Dozens of members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington traveled to six southern states earlier this month as part of their tour of the region.
Their Southern Equality Tour included stops in Atlanta; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Columbia, S.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; Knoxville, Tenn. and Roanoke, Va. They also performed with other gay men’s choruses in several of the cities they visited.
Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington on June 16 performed at the Georgia State Capitol at the invitation of state Rep. Karla Drenner, who is the first openly LGBT person elected to the Georgia General Assembly. They also performed at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville.
A gunman killed two people and injured seven others inside the church in 2008 when he opened fire during a youth performance of “Annie Jr.”
Chorus members on June 17 performed at Knoxville’s annual Pride celebration.
Roughly 100 of them formed a circle around an anti-gay protester as they left the event and began to sing “Make Them Hear You” from “Ragtime.” A video that shows chorus members confronting the protester went viral.
“He started shouting louder and louder,” Thea Kano, the chorus’ artistic director, told the Washington Blade on Thursday during a telephone interview. “I shouted, ‘Sing it louder!’”
“That’s when we thought we are drowning out hate with our voices,” she added. “We did that and that was really powerful.”
‘We sang for people who needed to hear us the most’
Members of Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington in 2015 performed outside the U.S. Supreme Court after it ruled in the Obergefell case that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry throughout the country. They have also traveled to Cuba and Ukraine in recent years.
“We’ve done Cuba, we’ve done Ukraine,” Kano told the Blade, noting the chorus began planning the trip to the South more than a year ago. “It’s always been a lot of concern in some of the more red states.”
Chorus members with whom the Blade spoke said the trip was a life-changing experience.
Michael Dumlao, who joined the chorus a year ago, noted another Knoxville protester “shouted directly at the face of an African American friend of mine who kept his fist up” while singing “We Shall Overcome” in “his beautiful tenor voice.”
“This scene struck me in particular given the context of who he was and where we were: A black man in the Deep South facing down a white hatemonger,” Dumlao told the Blade.
“It struck me at that point that we weren’t just crowding around hate with love,” he added. “We were echoing history and all that gravitas that comes with it.”
Other chorus members who took part in the Southern Equality Tour shared similar sentiments.
“We sang for the people who needed to hear us most: From misguided protestors captured in a viral video, to congregants still reeling from the pain of a violent, hateful tragedy in their own church,” said Jami Rodgers, the chorus’ vice president of outreach. “I can picture the faces in every audience that flashed thankful smiles, openly shed tears of joy and pain, or simply closed their eyes and let the transformative power of music wash over them.”
Sean Robinson, who is a member of the chorus and it’s ensemble, Rock Creek Singers, told the Blade on Friday during a telephone interview that he was “kind of ambivalent going on this trip initially.” He said he “absolutely has no regrets whatsoever.”
“It was life-changing for many of us,” Robinson told the Blade. “We really went to parts of the country to sing for and sing with people who really needed to hear our message about inclusion, about social justice and about love.”
Kano told the Blade the chorus has already begun to plan a tour that would include stops in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.