Prizm News / December 1, 2017 / By Kayla Beard
Ohio’s gay men’s choruses put a happy face (and a campy number or two) on some pretty serious work.
By Kayla Beard
When Ohio’s four gay men’s choruses perform their annual holiday concerts this month in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus and Dayton, they’ll offer a brand of holiday cheer that’s unique to more than 100 such groups around the country.
It’s a mix of poignancy and high camp, kind of like a hometown version of Hollywood’s sassy gay best friend.
But the courage it takes, even today, for some singers to stand up, sing out and identify themselves publicly is tremendous. And not long ago, the stakes were even higher for many chorus members.
The groups that now personify a community’s joy and good cheer have roots in the LGBTQ community’s darkest days.
Just ask Michael Hoffman what things were like in 1991, the year the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus was created.
“That was the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis,” says Hoffman, who now serves as the group’s president. “Literally back then, we were singing for our lives.”
“A lot of the gay choruses started that way,” says Timothy Sarsany, artistic director for the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, which dates back to 1990. “A lot of choruses started to sing because their members [were] dying.”
Choruses lost members and members lost friends, but in the midst of tragedy, gay choruses summoned the courage to stand together and be heard.
“I think that the need was about fellowship and being able not to hide in the midst of the HIV crisis,” says Mark Johnson, who has been a member of the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus since its beginning. “People were looking for an outlet … [to] not have to worry about who you are or any of that baggage.”
“Some people didn’t have any families or had been rejected by their families. So here’s somewhere you can go and you can cry or you can sing your heart out and know that they accept you for who you are.”
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was the first to put the word gay in its name, and about 100 men showed up to the group’s first rehearsal in October 1978. Less than a month later, the chorus performed for the first time at a vigil on the night Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were assassinated.
Today, more than 100 LGBT choruses and ensembles—including feminist and women’s choirs, transgender choirs, youth choirs and more—are part of GALA Choruses, a national organization that boasts no less a mission than “to change our world through song.”
Members will tell you it’s the fellowship and friendships they’ve developed that have kept many of these groups going strong for decades. For some singers, the history also is an important part of their mission today. “We’re always conscious of where we’ve been,” Hoffman says. “It’s always an undercurrent.”
“I just really love the message and the mission. It’s very important to me,” says Drew Huggins, president of the board for the Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus. That mission includes being a “gay-affirming presence” in the Miami Valley.
“The gay affirming presence is the big thing,” Huggins says. “I feel like it’s my responsibility as a proud gay man to kind of spread [that].”
For Patrick Muzic, president of Cleveland’s North Coast Men’s Chorus, joining the group six years ago helped him further identify publicly as a gay man.
“It’s not that I wasn’t out, but this was kind of pulling me out further,” he says. “It was sort of my catalyst for being able to talk about being gay. … I lived a dual life, where some people knew and some people didn’t … I have this one life now that I’m proud of.”
Huggins says two members of the Dayton chorus joined last year when they were “newly out” as gay men.
“One of them, we helped him to come out officially on Facebook last month.”
The Cincinnati chorus doesn’t include the word gay in its name, Johnson says, in order to be more welcoming to men who might not want to be identified as gay. The group in Columbus calls itself a gay men’s chorus but welcomes members who aren’t male as long as they can sing in a traditionally male range.
“We have women singing with us…we have a non-binary singer…we’ve had non-gay members, straight members sing,” Sarsany says.
The groups also welcome non-singers.
“I think a lot of people would be surprised. … It’s not just an elite group,” says Adam Burk, executive director for the Columbus chorus. “Anybody and everybody who wants to sing is welcome to come sing with us.”
Music truly is universal, Burk says, and that’s another belief the singers share. “I liken it very much to if you share a meal or break bread with someone. You could be strangers when you first meet but when you sing with someone, you automatically have this bond. … It’s something that brings us all together.”
Hoffman says the messages have an impact on audience members and performers alike.
“It’s sometimes hard as a performer. Your job is not to get caught up and wound up in it,” he says. “You try not to, but there are just some songs that [get to you].”
He recites a line from the song, “I Shall Miss Loving You,” part of a longer piece written to honor those who’ve died of AIDS, called, “When We No Longer Touch”: “I shall miss the Joy of your comings and the Pain of your goings and, after a time, I shall miss missing loving you.”
“Every time I got to [that line], I would just burst into tears,” Hoffman says. “There’s always moments like that where the songs themselves are very moving.”
Some see a new emphasis on those original ideals.
“I can’t stress enough how important our mission is right now,” Huggins says. “There’s a rhetoric right now in our country that is not supportive of people who are different, and the best thing I think that we can do is get out there and spread our message.”
Sarsany says the goal is to balance entertainment with serious messages.
“We want to support all the people in the community, but we really want to reach out to people who are not sure about us,” he says. “We sing songs that they know, but when a gay chorus sings it, it has a different meaning to it.”
Seeing gay men sing love songs forces people to make the mental connection that, yes, men love men, and some sing songs about it, Sarsany continues. “It’s right there in front of them. They have to really process that,” he says. “I think that’s really cool and it kind of becomes a non-issue.”
That’s especially true when the songs come with good cheer.
“They see we’re just a bunch of guys singing. … You can’t really argue with someone who’s just singing you a little Christmas carol,” Hoffman says.