Nov 06 2015

Boston Gay Men’s Chorus Inspires Change

by Amanda Bauman, ACFEA Senior Tour Manager

There is some debate about who said it first, but when the words “Middle East” were uttered, the room fell silent, as we all took in what had just been said. One could almost hear the sound of a steam train engine starting to chug, creaking into a slow but steady rhythm. Soon, the conversation accelerated to a full-speed brainstorm. The Middle East would be exciting, if risky, for any group, but for this group, there were added challenges; for seated across from me at this table was the leadership of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.

Boston Gay Men’s Chorus performs in front of thousands at Bogazici University in Istanbul, Turkey

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) choruses are not strangers to pushing the envelope. In 1999, ACFEA took the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles to Russia, where the word “gay” had to be craftily omitted from some of the publicity. In 2005, the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus itself experienced bomb threats in Poland. But, with a clearly defined mission – “to create musical experiences that inspire change, build community and celebrate difference” – the BGMC sought no ordinary tour. After months of research, the decision was made: BGMC would tour to Israel and Turkey in 2015. The group embarked on a packed ten-night itinerary, visiting four cities, and there were several experiences that were particularly impactful…

Boston Gay Men’s Chorus overlooking Jerusalem, Israel

Tel Aviv is famous for being one of the most gay-friendly cities in the world. But, just an hour away in Jerusalem the LGBT community is still facing an immense struggle, with supporters up against (sometimes violent) conservatives at every turn. What we found there was a small but fervent group, in great need of support. With the partnership of Jerusalem Open House (JOH), an LGBT outreach organization, plans solidified for a concert at the YMCA, a beautiful facility in the center of the city. Tom Canning, Director of Development of JOH, said, “Boston Gay Men’s Chorus is coming at the perfect time to kick off our initiative, to bring LGBT culture to Jerusalem. We see it as the next phase of the struggle.”

The program was a mix of Broadway and pop, but also featured two reflective pieces: Stephen Schwartz’s “Testimony”, written for the It Gets Better Project (a project whose goal is to provide hope for LGBT and other bullied teens), and a new work called “Peace”, commissioned by the BGMC from composer Joshua Shank, who accompanied the group on tour. The latter used lyrics taken entirely from text written by BGMC singers, all of whom completed the sentence “I was at peace when…”. They include: “I was at peace when I looked in your eyes. I was at peace when I held my son’s hand in the incubator before he died. I was at peace when I looked in the mirror and finally liked who I saw.”

Boston Gay Men’s Chorus in the YMCA Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall in Jerusalem, Israel

Throughout the audience were couples (gay and straight), mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, holding hands, some crying. The finale, Katy Perry’s “Firework”, was complete with colorful ribbons and choreography. The joy in the room was palpable, and the concertgoers gushed with thanks. One audience member said, “There’s never been something like this in Jerusalem, and I have been here for over thirty years!”

To understand what happened in Turkey, some background is necessary. The group was slated to perform at the Zorlu Performing Arts Center, a state-of-the-art theater in Istanbul. Just one month before the tour, the concert was abruptly cancelled for political reasons. The concert, which was to happen during Istanbul’s Pride weekend, had been generating a lot of support from the LGBT community, and an equal amount of opposition from the country’s highpowered, right-leaning political parties. Unfortunately, the powers that be forced the decision, and BGMC was left without a concert venue for a Saturday in June.

Since the announcement of the choir’s visit months earlier, the LGBT group at BoÄŸaziçi University had been publicly supportive of the impending visit, and as soon as news broke of the cancellation they came forward with a generous offer to host the concert on their campus. ACFEA and our Turkish partner, Ilker Ersil, worked tirelessly with the university and the US Consulate, and the resulting performance was beyond anyone’s imagination. In addition to an enormous, professional stage, there was a mixing board and four cameras that were live edited to jumbotrons that enabled the entire audience to watch and listen, no matter where they were. The 1,000 chairs filled up quickly, and another 2,000 people filled in behind them. The choir gave its best concert of the tour, and left the jubilant audience screaming for more.

The last day of the tour was the scheduled date of the Istanbul Pride parade. The group, still high from the previous night’s concert, gathered and headed to the staging ground for the parade. As they approached Taksim Square, they were met by police donning riot gear. Through a translator, the group learned that the government had cancelled the parade an hour before the planned start time and that the singers could be arrested in accordance with anti-protest laws. Soon, BGMC learned of throngs of LGBT activists being attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons on Istiklal Street, the would-be parade route. And so, after much discussion with the police and the US Consulate, the decision was made to return to the hotel.

BGMC members react to the news that the Istanbul Pride parade had been cancelled by the government

Two days earlier, the BGMC had been welcomed by the US Consul and his husband to a party at their home, where everyone celebrated the US Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality, which was announced earlier that day. The juxtaposition of that triumph with what happened at Taksim Square just two days later was hard to process.

As complicated as the situation in Istanbul was, it proved to be an incredibly poignant moment, as all were reminded of the struggles faced by LGBT people across the globe. If anything, the group’s resolve
to fulfill its mission was strengthened even more.