Mar 23 2019

“We are here, we are proud, we are diverse, and we love you.”

Over the span of roughly a year, we operated three ground-breaking tours for gay men’s choruses in quite different areas of the world. On the following pages, members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus talk about what those experiences meant to them, their fellow singers, and the communities they met.

Introduction by Hugh Davies, ACFEA North America President

I have been privileged to be present at many tour moments that were spectacular, prestigious, impressive or triumphant, and these have always been spine-tingling experiences.  However, it is often not those moments that I cherish most, but rather the smaller, more introspective, intimate and personal ones that I’m sure occur on every tour: the moment when the group – or just one person – suddenly realizes the ‘why’ that Amanda writes of so eloquently in the introduction to this newsletter.

It is always heartwarming when this happens with young people, but it is perhaps more important when it happens with adults: It takes much more to jolt us out of our own, strongly defended reality and to communicate with strangers on their terms and on their turf.   This is when prejudices and preconceptions are broken down, and when people discover the strength and courage to be humble.

Gay men’s choruses, with their genesis in a time of AIDS, prejudice and discrimination, have a natural affinity with people struggling for human rights, whether LGBT or otherwise, and I have seen many powerful examples of them standing side-by-side with oppressed people around the world.  It has been an especial joy for me to work on these tours and I maintain a deep admiration for their directors, such as Jon Bailey, Tim Seelig and Dennis Coleman.

In the essays to come, you will read about the experiences of three participants in such tours, but I first want to describe one I had in Moscow with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.  The chorus and director Jon Bailey had just finished a spectacular, prestigious, impressive and triumphant concert in Tchaikovsky Hall, parts of which had been broadcast live on national television. I was approached by a couple who said, though an interpreter, how grateful they were for the concert.  I made the usual polite but anodyne response, to which they said, “No, you don’t understand.  We came expecting a freak show, having thrown our son out of our house long ago when he told us he was homosexual, and have not spoken to him since.  But we just saw 150 men who were courageous, proud and talented, and are going to go home, call our son and ask him to forgive us.”

***

Being a lifelong and self-identified “choral junkie” I’ve been asked by many what my most rewarding choral experiences have been. Without hesitation I tell them: “my concert tours!” Participating in performance touring is always fun, never predictable and provides me with a choral high like no other. It’s one thing to rehearse and perform with your buddies at home and in your usual venues. It’s quite another to be with them 24/7 in unfamiliar settings, traveling at all hours of the day and night, and eating unusual food – all while making a difference in the lives of strangers you encounter. That’s what really gets my endorphins surging!

In October 2017, I had the pleasure and privilege of being one of the 300 men of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus who, together with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, toured five states in seven days. We arrived in Jackson, Mississippi on a dozen different flights only hours after Hurricane Nate blew through — and we hit the ground running! ACFEA arranged five major concerts and 23 different appearances at universities, interfaith church services and “World Cafés,” where we sang, marched, and exchanged ideas with leaders of various communities. Due to pre-departure threats and America’s increasing climate of violence, our six buses were escorted by police, and embedded security was present at our concerts and other activities. But because of meticulous planning, the tour went off without a hitch and we singers were free to enjoy ourselves – and that we did!

During the long travel days, we participated in drag karaoke, briefly transformed the restrooms at the Tennessee border into gender neutral ones, visited Dollywood, and ate more fried food than we’d care to remember. But beyond the fun was a serious agenda. Although the chorus had originally planned an international tour, the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent passing of laws eroding LGBT rights in several southern states prompted the board to change direction. Their vision was to demonstrate connection, support and understanding amongst our own neighbors by visiting states that had the most repressive laws threatening LGBT freedoms.

The emphasis for our touring mission would be on listening to and learning from those we encountered, and showing our support through our mission-driven words, music and activities. Highlights included a mass protest and sing-in on the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol, joint performances with three local gay men’s choruses, and meetings with groups representing queer youth, trans and HIV+ members.

Reflecting on our tour after our return home revealed that we all had been profoundly impacted by this truly life-enhancing experience.

Socially, we had been privileged to interact with members of different ethnic and economic backgrounds whose political and religious affiliations differed from our own. We found that we shared more similarities with them than we had initially thought. Artistically, it was immensely rewarding to prepare and finely hone an entertaining but meaningful program and perform it in venues ranging from intimate churches to impressive concert halls. Spiritually, regardless of our religious backgrounds, lack of any, or negative feelings about religion, we were surprised and often moved by the role of churches in various communities.

Whether it was the unexpected thrill of a post-concert accolade from a complete stranger, the embrace from parents of a deceased gay son, a standing ovation from a church congregation, applause and shrieks of laughter from vacationing families reacting to a conga line of drag queens at a rest stop, or the joy of serendipitous camaraderie shared with fellow singers at a Waffle House, we all experienced moments that were unexpected — and even transformative!

These were moments for which I’ll forever be grateful – and ones I couldn’t have experienced had it not been for a chorus’ vision of demonstrating connection, support and understanding, and the tour that ultimately brought it to life.

— Fred Baumer, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus member

***

The mission of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus is to create musical experiences to inspire change, build community and celebrate difference. Its values and function include the inward nurturing and support of its 300+ members as a community, as well as the outward nurturing and support of other communities.

In June 2018, 120 members of the BGMC furthered that mission by touring South Africa for two weeks. Through concerts, marches, appearances and events, we partnered with local nonprofit organizations to help raise money and awareness about issues such as HIV/AIDS, LGBTQ youth, and LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers. The concerts raised, or we directly donated, a total of $38,000 to the communities we were supporting.

We enjoyed once-in-a-lifetime learning and adventuring — who could go to South Africa without learning about Apartheid or going on safari! But surrounding all these activities we met with people of South Africa. We directly connected with and experienced a very different world and communities than our insular individuality and communities of the United States.

In Soweto, we visited the Kliptown Youth Program along with the Mzansi Gay Choir. Traditional Gum Boots dancers performed, we sang, they sang — from the oldest grown-up to the littlest child, everyone sang. We heard personal stories of the Mzansi Gay Choir, and we shared some of ours.

Outside of Cape Town in Langa Township, we met and heard the stories of LGBT refugees who faced difficulties getting into South Africa. We heard of the challenges of delivering health services to those at risk of and living — and dying — with HIV. We heard from PASSOP (People against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty), a grassroots nonprofit that advocates for the rights of asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in South Africa, which has an LGBTQ refugee outreach program. It was an altogether very intense and meaningful experience.

We constantly felt the power of connection with each other and with our audiences. BGMC member Matthew Honeycutt said, “Our message of love and acceptance along with the emotional support from my brothers helped me complete the tour despite the sudden passing of my father. [Before rehearsal in Johannesburg it was] a little too much to walk in so I sat outside and listened. I was literally brought to my feet in that moment by the strength of our voices. The night he passed, and every other night, the performance halls we visited were with filled with joy. The audiences clapped and sang along, cried, cheered and were brought to their feet from the same energy that got me back up again.”

Throughout the tour, we were profoundly educated and inspired by the way those we met represented their country. BGMC member Tyler Brewer said, “The starkest difference I noticed between the US and South Africa is that no matter how hard a person or family has fought to overcome poverty, violence, hunger, rampant abuse of their minds, bodies, and souls… every single person I met had one thing on their mind: ‘How do I help more people out of this?’”

And, to South Africans we proudly represented our own country as the BGMC: a community based on love, music, passion, curiosity, respect, generosity, adventure, and fun.

— Al Ingram, Boston Gay Men’s Chorus Member

***

When Portland Gay Men’s Chorus toured China, it felt like a leap of faith into the unknown. Would there be any problems traveling with a large and diverse group? Would we create controversy in the cities we visited? Would anyone come to the concerts? Would we have an impact? All of these questions were going through the Chorus’ members and leadership’s minds as we boarded our flight to Beijing.

It was surprising to learn that Chinese audiences come mostly from word of mouth. This was so different from our usual marketing strategy, but it worked. The audiences were large and very receptive.

We had the privilege to sing with two Chinese choruses in Shanghai (Shanghai Hyperbolic Singers) and Beijing (Beijing Queer Chorus). We were welcomed by PFLAG parents in Xi’an and Suzhou, where mothers had traveled from across China to attend and treat us to a delightful fashion show of traditional Chinese dresses called qipao. Each concert had a different mood and feel. Beijing was a beautiful homecoming since we had sung with members of the BQC when they visited Portland. Xi’an had heart and an incredibly warm welcome, Suzhou challenged us to perform in spite of our exhaustion, and Shanghai was a triumph of pure joy.

We were told PGMC presented a role model to the younger Chinese choruses. They saw members of all ages and gender identities who had been singing together for years, even decades. It is a simple yet profound message to say, “we are here, we are proud, we are diverse, and we love you.” By simply being who we are as the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus we demonstrated longevity as a group, strength of purpose and a common goal.

It is hard to quantify the impact we had in the cities on our tour, but each chorus member came home from the tour with a knowledge that we had reached someone in a special way. Every member of the tour had a personal moment where we connected with one of our audience, a parent, or a fellow chorister. Whether it was a conversation with an audience member, or a spontaneous rendition of “Sure on This Shining Night” with some Shanghai singers backstage, every member of the tour had a story. Even with the significant language and cultural barriers we faced, the universal language of music allowed us to communicate, sharing mutual warmth and appreciation.

— Gwynn Goodner, Portland Gay Men’s Chorus member

Keywords