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Solidarity through song: Gay choir turns 25

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A Broadway choreographer demonstrates dance steps for the New York City Gay Men's Chorus a few days before their performance. (Melissa A. Thomas)

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Jim Flacche practices the choralography for the New York City's Gay Men's Chorus show celebrating the music of the 1980's. (Melissa A. Thomas)

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The New York City Gay Men's Chorus practices the choralography for their show celebrating the music of the 1980's. (Melissa A. Thomas)

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The New York City Gay Men's Chorus practices the choralography for their show celebrating the music of the 1980's. (Melissa A. Thomas)

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The New York City's Gay Men's Chorus practices the choralography for their show celebrating the music of the 1980's. (Melissa A. Thomas)

As nearly 200 men shuffled into the rows of a small theater in Midtown Manhattan, the rustling of sheet music combined with the low din of chitchat among friends. A five-piece rock band plugged in their amps for a warm-up session.

The conductor silenced the throng, while a choreographer hovered in front of the group, demonstrating what the group knows as “choralography.” Then, from the piano on stage came the first notes of a familiar tune.

No Mozart or Handel for this choir, however. Instead, it was a rousing medley of Madonna’s classic hits--in four-part harmony.

An upcoming “Absolutely ‘80s” concert will commemorate the 25th birthday of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, one of the oldest in the gay choral movement that began in San Francisco in late 1978. When the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus went on national tour in 1981, choruses cropped up across the country in cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, Dallas and Boston. Today, the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses has more than 200 member choruses with a total of 10,000 singers in 36 states and around the world.

While choirs like the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus first formed to proclaim the presence of a gay community--a “we’re here, we’re queer” message--choruses now offer the next generation of gay and lesbian youth a safe space. And whether or not choruses label themselves as gay, they provide members with a supportive group of brothers of all ages and ethnicities.

“The choruses really have remained a big power center for creating family in the gay and lesbian communities,” said Paul Attinello, a former member of the San Francisco and Los Angeles choirs who wrote about the history of the movement in “Queering the Pitch,” the first collection of gay and lesbian musicology. “In the late 1970s, the chorus was one of the very few public places everyday gays and lesbians could display their true identities.”

The chorus can also offer respite from the competitive and image-obsessed aspects of gay nightlife, say many members of the New York City group.

And in times of crisis, men have sought comfort in the chorus family. Over the last 25 years, the New York chorus has lost 120 members to AIDS. At the height of the epidemic in the 1990s, they sang at two memorial services a day and created a “Nightingale Brigade” support network to shop, clean and care for sick members.

When one member recently overdosed on crystal meth, chorus members sat with him in the hospital for three days and even offered to pay the man’s rent.

“It really is this rock bed of support,” said board member Harlan Pruden. “The chorus family actually does exist.”

Some have even found romance in the choir. Anderson De-Gazon, 23, a native of Trinidad, and his boyfriend, Chris Buckley, 27, originally from Texas, both grew up singing in the church choir as children. The chorus is a creative outlet for them as well a way to network with men they admire.

“I feel really lucky having so many role models,” said De-Gazon, who is one of the youngest choir members. “I don’t really have my father in my life here, but a lot of these men are like fathers to me.”

When the gay choral movement first began, gay liberation and AIDS activism were high priorities. “But the urgency of the early years isn’t there anymore,” said New York member Sonelius Kendrick-Smith, who works as a financial analyst. “Still, we need to become more aligned to current gay and lesbian movements, like recognition of marriage or civil unions.”

Musical repertoires continue to mirror the struggles faced by the gay community. The New York chorus regularly performs Bruce Springsteen’s “Philadelphia,” the first pop song to acknowledge the AIDS crisis. They also commissioned a piece titled “Marry Us” for a marriage equality protest last year. At their gay pride concert last June, they performed a “Gay Century Songbook” that featured “Sage Cycle,” a song about discrimination faced by older gay men, and “Oliver Buttons is a Sissy,” about a young boy who doesn’t fit the masculine mold.

But not all choruses actively advertise their gay identity. In their efforts to reach the larger public, both the Dallas and Seattle choirs--two of the most popular in the country--leave the “gay” out of their names.

“In the buckle of the Bible Belt in 1980, we didn’t include ‘gay’ to fulfill our mission as a bridge between the gay and straight communities,” said David Mitchell, managing director of the Turtle Creek Chorale in Dallas. “It gives straight people permission to come to our concerts.”

When the American Choral Directors Association tried to ban the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus from performing as a "gay" choir at their convention in 1984, the American Civil Liberties Union helped them win a lawsuit to end such discrimination.

For the New York chorus, the gay label “is a badge of honor, but it also limits our scope,” Pruden said.

The gay choral movement is now trying to cultivate the next generation by bringing younger members into the choirs. In New York, the men’s choir sponsors the Youth Pride Chorus for gay and lesbian teenagers, which made its debut at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Diverse Harmony, the nation’s first gay/straight youth chorus, began in Seattle in the fall of 2002.

At the quadrennial gay choral festival in Montreal this past year, “they were the darlings of the entire festival,” said Seattle Women’s Choir member Maria Lamarca Anderson.

Veteran members of the New York chorus now look toward the youth to define the movement’s future mission.

“The reason to exist for the next 25 years is to have a warm, nurturing environment for the next generation of gay young people,” said Jordan Barbakoff, 48, a charter member who performed in the chorus’ first holiday concert in December 1980. “They need to find a place where they can thrive and be themselves.”

E-mail: lem2112@columbia.edu