Sorry, Am I Getting Too Political?

UPDATE- 1 October 2017
Sydney Symphony Orchestra have done a remarkable U-turn of their position, today issuing three statements reversing their initial ill-advised position on neutrality. This is more like it!

The three statements are from the musicians, the incoming CEO Emma Dunch and the board itself. They are all worth reading- particularly the personal message from Dunch. I can’t seem to link to the individual posts but they are all here.

Ideally, such a reversal would never have been necessary (and however many crisis hours they consumed)- but all the same, recognising that you’ve got something very wrong and working to make it right is to be applauded, in my books.

I’m going to leave the original post below because I still think it says some important things about how music fits into a part of my life I don’t often talk about, but how nice now to add a more celebratory note.

The Original Post

To be completely up front, this is very much a statement and not the opening of a discussion. But I’ve seen something today which has affected both as a musician, and as a gay musician (whatever that may mean, and I’m not quite sure myself).

Depending on whether you live in Australia or not, you may or may not be aware that we are currently undertaking a voluntary, non-binding national opinion survey (it’s legally not a vote) on whether two people of the same sex can get married. It is very depressing and demeaning and humiliating, particularly as the only parliamentary and legal requirement of this exercise was to save the skin of our current spineless Prime Minister within his own party room. I’ve ranted and raved enough about the survey on other social media and frankly I’m exhausted so that’s all I’ll say about this abortion of parliamentary democracy for now.

One of the few bright spots of this relentless campaign on the human rights of one group of people for political expediency has been seeing the arts companies of Australia, which comprise both my artistic and gay communities, throw themselves into vocally supporting the ‘Yes’ side for equality. While the arts have always been a safe-haven for the LGBT community, I don’t want to diminish the corporate bravery required. Not only are they typically heavily dependent on government funding (without peeking, name the last overtly political piece you saw from a funded company) but, particularly in classical music and opera, the audience and donor class are overwhelmingly older. And, as the conventional wisdom goes, politically more conservative.

Which brings us to the sorry case of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

Things came to a head today when Leo Schofield had one of his soapbox moments on how the board of SSO had decided that to make some kind of statement on marriage equality would be too political for an organisation which wants to remain apolitical.


For a start, almost every major arts company (and basically all of the smaller ones) has already prepared the ground for Sydney Symphony and have had minimal blowback. Indeed, SSO’s closest peer, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, has made a public statement and had only a few angry Facebook comments to show for it. And they were vastly overwhelmed by support. All of the federally funded orchestras, except Adelaide (prove me wrong, Festival State!), have made a public statement of support. All of the opera companies. Musica Viva. Australian Chamber Orchestra. All of the state theatre companies. The Australian Ballet. Queensland Ballet.

Politically, every state Premier/Chief Minister and their Opposition equivalent (except, curiously, the Liberal Opposition in the ACT) have publicly said they will be voting Yes. The current Federal Arts Minister is a Yes. Corporate Australia, who do the heavy lifting of sponsorship for the orchestras, have overwhelmingly vocally supported Yes. Presumably, many of the staff and musicians, who have long worked beside their LGBT colleagues, have voted Yes.

The major companies attracted lot of (quite fair) criticism for their silence during the massive Brandis arts budget cuts. While I didn’t agree with their stance, I could see and understand why some organisations felt it more prudent to keep mute. Why SSO is taking the same stance when so many organisations- most of whom were overly cautious previously- have stepped out is weird.

So. As these things do, and as Schofield undoubtedly intended, a little bit of a firestorm erupted in arts Twitter and Facebook. SSO’s ‘non-statement’ suddenly became something that presumably led to a few urgent meetings in The Rocks this morning and probably someone’s day becoming Thoroughly Shithouse.

After what was probably a bit of a crisis meeting, the statement that SSO put out for their audience, their donors and, importantly, their musicians and staff is almost impressively bad.

I reproduce it in its entirety.

What a celebration of those corporate values of inclusion and fairness it is too! I also particularly enjoy the plea for LGBT Australians to respect a potential decision that devalues their humanity with ‘goodwill’.

No, the SSO (or any arts companies) should not be required to make a public hoo-ha about every thing that squirts or oozes out of Canberra. It would be fundamentally ludicrous for an orchestra to make a statement on natural gas policy or freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. But the arts have always had a special place for the LGBT community- as a place of inclusion, acceptance and safety. I have had an exceptionally easy ride as a gay person, in no small part because I have worked and been associated in classical music since my sexuality began to emerge. I have always felt safe in the arts- important in a world where I don’t feel safe holding my boyfriend’s hand.

I haven’t even tackled the ludicrousness of a music organisation trying to claim political neutrality when music has never enjoyed such a luxury- others will undoubtedly draw the parallels between programming and politics far better than I can.

Sometimes those of us in the arts like to get on our high horses about sport in Australia- the disparity in public attention, media and funding are all endless whinges (and I’ve said before that I would rather set my hair on fire than listen to them yet again). Yet it’s also worth a pause to consider that the bastion of ‘middle Australia’ NRL- rugby bloody league- were prepared to nail their colours to the mast on this. Indeed, all the major sporting codes have shown considerably more corporate courage and socio-political awareness on this issue than the SSO.

I never felt at home in school sports- I was always too conscious of the ‘faggot’ or ‘poof’ that came too quickly and easily. I never felt that in the arts. For a leading arts organisation to stake a position of weak neutrality through a period of unspeakable distress for the gay community in this country is appalling.