James Stillwell never thought he was good enough to sing with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. Apparently he was wrong — not only has he sung baritone with them for the past year, he plays Liesl in “Von Trapped,” the group’s all-male “Sound of Music” takeoff that plays this weekend at the Lisner Auditorium (730 21st St., N.W.; tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3; details at gmcw.org).
“I think it was a combination of shyness and stage fright and just having heard the Chorus before and how good they were … it just didn’t occur to me that I could be up on the stage with them, that I would make the cut.”
Stillwell’s involvement, though, has scratched a personal itch. Though he says he doesn’t regret his more traditional career path — the 31-year-old Harvard grad is program coordinator for undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy — he harbored entertainment aspirations growing up and says part of him still wonders what life would be like as an actor.
“I love it, it’s a wonderful community of guys,” he says. “And gives me a chance to exercise a different part of my interests and capabilities. It’s nice to get up on stage and perform and be involved in the arts and express a message that’s important without hitting you over the head with it. … It’s become a major part of my life.”
Stillwell, 31, grew up in Annapolis, Md., and has been in Washington since he finished school in 2006.
He’s single and lives in Capitol Hill. In his spare time, he enjoys journaling, reading and spending time with friends.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I have been out nearly 13 years, since the summer after my freshman year of college. The hardest people to tell were my grandparents, and sadly I never did. All but one died without knowing (unless they figured it out themselves).
Who’s your LGBT hero?
My friends, family and neighbors in this amazing city. They have embraced me since the day I told them I’m gay — such a simple and powerful act that every LGBT person deserves upon coming out.
What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
Badlands will always have a special spot in my heart. One of the only places I could get into at age 19, its Thursday college night was where I came out in June 2001, met my first boyfriend and indirectly came to know a dear friend I’ve had ever since.
Describe your dream wedding.
One in which I don’t really care whether the napkins match the tablecloths or the caterer shows up late (which I might otherwise fuss about), because I’ll be marrying this awesome guy with whom it’s just another day, albeit a special one, together.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
Human-induced climate change and biodiversity loss. When you look at the data, it’s hard not to be horrified and discouraged.
What historical outcome would you change?
I’m tempted to say, “Bobby Kennedy’s assassination,” or “the outcome of the 2000 presidential election,” but I also wouldn’t want to interfere with the causality that led to the exciting historical moment we live in now. So many glimmers of hope and justice seem to be breaking through on so many fronts and real progress feels possible.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out
On what do you insist?
Wholesome food with real ingredients
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
The following message, with a map highlighting the criminalization of homosexuality around the world: “LGBT citizens in all of these countries deserve to express their love consensually and freely. It’s painful to imagine what recriminations they may suffer for that simple human act.”
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
Can I rip off that old Highlights magazine tagline? “Fun with a Purpose.”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Disbelieve any findings predicated on discrete classifications of sexual orientation and investigate the funding sources of such studies.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
I believe in an energetic love that unites everyone and everything in the cosmos.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Don’t call it a day after marriage equality is won throughout the United States; pay attention to the needs of LGBT people who still suffer mightily in the U.S. and abroad.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
A society that prioritizes food, shelter and health care as basic human rights.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
The way “top” and “bottom” are often presented as fixed identity categories, rather than as more open tendencies or preferences.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
What’s the most overrated social custom?
I struggled the most to answer this one quickly, so maybe instant gratification
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
A lead role in a feature film or serialized drama with a gay or socially probing theme
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
Again, I’m tempted to say something like, “I wish I’d known the life lessons that come from being able to experience teenage sexuality openly, which I missed out on by being closeted,” but if I could wave a magic wand and change the past, I doubt I would.
It is both a small town and a world capital, and I am continually amazed at how much diversity, wonder and community is packed into its 68 square miles. Washington feels like home, and has practically since the day I came out here.