The Evolution of GLBT Choruses

Today's GLBT choruses continue to be places to unite in common causes, but their perspectives have changed along with the times.

“If you want to sing, join a chorus. If you want to change the world, join a gay chorus.” Robin Godfrey, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA Choruses), attributes that rallying cry to Gary Miller, a founder of the New York Gay Men’s Chorus. If his call to action seems like overreaching, consider how the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transgender (GLBT) choral movement has evolved since its inception nearly forty years ago.

GALA Choruses, which began in the early 1980s as a network of 14 GLBT ensembles, has grown to more than 180 members and is an affiliate member and partner of Chorus America. The ninth quadrennial GALA festival drew 6,100 singers and delegates to Denver in 2012. The movement is still expanding, according to Godfrey, adding ten to fifteen new choruses a year.

“An emphasis on social justice was there from the beginning,” she says. When GALA incorporated in 1983, the movement was already several years old, born of two different social and cultural phenomena: feminism, which inspired the formation of women’s choruses in the mid-1970s, and AIDS activism, which became a dominant focus for gay men’s ensembles. 

A Safe Space in the Face of AIDS and Prejudice

When the AIDS epidemic struck in the early 1980s, “all GLBT choruses realized it deepened their purpose and reason for being,” says Timothy Seelig, artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) and former artistic director-in-residence for GALA Choruses. Considered the grandfather of the GLBT choral movement, the SFGMC had come together a few years earlier to make music and experience community. The group sang in public for the first time on November 27, 1978, mourning the killing of openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk at San Francisco City Hall. Responding to that event and the AIDS crisis that followed, GLBT choruses “became, for a decade plus, a safe and healing place to grieve through music,” says Seelig. “It changed the movement forever.”

In the early years, “we focused inward on building a safe space for members,” says Jane Ramseyer Miller, who is the current artistic director-in-residence for GALA Choruses and has led One Voice Mixed Chorus in St. Paul, Minnesota. for 19 years. For GLBT singers, the choruses functioned as “a family and a community and a church in some powerful ways,” she believes. “People had been kicked out of their families and certainly out of churches and synagogues. For them, these choruses became a gathering point.” In addition to sanctuary and community, they provided an alternative to the party scene, a place to form personal relationships, to hold hands, to kiss without fear of strange looks—or worse.

One Voice Mixed Chorus in front of the Minnesota State Capital

Today GLBT choruses remain places to build safe connections and unite in common causes, but their perspectives have evolved. Twenty-five years ago, when television cameras covered chorus events, gays or lesbians might have left the room, fearing association with a GLBT group would cost them their jobs. But in the last ten years, says Miller, “choruses are more comfortable and stable in terms of who they are. They’re less fearful to come out. As a result, they’re focused more on being out in the community.” 

Correspondingly, their advocacy role has shifted. Men’s choruses still address the problem of AIDS, Godfrey points out, “but their vision has expanded to include other social justice issues.” For women’s choruses, she observes that the feminist focus has become much broader over the years. 

A Broader Focus for Advocacy

As the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. began to recede, “a plethora of issues came to the fore,” says Seelig. He and his colleagues began to turn their attention to other health issues such as breast cancer, to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, to gay adoption, and to a cause that has captured the whole nation’s attention: marriage equality.

Within the past three years, according to Miller, most GALA choruses have voiced their support for marriage equality by appearing at rallies, touring, or commissioning music specific to the issue. In Washington State last November, a ballot initiative called Referendum 74 let voters decide whether to uphold a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in the state. The Seattle Men’s Chorus and the Seattle Women’s Chorus, which operate jointly, included “marriage equality moments” in their eight regular season concerts and made five appearances around the state in connection with the referendum. Mixing entertainment with freedom songs, gay anthems, and personal stories, those free outreach concerts drew as many as 700 people, says executive director Frank Stilwagner. He describes a chorus member named Barb, who stepped forward to talk about a daughter she raised until the age of six, but has not been able to see since she broke up with her partner, the girl’s biological mother. As Stilwagner relates the story, Barb “now sees her daughter only through Facebook.” Stilwagner feels this approach helped persuade Washington voters to uphold the marriage equality bill. “We’ve received letter after letter saying that hearing us sing and tell our personal story really made a difference,” he says. 

In 2008, the California ballot measure Proposition 8 went the other way, with 52 percent of the electorate voting to recognize marriage only between a man and a woman. “It was a complete shock,” says Seelig, who joined SFGMC in 2011 after 20 years in Dallas leading the Turtle Creek Chorale. “I wasn’t here, but I heard stories. Even though in some areas of the country it seemed like a remote possibility [marriage equality] would turn south, no one thought it would happen in California.” Seelig says the 2008 vote served as a wake-up call for his chorus. In 2010 it canceled a planned trip to Europe, using the resources instead on what has become an annual California Freedom Tour. “We got on buses and started giving concerts in the most conservative cities in California,” says Seelig. “We made it a point not just to sing in San Francisco, where they believe what we believe.” 

Two gay couples were married on stage during the intermission of a Seattle Men's Chorus performance on December 9 - the first date that same-sex couples could legally wed in the state of Washington. (Photo Credit: Conrado Tapado for Equality Images)

A planning retreat led Minneapolis-St. Paul’s One Voice Mixed Chorus to concentrate on another kind of advocacy that’s on the rise among GLBT ensembles: educational outreach to combat homophobia and bullying. In a brainstorming exercise, Miller asked a group of her singers to figure out how best to fulfill their mission: “Building community and creating social change by raising our voices in song.” Eight out of ten came back to her with the same response: we should sing in the schools. “It never occurred to me,” Miller admits, “but they grew up feeling ostracized and lonely in school.” Miller cites statistics that indicate 40 percent of homeless youth are GLBT. Many have been kicked out by their families. For kids like that, a One Voice school appearance, with “a hundred adults out and proud and making music is really a profound statement,” Miller says. The students aren’t the only ones to feel the impact. The first time they perform in a school, Miller often sees her singers cry. “They can’t imagine what it would have been like for them, as a 14-year-old, to have a gay choir come in and sing.” 

Over the past decade, numerous GLBT choruses around the country have staged a thirty-minute musical by Alan Shorter called Oliver Button Is a Sissy, the story of a boy who stands up to bullying without resorting to violence. Based on a children’s book by Tomie dePaola, the musical was co-commissioned by Heartland Men’s Chorus of Kansas City, an organization known for innovative programming approaches. In March, Heartland revived Oliver Button, pairing it with a new production called When I Knew. “We have created a type of programming we like to call a musical documentary,” says artistic director Joseph Nadeau. “They combine music and narration, and often new technologies—different types of projection or video.” In When I Knew, the chorus looks at moments in members’ lives when they realized they were gay. 

“Our goal,” Nadeau says, “is to be a relevant chorus in our community.” Among the other issues they’ve addressed, Nadeau mentions gays and lesbians in the military, in the film industry, and in religion. Heartland has also looked back in history to discover material for its musical documentaries. As an example from the 2012-13 season, Nadeau mentions Falling in Love Again, set in Berlin before and after the rise of the Third Reich. “The first part, like Cabaret, takes place in the 1920s—the fun, creative, wild time that it was, when we believed we were winning our rights and our freedoms. After Hitler came to power, it’s estimated that between five- and fifteen-thousand homosexuals were put into camps. It goes from a happy time into the Holocaust.” The point, says Nadeau, is to look at history so we can try not to repeat it.

Steven Jeffrey Karlin as Oliver Button and members of Heartland Men's Chorus in Oliver Button is a Sissy

GLBT choruses are discovering where they perform can be just as important as what they perform. That realization is what led One Voice Mixed Chorus into Upper Midwest schools and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus into California’s Central Valley. Miller and her group have been spending more time in more rural communities, and she says she’s seeing many other choruses undertake similar activity. The Seattle Men’s and Women’s Choruses plan to use their Referendum 74 tour as a model, Stilwagner says, giving more free concerts outside “the bubble of Seattle.” As Seelig has observed in California, that kind of outreach “encourages the small GLBT communities in those places to step up and be proud.”

From her perspective at GALA Choruses, Godfrey sees the GLBT choral movement broadening its horizons even further, to Mexico, South America, China, and Malaysia. The global effort is happening on a couple of different levels, she says. Individual U.S. choruses have sent conductors to China and other countries to offer training and support. More broadly, GALA works with similar organizations in Europe, Canada and Australia—“where they’re ahead of us,” Godfrey believes—to explore ways to help. “Africa and Asia are still very difficult places to be gay,” she says. “Even when we achieve marriage equality in the U.S., there is still work to be done.”

Artistic and Social Impact

While the social justice focus of the GLBT choral movement has evolved over its nearly forty-year history, Godfrey says there has been no change in the underlying concept that GLBT choruses are “a marriage of artistic excellence and social impact.” She likes to quote a colleague who once said, “There’s no power in bad music.” Which is not to say that the artistry of GLBT choruses has been static. “Choruses have come a long way artistically,” Miller says. She feels this growth has helped GALA choruses get their message across even more powerfully and has elevated their standing in the wider choral community. When One Voice sang at the 2012 Chorus America Conference, it “shifted some visibility for us and we started to feel like we could play alongside others in the sandbox.”

The movement’s most obvious artistic contribution may be the body of music it has infused into the choral repertoire. “We have commissioned hundreds if not thousands of pieces,” Nadeau says, “some by new composers, some for specific issues, others just folk songs and different types of arrangements. When I look at the wealth of music we’ve helped to create, it’s staggering.”

Commissions have been especially important in raising the profile of women’s choruses. As the founder in 1975 of Anna Crucis Women’s Choir, GALA Choruses’ longest-tenured ensemble, Catherine Roma feels that all-female groups were sometimes relegated to the bottom of the choral hierarchy. While those attitudes have not disappeared, she says “there has been immense change. The development of substantive choral work, often using texts by women, has been very important in elevating our status.” In 2013, her current group, the Cincinnati women’s choir MUSE, is devoting particular attention to commissions to mark its thirtieth anniversary, and Roma’s last year as artistic director. 

"We have commissioned hundreds if not thousands of pieces, some by new composers, some for specific issues, others just folk songs and different types of arrangements. When I look at the wealth of music we've helped to create, it's staggering." ~ Joseph Nadeau

As a mixed chorus that focuses on classical repertoire, Boston’s Coro Allegro is an outlier among GLBT ensembles. When the ensemble took shape in 1990, choruses that combine men and women were much less common in GALA, and its classical emphasis was considered groundbreaking, says artistic director David Hodgkins, who has spent twenty years with the chorus. He lists Haydn, Schubert, and gay composers such as Poulenc, Britten, and Lee Hoiby among the names that appear frequently on their programs. In the beginning, Hodgkins says, “the kind of repertoire Coro did and the way they did it probably ruffled a few feathers, and in others it lifted the expectations of what’s possible.” The group has always identified as GLBT and it advocates for GLBT issues through outreach and by singing at various cause-driven events. But, Hodgkins emphasizes, “this organization was founded on the premise of doing great classical repertoire. Through that music, we try to build bridges to other communities.” 

Making Connections Between Straight and GLBT Communities

The biggest shift among GLBT choruses in recent years, according to Hodgkins, is “the way in which the choruses have reached across the social divide of mistrust between straight folks and gay folks.” In Hodgkins’s personal experience, some of that work had to take place inside GALA Choruses. “At my first GALA conference,” he recalls, “there was a woman working backstage, a lesbian. She said, ‘You don’t belong here.’” Hodgkins is not gay himself, and he says “Coro took a little flak for that when I started.” He sensed fear behind the reaction, a need for “protection of this thing as just gay/lesbian.” Four years later, Hodgkins ran into the same woman at the next GALA conference. “We became friends. As people get to know one another, they become more relaxed. That happens a lot.”

The membership of women’s choruses has always included both lesbian and straight, Godfrey points out, but “in the last several years we’re seeing an increasing number of straight allies singing with men’s and mixed choruses. It’s an interesting sociological commentary.” Nadeau is aware of six or seven straight men in the Heartland Men’s Chorus. Stilwagner says three to five percent of the 300-member Seattle Men’s Chorus is straight. According to Seelig, the SFGMC membership remains entirely gay but, he quickly adds, “in San Francisco those lines are pretty blurred. We have broad support in the community.” Chorus boards generally include straight members, and audience bases are expanding.

In MUSE, Roma saw the balance shift eight or ten years ago from mostly lesbian to mostly straight women. “And the audience has just expanded, period,” she says. She attributes the growth to the make-up of the chorus. “Our chorus looks a lot like Cincinnati in its age range, in its racial diversity… We care about diversity, who we are as a singing community. That enables us to reach out to a broader segment of the Cincinnati community. When you have a diverse group everyone says, ‘I want you to come here and sing for us.’”

Twenty-nine percent of the singers in Miller’s mixed chorus identify as straight. Several are parents of gay kids who are looking for community, she says. They also join because “we’re just a lot of fun. We’re different from a typical community or church choir and that’s attractive. They feel like it’s a welcoming community.”

"The biggest shift among GLBT choruses in recent years is 'the way in which the choruses have reached across the social divide of mistrust between straight folks and gay folks.'" ~ David Hodgkins

Miller and other conductors believe the difference helps GLBT choruses engage and expand their audiences. Through humor as well as the serious social relevance underlying many of their commissions, Miller finds that barriers between singers and audience start to fall away. “There’s a vulnerability when GALA choruses perform and sing, so the audience feels drawn in; they are a part of what’s happening on stage rather than just observers.” Colleagues outside the GLBT community notice the same thing, finds Seelig. “They look at us and ask what GLBT choruses bring to the broader community that they could learn from. I have only one word to describe what that is: engagement. For a long time in the Turtle Creek Chorale we used a phrase that’s become fairly common usage: ‘They may not remember what you sang, but they will never forget how they felt.’”

Forty years ago, gays and lesbians did not form choruses for the primary purpose of moving audiences to laughter or tears. They got together because they wanted to have fun, they wanted to sing. They sought sanctuary from bigotry and discrimination. During the AIDS crisis, they discovered they could form a huge community and support each other. Now, looking outward, “we’re coming to a place with all this amazing work going on,” says Seelig. “We still need a safe place to be, but less so. So now, of all the activities a GLBT person could choose, this is the one that’s bigger than themselves and bigger than the world around them.”

Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singer who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Previously at NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.

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