LGBTQ+ band directors ask “Why wouldn’t I be hired?”

As the drums thundered and the trumpets blared in unison, high school-age Aaron Wacker had a life goal – to become a band director. But there was one question powerful enough to drown out the music and threaten his dream. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community he wondered, “Will I be hired?”

Now as a TU assistant professor of music education, Wacker is researching the causes and ramifications of his earlier trepidation. “There has been a lot of research on what it’s like to be a LGBTQ+ chorale director, but my area is band and instrumental music education. I started wondering how this translates into the band world,” Wacker said.

The masculine band director

The literature shows that while choir directors are viewed as more feminine, band directors are considered masculine. The archaic tropes of a nurturing and caring female teacher and an authoritative male teacher are deeply entrenched into the American culture. “For gay choir directors, you are in the position to ask, ‘How much do you let yourself out?’ You are supposed to be masculine in a role that is considered feminine. If you let yourself be too feminine, you can out yourself accidentally.”

In an effort to appear straight, sometimes gay choir directors emphasize their engagement with traditionally perceived masculine practices. They could lower their voice or command the classroom with a stricter tone. In one case study, a gay male choir director decided that he was not going to have a family or a relationship. Instead, he would be a dedicated choir director.

For female band directors, the situation is similar. “What we know from women band directors is how difficult it is to break the barrier called ‘the good old boys club,’ which is normally older white heterosexual males. Women often have to be assertive and masculine acting in the band world to be taken seriously,” he explained. Similar concerns echo throughout Wacker’s own story. “As a LGBTQ+ member of the band directing world, I know how hard it is to break the barrier of the good old boys club. When I was a high school teacher, I thought don’t talk about being gay at all because parents will go against you.”

Don’t ask. Don’t tell.

Educators are not only teachers in the school building but also wherever they go. Especially in the music department, evening rehearsals and practices, weekend competitions and Friday night halftime shows are the norm. It is difficult to establish a robust private life when the job leaks into personal time.

“The way you act in your job reveals so much. Do you have family photos up?” Wacker said. “Do you have a wedding ring on and never talk about your spouse? People may start to think it’s an unhappy marriage, or you do have a higher voice. Could that mean something else?”

His reading revealed that some gay choir directors live in the next town over from their school. They may drive an hour to get to work, but their lives are more private. “There is also the term ‘homotolerance’ which is the idea that it’s almost like you’re a heterosexual. You’re a little different, but we aren’t going to address it,” he described. “It’s similar to the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ concept.”

Student impact

One of Wacker’s main concerns is the effect that preconceived gender norms will have on LGBTQ+ music students. The literature is abundantly clear that mentorship can make a positive impact. “As with any marginalized population, a role model is key. There is this weird juxtaposition because LGBTQ+ music educators don’t want to out ourselves, but also we don’t want to leave students behind,” he added.
Wacker noticed a pattern with his own LGBTQ+ students. In college, they were proudly out and LGBTQ+ rights activists, but during their student teaching, their pride seemed to dim. “Everyone goes into teaching thinking ‘I’m going to be out.’ Because college is a very liberating experience,” he said. “Then, you go out in the real world and see the issues coming at you, and immediately, they take it back and think, “I don’t think I can ever be out.’”

Even on social media, student timelines filled with pride parade photos slowly became grounds for quick life updates or posts about work. Wacker’s experience points to some problematic practices, and now, he is ready to find the evidence.

“I’m hoping that my literature review can provide enough understanding that I can start to interview people,” Wacker said. “I also would like to eventually do a nationwide survey on the job climate for LGBTQ+ band directors.”

Wacker is not alone in asking tough questions, and eventually, he hopes research and understanding transform the LGBTQ+ student experience. Instead of worrying if they will be hired, the question will be, “Why wouldn’t I be hired?”