Queer musicology on campus: How music shapes Queer communities

An emerging field of study is exploring the power of music in Queer communities.

Queer musicology is the study of how gender and sexuality relate to music. In a landmark book published in 2020, McGill professor of music history and musicology Dr. Lloyd Whitesell wrote that Queer musicology may aim to contextualize “suppressed life stories,” explore social aspects and aesthetics and delve into “the theoretical exploration of music’s role in [Queer] forms of knowledge.”

Though research is limited — “the book that launched the field” of Queer musicology was only published in 1994 — recent years have seen a steady increase in theses and studies dedicated to addressing the intersection of Queer identity and music. To learn more, The Ubyssey combined the stories of 2SLGBTQIA+ students and performers with novel research, exploring how Queer musicology shapes life on campus and beyond.

A tool of expression

For musician and second-year psychology student Dani, whose last name has been withheld due to safety concerns, music is an emotional outlet. Dani said making music helps them to process and reflect on their emotions.

As an artist, Dani also hopes that their audience will connect with their music as it translates thoughts and feelings. They said their “highest priority is to have an audience that resonates and that feels what [they’re] trying to communicate.”

Academic papers have noted how Queer artists utilize music as a tool of expression. Lesely University master of arts student Derrick Lacasse wrote in their thesis “Exploring Intersections of Queer Artist Identities Through Music: A Community Engagement Project,” that music can serve as a tool for healing in Queer spaces, where individuals are more likely to have suffered from minority stress and discrimination. Lacasse’s research suggested that Queer artists may use music to both validate their experiences and “express [Queer] identity through the arts.”

Vancouver-based musician Haleluya Hailu echoed this emphasis on validation, and said that they “find comfort in other people’s art and music,” and hope others will do the same with theirs.

Finding community

Hailu studies music at Selkirk College in Nelson, BC, an isolated town with a population of around 11,000. As a Black Queer immigrant living in a smaller and fairly homogeneous town, Hailu said music has become a way to identify and connect with other Queer individuals.

“Marginalized people find each other and find ways to express themselves when they can’t be completely comfortable expressing themselves in regular conversation or at work in their day-to-day.”

Third-year music student Nathella Pasula, who grew up in Alberta, also views music as an outlet for community in a setting that lacks diversity.

“I never knew that lesbians existed until a much later age, just because there was no representation. My very first lesbian or Queer woman representation was ‘Girls Like Girls’ by Hayley Kiyoko,” they said. “The entirety of my connection to the Queer community was through music and online.”

A 2006 observational study on a gay men’s choir in an American urban centre found that music encouraged healthy self-expression both on the individual and the community level. It also facilitated tolerance in the city at large: many of the choir members were willing to share their art with other communities in the city, even those that had previously discriminated against gay men. This increased Queer visibility necessary for education and acceptance.

This path to personal and community healing can be best exemplified by a choir member who said, on the topic of sharing their music, “this is a service to the greater community that makes my soul sing.”

Creativity and catharsis

Now, living in Vancouver and having more opportunities to connect with Queer individuals, Pasula said that music still remains important for building Queer relationships. They noted that music is useful in identifying and connecting with other Queer individuals, through “hints” exemplified in certain music genres and TikTok trends. Music is also crucial as a form of emotional catharsis.

“I listen to music no matter what emotions I’m feeling and that can help me recentre if I’m having a difficult time mentally,” they said.

Similarly, Melissa Elmer, a third-year student in chemical and biological engineering, sees music as important for self-expression and reflection, particularly as a lesbian in STEM.

“Some of my classes don’t promote a ton of creativity, and it’s nice to be able to be more creative and expressive through music. It lets me connect with that side of myself,” she said.

Whether engaging with music as an artist or as a listener, growing insight into Queer musicology suggests that Queer individuals benefit from music on numerous levels, including community, connection and catharsis. As a musician and as a listener, Hailu agrees.

“Regardless [of] if you’re a rock star, or you’re somebody who kind of listens to music, there’s just something so deeply healing about participating in art.”