I joined the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus shortly after Proposition 8 passed in California. I knew that I would find myself among the chorines at some point in my life. But I was especially inspired to make the jump after watching them perform at the George Moscone and Harvey Milk Memorial. Singing in front of San Francisco’s City Hall on the 30th Anniversary of their tragic assassinations, the chorus sounded remarkable and relevant.
Since I auditioned with them last January, I have experienced so many enriching moments, whether it is singing at the prestigious Davies Symphony Hall for our 60’s concert "Tune In, Turn Up, Sing Out" with Joan Baez, at the illustrious Castro Theatre for our Home For The Holidays concerts, or in front of tens of thousands of fans at AT&T Park before the baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland Athletics.
As amazing as those moments were, they wouldn’t compare to what I’ve experienced this past January.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus performs at the George Moscone and Harvey Milk Memorial.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sings the National Anthem at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
With the 2010 Gay Games coming up this year, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus had initially planned a European tour primarily centered around these games, which being hosted in the city of Cologne, Germany. However, given the recent poignant events that have happened, the chorus decided to change course and instead embark on what has already become a landmark venture: the California Freedom Tour. This tour is groundbreaking because we are traveling up and down the central valley of California where people predominantly voted in favor of Proposition 8. Our intent is to have the people in these areas get to know us, and what better way than to have them hear us sing.
Television commercial for the California Freedom Tour that aired in Redding.
Our first leg of the tour is now complete, as we traveled north to Redding and Chico in the last weekend of January. We promoted this leg extensively, with great help from chorus member and Redding native Bud Dillon, airing television commercials on cable channels and gaining visibility in the press. It worked - we sold out the 1,000 seat Cascade Theatre in Redding and the 400 seat Harlan Adams Theatre in Chico. The mayor of Redding stood before the audience and gave a certificate of appreciation to the chorus. The Executive Director of the chorus, Teddy Witherington, introduced us to massive cheers, and the magic began.
Draft version of "We Are Coming Out" recorded in the Summer of 2009.
The concert kicked off with an original song that I wrote called "We Are Coming Out." Our Artistic Director Kathleen McGuire approached me last summer to see if the chorus could sing this song, and I was very humbled by the inquiry, as I am very new to writing chorus material. The song is a rallying cry in the form of a call and response, with a dynamic message to everyone present that we are sharing peace, giving love, living life, all the same, and most importantly, coming out. Surely, we came out to Redding and Chico on that historic weekend, and as our soloist James Machado led the way, we came out onto the stage, one of us waving a big rainbow flag back and forth, because we are who we are and are proud to live our lives without shame. After the chorus belted out one last emphatic "we are coming out", the crowd responded with excited applause and whistles, and I was deeply touched. But it was only the beginning of a magnificent array of songs that not only elevated the spirits of the audience members but did so much more.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus performs "William’s Song" in Santa Cruz, CA.
The Steve Schalchlin penned "William's Song", a true story about a mother who stood up for her gay son at his school in Arkansas, got the crowd responding in a triumphant roar. As the song goes, "William was a boy in Arkansas [who was] a little bit different," and this resulted in him being harassed by school bullies. His mother, Carolyn Wagner, wasn’t going to let this happen without a fight, so she promptly confronted the school. When the man in charge accused William of "walking so funny, she said ‘that’s gonna cost you money’", the chorus sang to the delight of the crowd. She sued the board and won, putting the school to shame. Indeed, "tell me why does it take five great big guys to beat up one little queer," and Schalchlin was on the money with an answer: "I think it’s fear." This song was especially relevant to Redding, where a gay couple together for 14 years was murdered in 1999 because they were a little bit different.
"If You Were Gay" from the Avenue Q Broadway musical was sung with choreography and pink cowboy hats as a nod to the hinterlands of Redding and Chico, and the audience ate it up with laughs and camaraderie. The song is about two characters from the musical who somewhat mirror Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, only that Nicky thinks that Rod is gay, and goes on to sing to him that it’s ok, "you were just born that way, and as they say, it’s in your DNA." Of course, Nicky feels the need to prove that he’s himself not gay, as if his own sense of masculinity was being compromised by his acceptance of Rod, and we can only laugh in response. And laugh the crowd did, as we bounced up and down, strutted and even assumed the grandest of chorus lines as we sang away in humor and harmony. At the end, the laughs instantly morphed into the loudest applause we’ve heard yet.
Closing the first act of the concert was "Michael's Letter To Mama", which was exactly that: a pivotal moment from the "Tales Of The City" series written by Armistead Maupin when the gay character came out to her mom by written letter. The song features the musical brilliance of David Maddux, and it rendered many chorus members to tears during our performance. The tears could be seen as far away as San Francisco, literally, with the image of chorus member Marc Savitt prominently displayed on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the following Monday. I teared up when singing the lines "Yes, you are a person. Yes, I like you. Yes, it’s all right for you to like me too." Because, to me, this revelation is akin to witnessing the most beautiful rainbow imaginable after weathering the most frightening thunderstorm of despair, isolation and fear – in other words, coming out as a gay person and realizing that "you’re all right, kid." When I came out right after high school, I wandered around the Castro neighborhood for the first time and felt a pure joy and hope that could not feel more magnificent.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.
We were not the only singing group that embraced the stage; opening up the second act was the local group Doin’ It Justice based in Chico. They perform songs aimed at promoting social justice, and their set was astounding. Among their songs was a gorgeous acoustic guitar rendition of "You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught." This song resonates with me, as I firmly believe that we all come from good hearts. It’s just that some of our hearts are blanketed with carefully-taught ignorance and fear. Without doubt, the songs that graced these concerts were not just raising the spirit of the audience; they were also giving a valiant challenge to uncover those blanketed hearts as well.
One way to uncover these blankets is to show that ignorance and fear can affect all minorities, as exemplified from our next song. "Not In Our Town" is about a recent time in Billings, Montana, where menorahs by the thousands were displayed all over the town in response to acts of anti-Semitism. In the early 1990’s, skinheads and members of racist groups began to infiltrate the town, and a rash of hate crimes ensued, as property was vandalized with spray-paint and windows were smashed everywhere, including a cinder block that was hurled through a window into the bedroom of a Jewish home. The town reacted with courage and solidarity, as thousands of paper menorahs appeared one by one in windows all over town. As the audience members saw for themselves, this communal gesture was nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Chorus members holding up paper menorahs while singing "Not In Our Town".
Following this song was an outstanding rendition of "Abraham, Martin & John" featuring a very-talented group of soloists. The song recounts the influence and bravery of past civil rights leaders who were tragically taken away from us far too soon. People like Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. Yet, what happened at the end of the song can not be spoken, for it brought the entire audience to a collective gasp followed by a stream of tears that cascaded down the faces, rows and aisles.
And then came "Oh Happy Day" to wash away those tears. Our soloist Sanford Smith came out draped in a gospel robe, and we started on our glorious journey. There was a blazing joy that was starting to peak out through the cracks of the walls as we launched into the first chorus. Sanford continued on, revving up for the greatest moment I've ever experienced on stage: we broke out into the second chorus, immediately the house lights dawned over the entire audience, our soloist descended into the crowd, one woman jumped up with her arms dancing in the air, seconds later the entire audience was on their feet, clapping, dancing, moving, shaking, smiling. In an epiphany that reads hyperbolic but definitely wasn't, the energy started to rotate between the stage and the house, the chorus and the audience, faster and faster until we meshed into a collective and formidable spirit, a revelatory moment of freedom and happiness that triumphantly disintegrated the darkness of Prop 8 that permeated the Northern lands of California. Boy, did it really feel this way. We brought the song to a thunderous climax, and the cheers that emanated from the Cascade Theatre and Harlan Adams Theatre were deafening and prophetic.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus performing at the Cascade Theatre in Redding.
Our last song was "Make Your Own Kind of Music", and I honestly don’t remember the performance very well, because by then my voice was starting to wobble in tears from the weight of this transcendent concert. If there was a message for the audience to take home, it is that we should always make our own kind of music, for that is what makes a rainbow look so beautiful. I genuinely feel that the wonderful people of Redding and Chico wholeheartedly embraced this message, and I can’t wait for us to give this message again as the California Freedom Tour continues with a trip to Fresno and Bakersfield in late May and to Tracy in early July.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus pledges to make its own kind of music.
The abbreviated mission of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is to create harmony. It is also said that the chorus changes lives in the process of fulfilling its mission. In just one year, it has transformed my life, for which I am eternally grateful.
For more information on the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, visit their official website.
contributed by SeanChapin.