LGBT+ and Trad

Award-winning fiddler and singer Rona Wilkie on the tension between being part of a liberal arts sector but also performing traditional music from a rural highland background: “Although not all in rural Scotland have been brought up in a religious organisation with such rigid ideas of love and sexuality, the power of these discourses permeate society. Gaelic, for instance, has very little indigenous language to describe queer relationships. The Gaelic for ‘gay’ is ‘gèidh’ [pronounced gay].”

I was recently invited to address the Traditional Music Forum about my experience as a musician in Scotland as a member of the LGBT+ community. Whilst it was an honour to be considered a representative of the LGBT+ community, I also felt strongly that they had asked the wrong person. This is despite having been working internationally as a musician and composer for the best part of ten years, and having been open about being a member of this community for the duration of my career. I just didn’t feel as though I was that good at being gay, and I knew many people who appeared to be much better at it. For instance, upon being asked once by a new colleague whether my name was on ‘the list’ at a dinner party, I had to ask – “which ‘list?’” ‘The list’, it turned out, was the sperm donor list held by the NHS. Cue the blank look from me.

I had also recently learnt that it was a stereotype for lesbians to have very specific dietary requirements. And as such – the dietary requirements for this evening in question were gluten free and vegan. The dinner went well despite my ineptitude, and we developed a long-lasting working relationship which I hope will continue for years to come. But this experience cemented my growing feeling that I wasn’t the most knowledgeable gay in town. I mean, I didn’t know what ‘the list’ was! And on top of that I am bi – I am in a long-term relationship with a girl but previous to that I have been in relationships with men. My partner was once asked by a lesbian whether she minded me being bi and didn’t she fear my promiscuity! I was sat beside her at the time!

No – I was a member of the LGBT+ community, but only by necessity and I left the politics to others. These warriors for the Pink cause were important and respected I maintained, but their work had afforded me the right to easily live a life where I was an invisible queer. Not closeted. But just not that open either. If someone asked me, or I was comfortable with someone, they would find out that my partner was female. But until then, frankly it was none of their business. Audiences, especially, had no reason to know.

This has changed for me in recent months. I have realised that my perspective as a member of the LGBT+ community is important, not only because it is unique to me, but also as it comes from a less-frequently heard rural perspective. The start of this awakening came with Bogha-frois – a workshop and concert spearheaded by Pedro Cameron held in late 2018 and early 2019. I had originally chosen not to attend, because being ‘gay’ wasn’t really my thing but Marit (my partner of almost 9 years) had been asked to be a leader so I went to check out the craic and to support her. And what a revelation. I had not previously really considered the extent to which I was shielding a major part of my life from my work, and this was despite the fact Marit is my primary collaborator.

This odd relationship of my personal life and my musical life was brought further into focus upon being asked to participate in some research on the song choices of female singers. I was asked specifically whether my choice of songs were affected by my sexuality. I had never considered the question before – it was genuinely of no interest to me. However, to my astonishment, I discovered that had subconsciously stayed away from love songs. When you take a second to think about it (which I hadn’t), this makes total sense. I didn’t feel a connection to these songs from the tradition, because I am 1) not straight and, even if I had decided to sing men’s songs as an alternative, I am 2) not a man. I was shocked. It turned out despite feeling like I wasn’t that great at being gay, it had a deep subconscious impact on my art.

I was further surprised a month ago with regards to how audiences perceived my work. Whilst at a festival in Ireland, a girl came up to me and told me that she had remembered me play at a gig the previous year. She said to me (in Irish) “An e túsa an cháilín atá pósta leis an mbán?” (“Are you the girl married to the woman?”). Turns out that some audiences were much more switched on than I had originally thought. I am mean, it must have blindingly obvious to this girl, as her next words to me were “Táim air druggaí” (“I am on drugs”)! Then again, perhaps the second statement had given her heightened perceptions with regards to the first.

I use these remarks as an illustration of how I am in the process of engaging with my sexuality in a much more open way and considering my experience as one worth discussing for the first time in my almost 10 years of being “out”. And having grown up in the Free Church in the North Highlands… this is scary. It has been quite the turn around. In the last 6 months, I have done a long form interview for an up-coming TV programme on being a gay musician, presented at a professional forum on my experiences and attended my first pride. I know that there are some who are more eloquent than I, who know what all the letters stand for in LGBTQIA+, and even know what all of them mean. But perhaps I am representative of the public at large – long-term quietly tolerant, but maybe a bit unsure. I (and we) are just beginning to consider the extent to which all of these identities need to become a normalised reality in the straight, white, able-bodied, male dominated world that we all live in.

Scotland is increasingly lauded as one of the most progressive countries to live in as a member of the LGBT+ community. Indeed, the Scottish Government’s website proclaims Scotland as “one of the most progressive countries in Europe in terms of LGBTI equality”. It is clear that Scotland is a very good place to live as a member of the LGBT+ community, but I am also very aware that this statistic is partially born of the extensive urbanity of Scotland. Urban areas are generally (though not always) far more liberal in their outlook than their rural counterparts.

In the traditional music scene, we have large bases of professional practitioners in urban areas, but these are often fed from rural Scotland and there is an emphasis in working in rural areas, and with rural traditions. Personally, I know that I have shielded my sexuality from public view and my artistic practice due to a warped sense of Highland decorum – I don’t want to make people in the Highlands feel uncomfortable by making them consider anything to do with sex, let alone non-heteronormative sex. This prudishness is suffocating. It can foster a silence that parades as tolerance, but instead is politeness and can hide a quiet disapproval. And this silence creates an environment where intolerances aren’t discussed. For instance, a minister once said to a member of my family that he was surprised that my mother had been so ok of my sexuality. I have never revealed that publicly before due a slight embarrassment on his behalf. But I need to stop protecting those who choose intolerance over love and decency. Surely he should have been a little more fearful than to come out with such a preposterous – more of a fear that the community would hold him accountable.

However, I suspect that the community, whoever they are, doesn’t feel like it is any of their business. I had once encouraged a friend to come out to her mother, who then threw her out upon realising that they had a child who dared not be straight. I don’t know whether members of the village even know the specifics of why my friend suddenly left her home, but I do know that her mother still held in great respect by her contemporaries. It is likely that nobody asked.

Another area that I have found tricky sometimes is the juxtaposition of a very liberal arts sector with that of my (and most people’s) upbringing. Although not all in rural Scotland have been brought up in a religious organisation with such rigid ideas of love and sexuality, the power of these discourses permeate society. Gaelic, for instance, has very little indigenous language to describe queer relationships. The Gaelic for ‘gay’ is ‘gèidh’ [pronounced gay]. It shouldn’t have been a surprise therefore, that upon learning that I wasn’t straight that I had a breakdown. But it wasn’t uncommon for very well-meaning friends (who happened to be straight) to be a bit perturbed as to why I might even have a problem with it. A direct quote was, “Scotland is open now… I mean, did you have a problem with it before?”. An easy question for someone who didn’t have to think about whether to come out to the shopkeeper or to the taxi driver or to the promoter that day. One music educator asked me at the time whether I was bipolar, so difficult was it for him to understand that the realisation that I wasn’t straight was at all a concern.

By living in a straight world, we are constantly having to define ourselves against the norm. At least once a week I have to consider whether I should just leave the assumption that Marit is a man in a conversation with a stranger, and perhaps nickname her “Martin” for the duration of the discussion. My message here is – please don’t assume that it is easy to be LGBT+ in a modern Scotland. We are fortunate that we live in a tolerant society, but always remember that the status quo is more tolerated than the minority. I would encourage those straight-folk who are very welcoming and encouraging to remember that society throws a lot at us, and that, at least for me, I am not always comfortable with my sexuality which should be respected too.

Questions that should be asked by these very people should include whether your organisation or the company you keep are open about sexuality. For instance, do slurs get used occasionally? And just as importantly, if they are used, do straight-allies correct them? An example of this came recently when there was a public misuse of the word gay by a member of the music industry. Undoubtedly this was upsetting, but the most damaging aspect the incident for me was the reaction of those who I would have previously assumed to have been much more open-minded. The quite laughable excuse was made time and again that (and I quote one man) “everyone says that sort of thing sometimes”. Well, they shouldn’t. Know that if these are words that are used, they are words that shouldn’t be used. In this context they are derogatory, and it creates the impression of a lack of interest or intention to learn.

A second area to be considered is whether gender and sexuality are always assumed, or is there an open atmosphere where a spectrum of identities can exist. Listen to people’s language and engage with them using their terms. When I talk about my partner, use “they” as the return pronoun until I define it. I am probably gauging whether I trust you enough to tell you that I am gay. I have made a gender-neutral statement, and so should you. I will gender when or if I feel like it, and this is an area I am sure which is especially important for the trans community.

Thirdly – do you have structures in place which are inclusive? This is an area which I feel important not only as a member of the LGBT+ community, but also as a feminist and ally of those with addictions. Why on earth, for instance, is so much networking in this country done after work, in the pub or (particularly in the traditional music scene) late at night? Can’t more of it be done at lunch time? (I would say morning, but I am a musician after all!)

Finally, for those who make up the artistic infrastructure of Scotland. If you are a booker, be brave. Book members of the LGBT+ community. We have a very interesting artistic perspective to communicate and audiences are up for hearing a unique take on the world. Trust them and take a risk. If you are a funder, be brave. Fund members of the LGBT+ community. Encourage them to explore all aspects of their lived experience. It might lead to art which isn’t necessarily commercial, but this is our privilege as artists living in a system which supports art for art’s sake. Allow these perspectives to be communicated freely and without fear. If you are an artist, be brave. If you feel like making art which explicitly addresses this part of you lived experience, do so! We are privileged to work in this world and artist are societal leaders when it comes to intellectual thought and norms. Let’s grasp this and ensure that LGBT+ issues benefit from such exposure.


Image credits: Rona Wilkie by Iratxe Etxeandia. Marit and Rona by Kat Gollock. As the Crow Flies by Johannes Selvaag.



Comments (2)

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  1. Doreen Blumenfeld says:

    Such and interesting, thoughtful and courageous article. Thank you. It’s not easy being gay in a straight world. Assumptions of others are a challenge.
    Blessings on you!

  2. Sheila White says:

    Well done Rona. You have been honest and reflective in a way that is not often encountered. Your article has made me reflect on aspects of my experience and which connect in a universal experience which is rarely articulated and in some ways may be seen as essentially human. As you know I am not LGBT but would like to make a different point re religion using the example of my mother who brought me up as. Christian but as I grew older I became aware she could not accept the narrow bounds of what convention decreed, and I feel she was one of many. She was your great, great aunt but would have loved and accepted you and Marit and your life choices. She may have been surprised though as we forget that unfamiliar perspectives can be surprising when first encountered. We all have uncertainties and the traditional Scottish reticence may be rather overdone. It certainly has been so with me. No matter what our sensitivities are one feels exposed in forgoing invisibility. Well done on challenging society and yourself in this.

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