It’s almost strange that leading Australian musical export Courtney Barnett is in a same-sex relationship with Australian indie icon Jen Cloher and it’s not news. Barnett has taken to the world-stage with a casual confidence, comfortable in herself, and feeling no need to make a big deal about her sexuality.
Compare this to Troye Sivan, who has made a career on the back of his talent and his queerness. Producing music videos that show explicitly queer relationships and queer histories, this young Australian pop star is using his position as an out gay musician to talk about LGBTQIA+ issues.
Both approaches to being a queer musician are just as valid as each other. There’s no rule that if you’re LGBTQIA+ it should define your career. Although it does beg the question - does labelling music as queer matter in Australia?
Making a label stick
Unlike queer film or queer literature, which are established subgenres - although some argue they’re problematic - queer music is a murkier area. The queer label doesn’t have the same cultural cache when attached to music. Tchaikovsky isn’t exactly known as a queer musician, whereas Oscar Wilde is almost known as queer first and writer second.
“When I was younger and writing songs about same-sex relationships, the use of same-sex-attracted pronouns didn’t seem like a big deal to me, nor did my sexuality appear to be controversial – nor should it! – so being a ‘queer artist’ just wasn’t something I thought about,” says Jack Colwell, a Sydney-based gay musician making a career out of heartbreaking, morose and deeply personal songs.
While Jack initially held this view, his opinion changed. “Now that I’m a bit more mature I can see how a younger generation might want to listen to music that empowers them, or helps them feel that being queer is a normal experience,” he explains. “I think that music should always be a documentation and reflection of the times, so it’s important someone takes note of queer experience. I like to let my music do the talking, but if being visible as a queer artist helps another person, then I think that’s the most important message overall.”
Late last year, Jack used his position as an out gay musician to fundraise money for QLife after Tyronne Unworth’s tragic death. He released “No Mercy”, a song detailing his own experiences with homophobia and frustration with the government’s response to the safe school’s controversy.
“I just felt so angry and passionate, and I hoped I could use my voice to make a small difference,” says Jack. “I don’t feel I have a general obligation to speak about queer issues, but I do feel I have an obligation to be a nice and respectful person, and to stand up for my beliefs. That’s a responsibility everyone should have.”
Maybe queer’s not the word
Rachel Maria Cox is a Melbourne-based, non-binary musician who manages Sad Grrrls Club, a collective of non-male musicians and music industry professionals who promote diversity within the local music scene. Rachel questions using the the term ‘queer’.
“It becomes a sort of umbrella term for anyone in the LGBTQIA+ community, which is a community that incorporates people of varying sexualities and genders, so in most of the contexts it’s used I find it’s not a very useful descriptor because it’s far too broad,” Rachel says, elaborating: “As a white, pansexual, non-binary and frequently perceived as female person, my ‘queer issues’ are vastly different to those of a trans, male, person of colour, or a white, cisgendered gay male.”
Rachel believes that artists should own their gender or sexual identities on a personal level, but thinks that labelling music as queer is probably not the way to go.
“We should avoid calling music ‘queer’, ‘trans’, ‘gay or lesbian’ etc. because they’re not genres and they’re generally used in a really dismissive way. Let people talk about all the aspects of their identities and how all those things influence their music.
“We’re seeing more musicians who are openly LGBTQIA+ but it’s still very personal whether or not an artist decides to call their music or art queer.”
Creating space for everyone
“I think the “queer” label is being used more and more generally, as a catch-all term… but I also think particular terms and labels come in and out of fashion, like everything else,” Anna Whitelaw director and co-producer of Gaytimes says. “How people identify is totally a personal choice.”
Gaytimes is an inclusive camping music festival with a sexually and gender diverse line-up that strives to be an event where all people to feel accepted. Anna believes spaces like this are more important than ever in Australia.
“As dedicated gay venues are closing, and as some of those that remain are increasingly exclusive to men, we hope a festival like Gaytimes fills the void,” Anna says.
“Even though we are thankfully moving towards being a society where it is easier for people to come out and be accepted, I think there will always be a need for these spaces.” And while Gaytimes doesn’t exclusively book LGBTQIA+ identifying artists, Anna believes it is an inclusive event.
“We consider Gaytimes an inclusive festival but we don't book exclusively LGBTQIA+ identifying artists by any means. We never have, and we make no apology for that. While we want to support emerging LGBTQIA+ musicians and artists, and we have curated a diverse lineup, we also don't make anyone show their gay card at the door.”
Rachel’s Sad Grrrls Club aims to provide a similarly inclusive space at their shows:
“You’ve got to make your shows safe for women and LGBTQIA+ people!” implores Rachel.
“Venues, organisers, bookers and bands, this means having policies in place - a safe spaces invitation is a great place to start - having this publicly displayed, enforcing it and having staff and security who know what to do in the event that it’s breached,” they say.
Studying history for the future
Australian music has long been a domain of straight white men, with minority voices fighting for their spot to be recognised. Overtly queer music is still overlooked by the mainstream or met with a baffled response, such as the recent case of Brendan Maclean’s explicitly gay music video exploring gay hook-up culture.
Queerness is even erased from the narrative when looking to the past. While studying classical music, Jack Colwell was moved by the queerness of Tchaikovsky, even though his sexuality was omitted from the curriculum.
“The one queer composer most students study is Tchaikovsky, whose sexual orientation is left out of most classroom anecdotes; yet, when I listen to his work, his queerness comes through in his stories of change, hidden suffering and escapist fantasy,” he says.
With queer music often lost to history, or overlooked, it feels more important than ever for LGBTQIA+ musicians to reflect their diverse identities in their work, even if it’s hard.
“I have to work a lot harder to be recognised for anything that I do and that’s simply because I have to work a lot harder to be recognised as a person in a culture that, as a whole, still doesn’t want to think I exist,” Rachel says of their experiences as a non-binary musician.
“To change the music scene we need to change the education system, and to have queer stories ‘normalised’,” says Jack Colwell. “Things like Troye Sivan being placed on the cover of Rolling Stone Australia and winning an ARIA are huge because they show that these platforms, and that the old guard, are already changing.”
LGBTQIA+ musicians in Australia are making a difference. They may not always label themselves or their music, but it’s there and people are less afraid than ever before to be themselves in our scene. Queer music might not be the label for everyone, but it sure can be something special.
Check out our playlist here: