‘Closets Are For Clothes’: Celebrating Pride Month through Musical Coming Out Stories

By Becky Nystedt |

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Instrumentalists Alex Hecker, bass clarinet; John Heffernan, violin; Jordan Thomas, harp in rehearsal for Closets Are For Clothes.

“As an adult, knowing that music and my identity as a gay man have always been so closely intertwined, I’ve decided that my mission as a professional musician is to find ways to give back to my LGBTQ community through music and offer my community the safety and healing that music has shown me,” expresses John Heffernan, a violinist and Fellow with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

With support from the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Heffernan has commissioned works by three rising Chicago-based LGBTQ+ composers, Kelley Sheehan, Devin Clara Fanslow, and Sean Ellis Hussey for a program called Closets Are For Clothes, which will be performed on June 23 at Chicago’s Constellation.

Each piece in the program reflects its composer’s personal coming out story and will be performed by an intimate chamber ensemble consisting of Chicago-based LGBTQ+ musicians, John Heffernan, violin; Alex Liedtke, oboe; Alex Hecker, bass clarinet; Jordan Thomas, harp. After the performance, the composers and musicians will engage in a discussion regarding the music and the queer perspectives behind them.

Heffernan says he chose coming out as the performance theme, not only because it is a pivotal moment in many LGBTQ+ person’s lives, but to put into perspective that the experience of coming out is universal.

“I wanted to encourage young emerging LGBTQ+ composers to write pieces that tell their story in an authentic way, because thankfully nowadays LGBTQ+ people are able to,” he explains. “This concert series is both a celebration of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.”

Heffernan reflects “human beings have to accept what makes them different from society’s expectations and standards of who they should be and decide to ‘come out’ and present their true authentic selves to the world. This universal theme hopes to create a feeling of inclusion, connection, and healing through music. While the subject matter is catered to the LGBTQ+ community,” he adds, “everyone can connect to the music in this concert.”

We asked each composer featured in the upcoming concert to discuss their composition:

Sean Ellis Hussey

“I have three pieces on the program, and each holds different significance for me.

“The first is an opening electronic track with various people reading a transcript outlining legal parameters of being LGBTQ in the US today. Then, there is an electronic interlude which several people outline their coming out experiences. These pieces help frame the concert, and hopefully educate listeners about the multivalence of being LGBTQ. Finally, the third piece, “the emergent character of Identity,” is an internal expression of my own experience discovering and communicating outwardly my identity as a gay man. To build this third work, John Heffernan and I improvised together around emotionally-salient frameworks regarding our sexuality. Through recordings and transcriptions of these improvisations, I built an electro-acoustic work for voice and violin that unfolds as a sonata‐trio, slowly revealing to listeners the deep inner workings of identity and self.

“Beyond my own compositions, this concert is a collaborative endeavor between myself and the two other composers, Kelley Sheehan and Devin Clara Fanslow, as well as the musicians. In this sense, the concert is about building a community of queer musicians who want to curate performances that bring people together. This sense of community means the world to me.”

Devin Clara Fanslow

“The inspiration behind this event, I believe, is that we are all motivated by a desire to make art that shares our experiences. Considering I came out as a transwoman only a few years ago, it is a certain proof of my own acceptance of myself. This Pride month in particular feels the most significant I have yet felt a part of. That connection to a shared experience that I had been essentially on my own with before is facilitated by this performance.

“My piece, an interlude I had prepared well before being asked to participate in this project, contains a lot of thoughts around the ways in which people are forced to process being “othered.” Thoughts that are difficult to express with words alone, due to their emotional weight. I feel privileged to be granted a platform to express such things, publicly, in the best way that I know how.”

“Deciding to not lie to my world about my feelings towards my body, and towards love, was a moment encompassing many moments. Singularly, for a split point where you’re thrown into an intense desire to embrace truth. From there, it is a lot of playing it by ear. Remembering this, I opened up notation software and just began writing directly into the computer, essentially improvising. In three fairly manic hours, I had three minutes of music written. In three days, it was a nine-minute rough draft that was effectively finalized by the fifth day. At risk of dubious decision-making, writing myself into the piece as an improviser solidified it as a semi-fixed improvisational piece. Again, reflecting the actual experience of ‘flying by the seat of one’s pants.’

“In many ways, the events of the piece mirror the lows and highs of my coming out experience. It then culminates into a poem that marked a particular point in my experience as a now out transgender woman.”

Kelley Sheehan

“This performance specifically will be my last as a resident of Chicago, so it is bittersweet for me. Preparing to leave this city has sparked a lot of thought about what it means to be queer and traveling in the United States or the world at large. It is not always safe, sometimes it is very dangerous, and this is something many folks not within the LGBTQ+ sphere do not fully realize.

“The piece that will be premiered at Constellation tries out a lot of new techniques and experimental electronics that I am very proud of, and I am so excited to witness it come together. My music is generally more abstract, so when I was approached by John, I knew it would be a challenge for me. I am always grateful to have a challenge.  This piece is less about my coming out and more of a reflection on past queer artists and the HIV crisis that wiped out a generation of queer people. This is reflected by the title of this work, “Untitled” (the replacement of light),” which is a homage to artist Félix González-Torres and his work. Yet, it is also about hope and a community trying to heal.”

Reflecting on the importance of this performance, Heffernan voices that “first and foremost, I wholeheartedly believe in the power of representation. It is so important to be able to see ourselves and our stories reflected in the world around us.”

“I would tell a (young) LGBTQ musician/composer to be brave and dare greatly,” he adds. “Do not ever be ashamed of who you are or who you love. There is a place for you at the table. Classical music has always had gay composers and musicians, but now we are in a time when we can celebrate our lives and stories through music with much less fear of persecution than artists of the past. Closets Are For Clothes is so important because it says you are welcome, you are represented, you are heard, and your story is worth being told.”

Closets Are For Clothes takes place on Sunday, June 23 at 8:30pm at Constellation in Chicago. Tickets are $15.

These responses have been lightly edited for clarity.