Triple minority

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue May 15 19:25:50 MDT 2001

Famously egalitarian, Ellington accepted Strayhorn’s homosexuality much as
he had long embraced gifted musicians regardless of their backgrounds or
idiosyncrasies. "Pop never cared one bit that Strayhorn was gay," said
Mercer Ellington. "He was never prejudiced against anybody he thought was
really worthy. More to the point, he had been exposed to homosexuality his
whole life in the music business. It was nothing new to him. He knew plenty
of gay men and women, so there was no question about, ‘Hey, is this person
a freak or something?’ Pop knew the story. He backed up Strayhorn all the
way." This support was priceless to Strayhorn, according to his
intimates—particularly after his frustrations with prejudice during his
early career in Pittsburgh. "With Duke, Billy said, he had security,"
remarked George Greenlee. "Duke didn’t question his manliness. It wasn’t
like that for him back home." Another gay black musician who was a close
friend of Strayhorn’s evoked the virtue of Ellington’s patronage
empathetically. "For those of us who were both black and homosexual in that
time, acceptance was of paramount importance, absolutely paramount
importance," the musician said. "Duke Ellington afforded Billy Strayhorn
that acceptance. That was something that cannot be undervalued or
under-appreciated. To Billy, that was gold."

In a sense, Strayhorn made himself a triple minority: he was black, he was
gay, and he was a minority among gay people in that he was open about his
homosexuality in an era when social bias forced many men and women to keep
their sexual identities secret. "The most amazing thing of all about Billy
Strayhorn to me was that he had the strength to make an extraordinary
decision—that is, the decision not to hide the fact that he was homosexual.
And he did this in the 1940s, when nobody but nobody did that," declared
his gay black musician friend. "We all hid, every one of us, except Billy.
He wasn’t afraid. We were. And you know what the difference between us was?
Duke Ellington." Ellington provided Strayhorn with a high-profile outlet
for his artistry, as well as with emotional support. Free to compose for
the Ellington Orchestra, albeit behind the scenes, Strayhorn was also freed
from the hardships he would have faced had he sought a career as a pianist
or bandleader. "Billy could have pursued a career on his own—he had the
talent to become rich and famous—but he’d have had to be less than honest
about his sexual orientation. Or he could work behind the scenes for Duke
and be open about being gay," said his friend,

"It really was truth or consequences, and Billy went with truth. It was
just incredible." Forsaking public prominence, Strayhorn found personal
freedom in service to the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Now there might not be
a Billy Strayhorn Orchestra. But there was a Billy Strayhorn.

David Hajdu, "Lush Life"

Louis Proyect
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