A few episodes into the third episode of Queer as Folk, hotshot violin prodigy Ethan Gold is approached by an agent who offers him everything he's ever wanted: Solo concerts, regional and national tours, even a record deal with a major label. There's just one catch: Ethan can't openly acknowledge his boyfriend for fear of alienating (homophobic) audience members. At first, he refuses to consider it, but then Brian Kinney finds him playing on a street corner and tries to talk him into signing. As he walks away, he tells the violinist "You know, there's nothing noble about being poor.".
You can tell from his smug smile that he thinks it's a terribly clever line, and, infuriatingly, no one offers much by way of a counterargument over the rest of the episode. Not wanting to pass up his life-long dream, and seeing the logic in Brian's position, Ethan signs the contract.
Now, he's a free agent (insofar as we're pretending he's a real person and not a fictional character . . . ) and can do as he likes, but still. "There's nothing noble about being poor." Well no, there isn't. But there isn't anything noble about being rich, either.
(Before we go any further, it's necessary to clarify that we're not dealing with dire poverty here. It can be treacherous to assume someone's economic status based on appearances alone, but given that Ethan can afford the occasional spontaneous cheese platter, I feel pretty confident saying he's not on the brink of starvation or eviction. The calculus for these decisions are very different when the alternative to "pretend to be straight" is "don't eat".)
The thing is that "there's nothing noble about being poor" addresses the wrong question. Ethan isn't considering turning down the contract because he wants to be poor and to play in obscurity. There may well be artists who are like this, who are deeply wary of financial gain (bonus points for railing against "filthy lucre") and would rather spend their life playing on street corners than risk even the possibility of "selling out" — certainly it's a trope [TV Tropes — you have been warned], even if I personally don't know any artists who are like that in any field. Ethan, certainly, doesn't fit this mold — he wants to be famous, he wants to have a career.
Instead, it's a matter of integrity. Is Ethan willing to lie about who he is to get what he wants? And does he have to?
The answer to the first question is clearly "yes". The second one is more complicated.
It is certainly true that the classical recording industry has a long history of erasing queer identities, one that continues up to the present — I recently found a set of liner notes from a 2012 recording that scrupulously avoided using any pronouns to refer to Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, seemingly so as to not reveal his homosexuality. Ambiguous terminology also abounds: John Cage wrote this ballet for his partner, Merce Cunningham to choreograph — Samuel Barber called on Gian Carlo Menotti, with whom he had a close relationship, for this libretto — these people were partners in the way that Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were, sure, but they were also sleeping together. I don't think I've ever seen a program note openly acknowledge Jennifer Higdon's sexuality.
Tempting as it might be to write these things off as revealing a general disinterest in the personal lives of classical artists, that explanation doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Program notes gleefully delve into Leoš Janáček's epistolary affair with Kamila Stösslová, and I don't think I've ever seen it not mentioned that Luciano Berio was in a relationship with Cathy Berberian when he wrote Sequenza III for her. We're fine delving into composers' personal lives, but only so long as they're straight.
So this trepidation exists, but is it warranted? I'll admit that I don't have oodles of sales figures at hand to mine for data. It's certainly true that, for all that classical music has often been a haven for outcasts and misfits — whether Jewish performers in Weimar Berlin or gay male composers in Lavender Scare United States* — its audiences, especially contemporary United States audiences, have often been shot thru with strains of conservatism, perhaps unsurprisingly for an art form often branded as élite. I think it would be wrong to say that Ethan couldn't have a successful career at all as an openly gay violinist in 2003 (when the episode in question aired), but I also think he probably would have lost some album sales and concert engagements. Openly homophobic attacks would likely be rare, but it's easy to imagine disdainful sniffs of not being serious enough to really get Beethoven, accusations that his success was based on his sensational personal life and not his musical abilities. (Because, of course, even the most humdrum, traditional queer personal life is inherently sensational, unlike those of the cisgender heterosexuals. Ethan's monogamous, stable, conventionally romantic relationship with Justin would be provocative in a way that an equivalent relationship with a cis woman would not.)
Are these few album sales worth it? This is the heart of the matter. Is it worth lying about who you are to achieve a greater level of fame and be taken more seriously as an artist? I can't answer this question for Ethan, I can only answer it for myself.
For me, It's not. Don't get me wrong: I want to be successful, I want to be famous. But I want me to be successful, not some hollowed-out simulacrum carefully calculated to offend the fewest possible sensibilities. I am completely uninterested in doing anything to further the fiction that cishets are the only people whose identities are a default standard in need of no comment or justification; I have no desire to perpetuate the condescending arrangement whereby people "in the know" are aware of just how thoroughly queer classical music is, but carefully shield and buffer that knowledge from the audiences they're trying to woo. I have enough privilege to be able to be out without immediate threat to my personal safety or financial solvency, and I feel that means I have a duty to push back against the forces that prevent other people from doing so**. I am here to help make queerphobia socially untenable.
This may well cost me fans, especially in the realm of music theatre. I can easily imagine families that would flock to see some milquetoast cishet rom-com thinking twice before (not) buying tickets to the more exuberantly queer shows I have in the works. I don't care. Fame isn't worth denial. Fame isn't worth abandoning the heart of my artistic vision***.
And that's where Brian's advice so obnoxiously, infuriatingly misses the mark. The question isn't "Is there something noble about being poor, about avoiding money for avoiding money's sake?". It's "Is there something noble about maintaining your integrity and values even at some cost to your dreams?". That's a harder question, but an absolutely essential one. I'm sure, regrettably, that there will be times where compromise is necessary; I have no doubt that I will not be able to live my life in strict accordance with every value I have. Still, there's a difference between bending things occasionally out of necessity and abandoning them wholesale out of hunger for greater fame.
So if, in future, you see me turning down some highly lucrative deal that would require my going back into the closet, know that it's not because I think there's something noble about being poor. It's because there's nobility to be found in values other than making lots of money.
*Indeed, the famous pianist Vladimir Horowitz once quipped that there are three types of pianists: Jewish pianists, gay pianists, and bad pianists.
**I also think this means it's not particularly courageous for me to be open about being not straight. There are situations where it does, in fact, take a great deal of bravery to openly state one's sexuality, but I'm not in one of them. I don't at all think that everyone who stays closeted for reasons of safety or solvency is cowardly — far from it! — but I also don't think that I, personally, deserve any great plaudits for not hiding that I'm attracted to people who aren't women.
***At this point, some of you may have "Nine People's Favorite Thing" [YouTube] from [title of show] stuck in your heads. It's not an unrelated message, but I think it's something of a cop-out. They eagerly anticipate the nine telling another nine, telling another nine until they have widespread popularity despite their slow start. That's obviously lovely, but I'm willing to go further. I would rather be limited to a modest level of fame my entire life than become famous at the expense of my integrity.