- A Queer Organology of the Pedal Harp
In the 2013 film Philomena, the title character (played by Judi Dench) searches for the illegitimate son she gave up for adoption in Ireland many years before. With the help of a journalist, she learns her son was taken in by Americans and grew up in Washington, DC. Her hopes for a reunion are dashed, however, when she discovers that her son died some years previously of complications from AIDS. The journalist tries to cheer Philomena, showing her an old photograph that depicts the son wearing a harp pin on his lapel. The son must have known and cared about his Irish heritage, the journalist insists, to display this iconic symbol of Ireland. Philomena dismisses him curtly: “Well, perhaps he played the harp. He was gay.”
Modern American viewers are not surprised by Philomena’s casual equation of men who play the harp to homosexuality or by the notion that the harp might be more a gay symbol than an Irish one. An association of harps with homosexuality emerged early in the twentieth century. Anke Johannmeyer writes that E. M. Forster symbolizes a character’s latent homosexual desire (as well as the novelist’s own) in his 1907 novel, The Longest Journey (on p. 31) with “a harp in luminous paint throbbing and glowering at him from the adjacent wall.”1 More recent connections abound in popular culture. The comedy website Cracked.com once posted an item titled “What Your Instrument Says about You.” “If you’re a girl,” the post demonstrated with photographs, “you look enchanting whilst playing the harp. If you’re a guy, you look super-gay.”2 In a similar vein, Disney Studios’ The Emperor’s [End Page 99] New Groove (2000) portrays the protagonist’s conscience as “shoulder angels,” one dressed in red and carrying a pitchfork, the other dressed in a white robe and holding a harp. The bad angel prevails over the good one by systematically emasculating him, deriding both his “dress” (robe) and his “sissy, stringy music thing” (“It’s a harp,” the good angel retorts).
Yet although academic studies routinely report that the harp is regarded as among the most “feminine” of all musical instruments in the United States, they rarely explore—or even acknowledge—the instrument’s association with gay men.3 Only occasionally does one comes across explicit written testimony; for example, Ned Rorem reports that he “generalized” the situation in 1948 for the sexologist Alfred Kinsey: “Harpists (of whom, like hairdressers and cooks, most are women though the best are men) are all homosexual—the males, that is.”4
While Rorem’s categorical assertion is overstated, much of the anecdotal information I have accrued (as a gay male harpist myself) suggests that many twentieth-century American male harpists self-identified as gay or engaged in activities that could be characterized as homosexual. Still, nonanecdotal data are difficult to find. A website for gay teens, GayTeenForum.org (with 45,293 members on June 12, 2019), held an online discussion in 2009 on the question, “What is the gayest musical instrument?” Out of forty-six responses, the harp was the clear front-runner, with 26 percent of the votes (followed by flute and clarinet, with 17 percent and 13 percent, respectively).5 One response: “Obviously the harp lol!” Of the twelve respondents to an informal survey I conducted with members of the Facebook group International Association of Male Harpists, nine self-identified as gay (75 percent), two as straight, and one as “straight but [End Page 100] curious.” When asked to estimate how many of the male harpists they knew were gay and how many were straight, the respondents’ answers ranged from fifty-fifty to 100 percent gay.6
Taking another tack, I combed back volumes of American Harp Journal (the American Harp Society’s official publication) for obituaries of male harpists. Between 1974 and 2012 I found thirty-three male harpists. Of these, sixteen profiles listed survivors including wives and/or children, fifteen provided no information on the decedent’s personal life, and two made oblique acknowledgments to a same-sex relationship using ambiguous terms such as “companion...