worldwide. 

7. Manuel de Falla

Being one of Spain’s most influential composers, Manuel attended the Conservatorio de Música y Declamación through the late 1890s and 20th century.

He traveled all over Europe, from Madrid to Andalusia to Paris, studying various musical styles. He retired to Argentina, where he tutored young musicians until his death. 

Manuel never married and had no children. While his sexuality isn’t known, scholars inferred that he may have been homosexual.

His strong interest in Andalusia—where sexual boundaries are more relaxed and progressive—and his escapades in Paris have led experts to believe that some of his friendships with other men may have been intimate. 

8. John Cage

John Cage is best known for advancements in pioneering musical styles and using irregular instruments.

He engineered a prepared piano instrument that features objects placed on or between the strings to create a unique sound.

Cage is a critical founding figure of postwar avant-garde music for many musical scholars. 

Cage went through a series of marriages and divorces until he met Merce Cunningham, a choreographer with whom he worked.

While the two never married after Cage’s 1945 divorce with his ex-wife, Cunningham remained his civil partner throughout his music career and for the rest of his life.

9. Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman was a radical, provocative American pianist, composer, vocalist, and dancer.

He left a unique and critical legacy of musical minimalism, which challenged and demonized standard norms.

For example, during one of his apexes, Eastman recomposed Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” as a gay manifesto.

Eastman was viewed controversially, even by John Cage and other gay pianists in his time.

His works demonstrated his unique, dramatic interest in exploring black gay sexuality, often involving explicit visuals.

Many of his works are being studied in retrospect for their brash but valuable contributions to LGBTQ and black music culture.

10. Billy Strayhorn

Billy Strayhorn was a close contemporary of Duke Ellington for many decades. As a LGBT composer and pianist himself, he produced well-known pieces like “Take The ‘A’ Train” and “Chelsea Bridge.”

Starting humbly, Strayhorn saved up for his first piano and succeeded despite the difficulties of a black man trying to enter the world of classical music. 

Billy was an openly gay activist for both black and LGBTQ rights. A friend of Martin Luther King Jr., he produced tribute pieces such as “King Fit the Battle of Alabama.”

He died of cancer in 1967 in the arms of his partner, Bill Grove.

11. Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein is a prodigious American pianist and composer who won sixteen Grammys throughout his musical career.

His diverse composition portfolio included genres like ballet, opera, and theater.

West Side Story is Bernstein’s best-known work, though he produced the scores for many more exemplary movies and productions.

Bernstein is regarded as a humanitarian activist, though he had struggles reconciling his homosexuality. It complicated his marriage with actress Felicia Cohn Montealegre.

After she died in 1978, Bernstein pursued several homosexual relations across the globe. He felt guilt for Felicia’s death as he moved from one affair to another, but his love for music was undisputed. 

12. Dee Palmer

Dee Palmer is a keyboardist who was a member of the progressive rock band Jethro Tull. She was born in London and studied music at the Royal Academy of Music.

After working with Jethro Tull, Palmer worked as a solo composer making symphony arrangements of songs by bands like Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and Queen. 

Palmer is transgender and transitioned in 1998, changing her name from David to Dee in the process.

She had experienced gender dysphoria frequently in her life, and it resurfaced after her wife Maggie died in 1995.

Palmer continues to make music into her 80s, and her most recent solo album came out in 2018. 

13. Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten was an british composer and pianist whose best works include Peter Grimes in 1945 and War Requiem in 1962.

He was an integral figure to British 20th century music, and his compositions garnered attention and awards, most notably in Europe. He earned a Grammy Award in two different years for War Requiem

Many of Britten’s colleagues testified that he had an innocent, often childish air. It was likely because of this that Britten had an easier time relating to younger men.

While several accounts list his unions with young men as purely innocent and affectionate, recent love letters between Britten and Peter Pears, his professional partner, have surfaced. 

14. Wendy Carlos

Next on our list we have Wendy Carlos’s whose instrument of choice is the synthesizer that she uses in her pioneering of electronic music styles.

She won three Grammy Awards for her most famous work, Switched-On Bach, in 1970. The album was a compilation album of music by Johann Sebastian Bach rearranged for the Moog synthesizer. 

Carlos had been living as a woman since 1968 and underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1972. She helped promote transgender issues and raise public awareness as she did so.

Most of her fascinating discography is difficult to find today, but she joined the ranks of influential transgender musicians throughout history.

Summing up our List of the Greatest LGBTQ Pianists

Elton John by Raph_PH (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Whether they are homosexual, bisexual, or transgender, each of these artists has left an extraordinary impact on music.

Many of them helped to engineer new instruments or popularize new music genres.

They’ve shown us that our bodies and attractions do not define our capabilities and that instrumental genius can be achieved by those who persevere.

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Robert is a professional pianist and writer who's been playing the piano for over 20 years. He studied music education at college and now works as a full time musician and piano teacher all over the country.