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On Music: The Queerness of Church Music

Amy Cerniglia

Amy Cerniglia serves as the director of music and outreach at Peace Presbyterian Church and as communications coordinator for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.

Queer musicians have always existed within the church. Throughout history, music has served as an avenue for queer people to engage with their faith and express themselves authentically. In general, musical arts can provide liberating opportunities to depart from rigid gender expectations. Today, church music programs can model inclusivity to all children of God. 

In his article “Music, Essentialism, and the Closet,” Philip Brett described music as an opportunity for people to deviate from typical gender norms.1 Gay author Wayne Koestenbaum believed that music allowed an important outlet for expressing emotions and experiences that cultural restraints prevented queer people from verbally communicating. He wrote, “Historically, music has been defined as mystery and miasma, and implicitness rather than an explicitness, and so we have hid inside music; in music we can come out without coming out, we can reveal without saying a word.”2 Perhaps this explains the number of queer musicians in the conservative religious culture of the southern gospel music industry.3 A 1996 article titled “King of Instruments No Longer?” in the New York Times claimed, “A disproportionately high number of organists are gay, for reasons no one seems able to determine.”4 Regardless of the reason, queer people have contributed extensively to music in the secular and sacred world.

As one of the earliest musicians whose works still exist today, Hildegard von Bingen was canonized and named as a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012 for her enormous contributions to the music of the Catholic Church. Hildegard has received much scrutiny from scholars for her intensely affectionate letters to another nun, Richardis. Regardless of the extent of this relationship, nuns in the medieval period lived a relatively queer lifestyle by modern definitions.5 Monastic communities appealed to people of all genders seeking an alternative to the traditional expectation of a heterosexual marriage.6 Oxford Languages defines queer as “the quality or characteristic of having a sexual or gender identity that does not correspond to established ideas of sexuality and gender, especially heterosexual norms.” Stated another way, historical musicians in monastic communities shared experiences that can be understood as queer regardless of sexual behavior. Some individuals assigned female at birth even entered all-male monastic communities as monks. Whether celibate or engaged in secret relationships, clergy in these queer monastic communities wrote much of the earliest known compositions for services of Christian worship.

Through music, queer people have found safe places in the church to worship and connect with the triune God. The article “King of Instruments No Longer?” in the New York Times noted that gay organists often expressed their artistry in faith communities long before those communities would have formally welcomed gay members.7 As David Person affirms in a 2011 NPR article titled “For Gay Christian Musicians, Work Balances Faith, Art, Love,” within the contemporary Christian music industry, gay Christians have faced particular scrutiny.8 While the tradition of hymnody tends to focus on the experiences of a whole worshiping community, modern songs from the contemporary Christian music industry frequently center around an individual’s experience of God. In contrast to church organists, popular Christian music leaders can attain celebrity status and heightened attention to their personal lives. Popular praise and worship artists like Jennifer Knapp, Vicki Beeching, and Troy Pearson lost their careers as their queer identities were discovered. However, shifts in popular culture have increased acceptance of openly queer Christian musicians. The queer artist Semler, child of an Episcopal priest and practicing Episcopalian, climbed to No. 1 on the Christian music charts with their debut album. In an interview with Baptist News Global,9 Semler said, “I started writing music as a coping mechanism. If I could set what I was experiencing to music, then somehow it didn’t hurt as much.”

Without glorifying or requiring pain in order to live a Christian life, Christians believe that God can transform and redeem our pain. People marginalized for their gender or sexual identities can deeply connect with that message. Paul writes, 

We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:3–5).

Sublime music can model this transformation, lifting the hearts and minds of the most downcast soul entering the concert hall or church sanctuary. As Christians work toward a more just and inclusive world to ease the suffering of LGBTQIA+ people, we give thanks to God for the healing power of music created in affirming community. 

Popular Christian music organizations like Hillsong and Bethel explicitly oppose rights for queer people and promote therapies that claim to change sexual orientation or gender identity. Affirming church leaders may reconsider their support of these organizations that receive royalties from performances of their music in worship services. Artists such as The Many and Q Worship Collective offer contemporary Christian music for worship from an affirming, inclusive perspective. Churches can also witness to inclusion by hiring openly queer musicians and selecting hymns with inclusive texts. While boys may not feel safe singing in their schools due to social pressure, a phenomenon noted by Amanda Franklin in Gender and Singing in the American Classroom,10 the church choir can provide a place for musical expression. 

The gospel message has long welcomed marginalized people, and queer musicians are no exception. The church has benefitted throughout history from queer people offering their whole hearts in praise to the triune God. At its best, the church provides a safe space for all people, and music in worship opens a new dimension of authentic expression in praise to God. 


1. Philip Brett, “Music, Essentialism, and the Closet,” in Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, ed. Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas (New York: Routledge, 2006). 

2. Wayne Koestenbaum, The Queen’s Throat (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 189–190.

3. Douglas Harrison, “Southern Gospel Sissies: Evangelical Music, Queer Spirituality, and the Plays of Del Shores,” Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality 3, no. 2 (June 2009), 

4. Sarah Bryan Miller, “King of Instruments No Longer? New York Times, June 30, 1996,

5. Bruce W. Holsinger, Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

6. Roland Betancourt, “The Overlooked Queer History of Medieval Christianity” Time, October 7, 2020,

7. Miller, “King of Instruments No Longer?” 

8. David Person, “For Gay Christian Musicians, Work Balances Faith, Art, Love,” NPR, July 30, 2011, 

9. Rick Pidcock, “How Did an Openly Queer Artist Climb to No. 1 on the Christian Music Charts?” Baptist News Global, September 27, 2021,

10. Amanda Franklin, “Gender and Singing in the American Classroom,” (honors program thesis, Rollins College, 2019), 86,


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