It matters, it really does!

Role models are hard to come by for young gay boys dealing with physical changes to their bodies as they enter puberty and the prevailing culture around them.  Adolescence is tricky enough without the added burden of thinking you are wrong, or broken, or, once religion gets involved, condemned to spend an eternity of conscious torment in a pit of molten lava.  Heterosexual boys and girls have a distinct advantage in this regard:  every time they turn on the television, watch a film, pick up a book, or listen to the songs on the radio, their new “feelings” are validated; men and women kiss, and while it may have gone unrequited, the great men and women of history were always falling in love with the opposite sex.

Not so for the gay boy or the lesbian girl.  Life becomes about translation:  okay, I know he wants the girl, but I’ll just pretend he wants the guy.  It may not seem like such a big deal, but there is a subtext to it that imprints upon the young homosexual that they can never be themselves, that they are aliens not meant for this planet.  The freedom that comes from being yourself is an unreachable prize that is not only unattainable but is also impossible, sinister, and forbidden.

Someone from a minority identity serving as a role model short circuits the power that the mainstream relies on to maintain its privileges.  African Americans like Barack Obama and women like Nancy Pelosi in high office expand the world for minorities.  They don’t even have to set out to do that; just being who they are sends a message.  An important message.  There is more than one way to be in this world.

That’s why it is so important when we learn of the sexuality of great men and women of the past.  Not in some sordid way, like who they were attracted to and loved is of interest, like gossip.  Rather, because it tells that teenaged gay boy or lesbian girl out there:  you’re fine.  You can follow your dream to become an architect, or a politician, or a musician — who you are at the very core of your being is not something to be ashamed of and hide in translation.

Vladimir Horowitz is widely regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all time.  Though he denied being gay all his life, he famously said that there are three types of pianists:  homosexual pianists, Jewish pianists, and bad pianists; good thing he was Jewish, or he would have outed himself!  But his quip is especially poignant in light of the brewing controversy in Poland over the sexuality of one of its favorite sons, Frédéric Chopin.


Frédéric Chopin (March 1, 1810 — October 17, 1849)

The Polish classical composer and pianist is famous for his solo piano works, including his Nocturnes, a musical composition that is inspired by, or evocative of, the night; nocturne is a very old term applied to night Offices and, since the Middle Ages, to divisions in the canonical hour of Matins prayed by priests, monks, and religious.  As a young student of piano, I was first introduced to Chopin via his Nocturne in E Flat Major (Op. 9 No. 2); as I struggled to learn that piece, I can only imagine what a difference it would have made to my adolescence to know that sublime work of art had been created by someone just like me.

Chopin's heart

Chopin’s preserved heart is interred in this Warsaw church

But heteronormative pressure applied to studies of the composer have covered up evidence of his sexuality in the notoriously anti-gay Catholic country of his birth — Poland.  Arrive in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, and you will pass through Chopin Airport, the nation's largest transportation hub, along with roughly 1 million other people every month.  Even his heart, which was removed from his body and preserved in alcohol after his death in 1849 at the age of 39, is sealed into a wall of Warsaw's Holy Cross Catholic Church.  In Poland, Chopin enjoys a stature among his countrymen rivaled only by his fellow Poles Pope John Paul II and Marie Curie, who discovered two elements, polonium and radium, coined the term “radioactivity,” and won the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

But new research into Frédéric Chopin's private life is in direct conflict with Poland's staunchly conservative traditions, its Right-wing leadership, and its virulently anti-gay Catholic orthodoxy.  Music journalist Moritz Weber has revealed he came across “a flood of declarations of love aimed at men” while studying letters written by Chopin, some of which were unquestionably erotic.  Speaking on an arts program broadcast on Swiss radio, Weber details 22 letters written to Titus Woyciechowski, among others, in which Chopin is clearly speaking of sexual intimacy with men.  In one, to Titus, a male friend, Chopin says, “You don’t like being kissed.  Please allow me to do so today.  You have to pay for the dirty dream I had about you last night.”

So what?  Weber found that subsequent biographies and publications of Chopin’s letters swap male pronouns to female ones and downplay any evidence of Chopin's relationships with men.  His research has caused some in Poland to question whether the story of Chopin they were told from a young age is true or fabricated, an explosive question in one of Europe's worst countries for LGBTQ rights.  The country's Trump-styled populist government frequently uses harshly homophobic rhetoric, with its Prime Minister complaining of a "homosexual agenda" threatening the homeland.  Roughly a third of Poland has declared itself "LGBT-free," which is nonsensical bordering on delusional and legally meaningless, but nevertheless has LGBTQ people living lives of fear where their very existence is called into question.

  • Polish President Andrzej Duda has denounced LGBTQ people, winning re-election earlier this year after putting the issue of gay rights front and center in his campaign
  • The populist Law and Justice party, which unabashedly touts Poland's heritage and traditional culture, and is currently the majority party in Poland’s bicameral parliament, is headed by Jarosław Kaczyński who has stated that LGBTQ people "threaten the Polish state”
  • Poland’s Education Minister said "these people are not equal to normal people”
  • Last year, Krakow's Catholic archbishop said that the country was under siege from a "rainbow plague"

This has led to Poland being named the EU's worst country for LGBTQ rights by the European Region of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association — ILGA-Europe.

Rose Cholmondeley, the president of the UK's Chopin Society, said, "He [Chopin] is a symbol of Poland, but you've got a government now which is absolutely anti-gay — and were he to be gay, God knows what they would make of it.  When somebody's an icon, an awful lot of things are suppressed.”  She added that some of his letters supposedly describing Chopin's relationships with women have turned out to be forgeries.  Polish historians have "turned him into a Catholic icon, when actually he didn't go to church," Cholmondeley added.

Does it matter whether Chopin was gay?  On one level, no.  But on another, yes, absolutely.  When Right-wing culture warriors, be they in Poland or the United States, take the humanity away from their LGBTQ citizens, when hatred and even violence toward the queer community is allowed to go unchecked, knowing there have been men and women of stature throughout history who have made significant contributions to civilization who were gay and lesbian is a powerful counter-narrative to bigotry and prejudice.  Moreover, when scholars uncover that the histories we’ve learned were nudged this way or that to fit an agenda, the presumptions we make about what our lives “should” be are called into question.

playing piano

So yes it matters, if only because there’s a gay boy out there practicing for his piano lesson tonight and worrying that this world has no place for his kind.  And it matters to me.

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