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The straight and narrow?

D.C.’s two largest LGBT choirs have straight directors

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gay dc choirs, gay news, Washington Blade
gay dc choirs, gay news, Washington Blade

Thea Kano directs the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington at the U.S. Supreme Court. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Jeff Herrell, a decade-plus member of Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, the region’s largest mostly LGBT church, was at the Fellowship’s general conference last year and as he sat listening to a pastor from Indianapolis, something he heard rubbed him the wrong way.

The crux of the argument was that if the Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a network of LGBT-welcoming churches started by Troy Perry in 1968 in the face of almost universal condemnation of gays by mainstream Christian churches, is to survive, it will need to engage straight believers as well.

It’s not a new concept. Many LGBT activists have stated the movement would have achieved far less traction over the past 40-odd years without ally aid. But for Herrell, a Washingtonian of 15 years and a gay believer, the statements inspired an internal groan.

“When I heard that, my first thought was, ‘Oh gosh, really?,’ he says. “It’s a challenge for me because MCC for me is like my personal gay sanctuary away from the straight world in a way.”

A pragmatist, though, Herrell also recognizes the world is changing.

“There is an element of it that’s a little sad, but you know what, we’re old,” he says with a laugh. “This is a post-‘Will & Grace’ world and it’s just not the same as it used to be. It’s like when all the straight girls started going to the gay clubs for their bachelorette parties, you know. I thought, ‘Jesus, I hate this, go somewhere else,’ but you know what? Here we are 10 years later.”

In August, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, a 34-year-old local choir that has about 240 active members and is one of the oldest and largest such groups in the country, announced Thea Kano as its new artistic director. She is the successor to Jeff Buhrman who was at the helm 13 years and involved with the Chorus for 25, and is the first straight director in the group’s history. Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s executive director, says her proven history with the group — she’d been its associate director since 2004 — was considered, but she was given no bonus points over the 30 applicants and four other finalists who applied during a seven-month national search.

“She went through every step of the process just like everyone else,” Maggiano says. “As soon as it was announced that Jeff was resigning, we started getting inquiries. … We figured she would apply but we were up front with her that we were going to take our time to make this a fair and open process so that whomever was ultimately appointed, was legit. We wanted a legitimate and fair process and that was my commitment to the process to kind of be the fairness czar.”

So thorough, in fact, was the process, it was a source of angst for some GMCW singers who’d grown to love Kano and feared she might resign if not given the job.

“We were really happy and really relieved when the news came out that she’d been appointed,” says Eric Peterson, a tenor who’s been in the Chorus five years and is also a member or the Rock Creek Singers, a smaller chamber ensemble within the overall Chorus that Kano has directed for a decade. “I don’t know if she might have stayed either way. She was very careful not to say, but she has a doctorate in choral conducting and has studied and worked with some of the most famous conductors in choral music so I can’t imagine she would have just stuck around indefinitely. … When the news came out, there was a huge sigh of relief and a lot of applause.”

Kano, who splits her time between Washington and the Big Apple directing the 80-voice New York City Master Chorale, says she’s thrilled.

“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” she says. “I really get the best of all worlds here.” She says there was “no yearning” for the chief role even when people started asking her if it was a goal after she’d been with the Chorus a couple years, though she also says when Buhrman announced he was stepping down, applying herself was “a no brainer.”

“Having been here so long, I have that institutional memory and I’ve seen how we’ve grown musically,” she says. “I recognize the things that have really worked and well the audience appreciated this or that. … My goal is to continue with a phenomenal musical product to drive home our overall message of equality.”

When the choir at MCC-D.C. met Michael Fisher Jr., who just started as the church’s “minister of worship arts,” they didn’t know his sexual orientation. The church for years had two choirs with as many as 40-50 singers in the combined group. It has dwindled some in recent years without a full-time director. Several former singers are now active with former director Shirli Hughes’ group Ovation.

Fisher is classically trained on the cello and piano and has worked with several well-known gospel acts. What struck them initially during an audition rehearsal, Herrell says, was his stellar musical ability.

“We just kind of assumed he probably was gay but we didn’t know,” Herrell says. “We had a rehearsal with him and it just went really, really well. He can play the piano like nobody’s business and he’s also just so vocally talented too. … He had a way of teaching that was very easy and he was able to make himself understood. Within like 15-20 minutes, he had us singing a song he’d taught us. It was a great experience and I think everyone was just excited to find someone that talented interested in the position because we have a history of a very strong music program here and it’s something we definitely want to uphold.”

As with the GMCW, the search committee, pastoral staff and board of directors at MCC-D.C., founded in 1970, took its time in the search. All the church’s former choir directors have been LGBT.

Justin Ritchie co-directed the MCC choir for several years with Darius Smith but neither were interested in doing the job full-time. In a series of evaluations, the congregation there — which Herrell guesses is “probably less than 1 percent straight” — wanted someone in this new position in a full-time capacity.

Rev. Cathy Alexander, MCC’s minister of congregational connections, says the process was exceedingly thorough and says she’s excited to see Fisher join the staff. (Fisher did not respond to multiple attempts to interview him before this week’s Blade deadline. He’s started his new post but will be officially welcomed at special services at 9 and 11 a.m. on Sept. 14. The church’s senior pastor, Rev. Dwayne Johnson, also did not respond to interview requests.)

“First and foremost, he’s a very spiritual man, very dedicated to serving God, that came through first and foremost,” Alexander, who identifies as gender non-conforming, says. “He has an amazing ability, he writes his own songs and travels and sings. … He’s very personable and has already established a good relationship with the choir and dance ministries. He grew up in the church playing music, he’s a good fit for this position and his wife is just lovely, too.”

But despite thorough searches and stellar musical qualifications, is there any long-term concern about having the city’s largest LGBT choirs — the Lesbian and Gay Chorus of Washington having folded in 2010 (former director C. Paul Heins is now the GMCW associate director) — under straight leadership?

While several say it is a bit unusual and perhaps a sign of the times, nobody the Blade interviewed said it’s an important distinction. Kano, especially, several GMCW members said, has never inspired any doubt about her commitment to LGBT rights.

Ritchie, who has sung for years with the GMCW in addition to his duties at MCC, concurs.

“Thea has great gay sensibility if you will and she’s a great programmer,” he says. “She’s an artist and the Chorus couldn’t be in better hands. I think it will be a seamless transition with her in charge.”

Ritchie, who has yet to meet Fisher, says the role at MCC is a wholly different situation. He says because the role requires someone who can both conduct and accompany and who is stylistically diverse, it was a hard position to fill.

“At 9, it’s more like high church, then at the 11 o’clock service it’s straight-up black gospel and there are not many people who can do it all. I kind of faked my way through it for a year and a half … but it’s such a varied position.”

The spiritual component only further complicates the matter, Ritchie says.

“Concerned is probably too strong of a word and it’s really not my business anymore, but I would want to be sure that whomever they might have hired for this position has the best of intentions,” he says. “Is it somebody who really feels called to this church or is it just somebody who needed a job? That would be understandable, but it would be my hope that they would make sure it’s not somebody who’s coming in to convert anybody. It’s just so hard to fully understand the gay faith community in the context of past hurt or past injury if you haven’t experienced it that way. … There has to be not only the musicality, but also the safety and the celebration of who LGBTQ people are.”

Neither appointment is an anomaly, as far as anybody can tell. Other choruses within the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) have had straight directors, although it is certainly not the norm.

Robin Godfrey, GALA’s executive director and a lesbian, says she’s known of some straight conductors but says she’s not given much thought to how widespread the phenomenon might be.

“It’s certainly not the sort of thing we would ask,” she says. “In some cases, there may be straight conductors you may know of, but how many, I really don’t know.”

Rev. Kharma Amos, associate director of formation and leadership development for Metropolitan Community Churches and a Fairfax, Va., resident and lesbian, says she has no idea how many of the Fellowship’s 200-plus congregations around the world might have straight music ministers. She says a “wild guess” might be that “30 or 40” MCC churches in the U.S. are large enough to have full-time music staff. All candidates for ordination in the Fellowship go through classes she helps lead and she says about two of the 15 who come through each year identify as straight.

“It’s hard to generalize as to the whys, but often they’ve identified the inclusivity MCC exhibits as being extraordinary compared to other denominations and they felt a calling to social justice issues,” Amos says.

Ritchie says he knows of several paid musicians at MCC churches in Minneapolis and Ft. Lauderdale who are straight though he says, “the vast majority are LGBT.”

Kano, who grew up in the San Francisco area, knew many gay dancers studying ballet growing up and says “it was just never an issue.” She eventually came to consider herself an LGBT activist and says upon finishing graduate school at UCLA and applying to conducting jobs “all over,” a friend in Los Angeles heard GMCW had an open position 10 years ago.

“My first thought was, ‘Why would they want me,’ but he said, ‘Well, you’re a gay activist and always have been,’ so I sent in my resume and fast forward, here we are. That’s how it came to be on my radar,” she says.

Nobody the Blade spoke to said the appointments raised any eyebrows within the two choirs.

“When DOMA was struck down, she was the one who was there singing with us at the Supreme Court all day,” Peterson says. “She was wiping tears and it wasn’t just for us, it was for the entire movement. … She’s such an ally, I really do consider her part of the LGBT umbrella. I don’t think of many straight people in my life that way, but she is an exception.”

Herrell, too, says he “didn’t hear anybody say anything” about Fisher and potential concerns.

If anything, Herrell says it would have been hypocritical for MCC to have not considered a straight candidate considering the church’s mantra toward being open and welcoming to all.

“There’s really no valid reason why a heterosexual can’t be the music director for a gay church especially when the message we’re hearing from the pulpit every Sunday is one of radical inclusiveness. … I can honestly say, there was nobody who was like, ‘Hold on, let’s slow down here,’ — nothing like that was said that I know of.”

Although most would agree that’s the politically correct answer, is it any different when an organization’s entire raison d’être is LGBT based? As Whitman-Walker Health has broadened its scope in recent years and has a straight executive director (Don Blanchon), will this phenomenon spill over into our traditionally gay churches and arts organizations? Some national gay rights groups, like the National Black Justice Coalition, have directors who are straight allies. And Washington’s LGBT amateur sports teams are reporting higher levels of straight participation than ever before, Team D.C. officials say. Lines everywhere seem to be blurring as the gay rights movement gains increased footing.

Gay directors applied for both jobs but those involved in the searches said when all factors were considered, Kano and Fisher were the best fits.

“Of the five finalists, I can say yes, some of them were gay,” Maggiano says. “But we really didn’t have a cut-and-dried scenario where all other factors were equal and we had to decide on that. We did not discriminate on gender, religion, sexual orientation or anything else. … We just didn’t find ourselves in a situation where it was a gay versus a non-gay issue.”

But what does it mean? Is it coincidence? A sign of the changing times? The first steps in the what could be a gradual “de-gaying” of our traditional LGBT safe spaces? As a point of context, Dignity Washington, a local LGBT Catholic group, has had a straight choir director for years. Members say it’s never been an issue. She’s low key, though, and asked that her name not be used as she also directs music in local Roman Catholic parishes and doesn’t want to risk drawing the ire of anti-gay church leaders, a threat organist and choir director Mike McMahon of National City Christian Church knows is very real. He lost his job at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington after he married his male partner earlier this year.

He says there are many factors at play with the new choir directors, but says it ultimately shouldn’t be an issue.

“What we’re seeing is the results of the mainstreaming of gay culture,” McMahon says. “It’s a thing that cuts both ways. Once it’s OK for gay people to have a certain job, then it’s OK for straight people to have these more traditionally gay jobs as well. With (Kano) especially, the issue is not that she’s straight or that she’s a woman. She’s been immersed in that environment for so many years and has shown that she has the chops to make those guys sound amazing. I think it’s great.”

Anthony Heilbut knows what it’s like to be considered an outsider. He’s a self-described Jewish atheist but as a life-long lover of black gospel music who eventually came to be considered an expert on the subject as a producer of many traditional gospel acts and author of “The Gospel Sound” and “The Fan Who Knew Too Much.”

Heilbut says many may not realize the long tradition “children,” historically the term black Christians used for the low-key gays and lesbians in their ranks, have of being choir directors.

“In gospel music, the greatest choir directors have almost universally been gay men,” Heilbut, who’s gay, says. “This situation here in D.C. strikes me as just a curiosity and a fascinating situation because it really should not be hard to find a gay choir director of all things. … This is just one area in which gay men have always excelled, going all the way back to James Cleveland and before.”

Maggiano says GMCW is “actually ramping up our gayness.”

“I know it might sound strange considering we just hired a straight female, but what we’re really doing is inviting people to come be gay with us. Let your hair down. Put on a wig. In this market, it’s cool to be gay. … We would actually love it if in 10 years we had half gay men and half straight singing ‘YMCA.’ How great would it be to see some straight guy just wailing on Beyonce? What a great place we would have come to and what a great statement that we got here through music. … That’s our goal. Not to stay internal and stay exclusively gay, but to make gay cool for everybody.”

Godfrey puts it more succinctly.

“There’s no reason it has to be an issue,” she says.

gay dc choirs, gay news, Washington Blade

The choir at Metropolitan Community Church of Washington in 2008. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

 

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1 Comment

  1. anonymous

    September 8, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    The appointment of Mr. Fisher is a wonderful addition to the increased diversity and all-encompassing spirit of MCCDC—especially if the church is to continue moving forward breaking barriers.

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D.C. summer ablaze with events, concerts, art

A plethora of activity in wake of COVID restrictions loosening up

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After a year of public events being cancelled and residents staying cooped up in their homes due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, the “outside” is finally open and D.C. is effervescing with events. Check out ways to make up for lost time during the remaining months of this year’s summer season:

The Baltimore Museum of Art will open Women Behaving Badly: 400 Years of Power & Protest, an exhibition dedicated to the women who rebelled on Sunday, July 18. The exhibition combines prints, photographs, and books to tell the stories of past heroines and modern trailblazers, celebrating women throughout history who broke rules, transgressed boundaries, and insisted upon recognition of their human rights. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

Tschabalala Self: By My Self is on view at the BMA through Sept. 19, 2021. Explore 13 paintings and two related sculptures curated by Cecilia Wichmann that reveal artist Tschabalala Self’s depth, intricacy, and singularity. The exhibition explores how the compositional process generates meaning in Self’s work, reflecting her theory of selfhood as a consciousness that is at once produced by external images and by an ongoing reworking and evolving of forms into a new whole. Self was born in Harlem, New York, in 1990 and is based in New Haven, Conn. For more information, visit the BMA’s website

The 1455 Summer Festival will begin on Thursday, July 15 at 4 p.m., featuring a stellar lineup of literary leaders and creatives (many of whom are part of the LGBTQ community) who will share their insights into the art of storytelling. The lineup will include literary superstar Brian Broome, author of “Punch Me Up to the Gods,” and Booker-Prize-winning author “Shuggie Bain” and fashion designer Douglas Stuart, among others. Some of the festival’s events include “What Makes a Successful (Queer) Narrative?” a panel that’ll dissect queer storytelling throughout the years. There will also be a teen poetry contest with a $5,000 grand prize. For more information, visit the festival’s website.

The National Museum of Asian Art will open Hokusai: Mad about Painting on Saturday, Aug. 28. The exhibition will feature work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) best known for his iconic woodblock print, “The Great Wave Off the Coast of Kanagawa” and a breathtaking painting titled “Breaking Waves” that was created 15 years after Great Wave at the height of Hokusai’s career. Drawing on the museum’s impressive Hokusai collection, visitors have the opportunity to see a new presentation, with artworks being added throughout the summer. In addition to Breaking Waves, the exhibition includes works large and small, from folding screens and hanging scrolls to paintings and drawings. For more information, visit the NMAA’s website.

Awesome Con will be from Friday, Aug. 20 to Sunday, Aug. 22. The event is D.C.’s own Comic Con, a celebration of geek culture, bringing more than 70,000 fans together with their favorite stars from across comics, movies, television, toys, games, and more. Awesome Con is home to Science Fair, Book Fair, Awesome Con Jr, Pride Alley, a celebration of queer creators and fans curated by GeeksOUT, and Destination Cosplay. For more information, visit awesomecon.com. 

A scene from 2019’s Awesome Con. This year’s event is slated for the weekend of Aug. 20. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Maryland Renaissance Festival will begin on Saturday, Aug. 28 and runs Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday through Sunday, Oct. 24 for nine weekends of thrills, feasting, handmade crafts, entertainment and merriment in Crownsville, near Annapolis, Md. The 27-acre Village of Revel Grove comes to life each autumn with more than 200 professional performers on 10 stages, a 3,000 seat arena with armored jousting on magnificent steeds and streets filled with village characters. For more information, visit rennfest.com. 

The National Museum of Women in the Arts will be open for special evening hours from Thursday, Aug. 5 to Friday, Aug. 6 from 5-8 p.m. The featured exhibitions are Mary Ellen Mark: Girlhood, which presents images photographer Mary Ellen Mark made throughout her career depicting girls and young women, and Selections from the Collection, which highlights historical and contemporary art by women around the world. Free timed tickets are required so that the museum can ensure the safety of patrons and their staff. Visit their website for more information. 

The 13th Annual Ukefest will begin on Friday, Aug. 13. Celebrating a decade dedicated to this small but mighty music maker, UkeFest Artistic Directors Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer return alongside extraordinary instructors like Peter Luongo, Kevin Carroll, Ginger Johnson and more. The program orientation will kick off on Friday night, followed by four days of classes and evening events. For those looking for more intensive skill development, Strathmore’s UkeFest is the only program of its kind that offers an advanced track. Admission is $225 and more information is available at Strathmore.org.

The Drive-In at Union Market will start at 7:30 p.m. every first Friday of the month through October. While watching films under the stars, enjoy dozens of local, regional, and international foods: Egyptian favorites by Fava Pot, night market noodles from Som Tam, ice cream locally churned by The Creamery, tasty takeout burgers from Lucky Buns and more. Movie audio will be transmitted through an FM transmitter on the radio and through speakers placed on Neal Place. All movies are shown with open captioning, and the movie plays rain or shine. Each showing costs $20 per car. For more information, visit unionmarketdc.com. 

Unwind with an hour-long vinyasa outdoor yoga session taught by District Flow Yoga every Tuesday and Thursday on District Pier and every Sunday morning on Recreation Pier at The Wharf. Enjoy waterfront views and fresh air as you shed the stress of the day or greet the new one. The outdoor yoga class on Sunday, July 25 is hosted on Recreation Pier from 9-10 a.m. and costs $10. Tickets must be purchased on Eventbrite. For more information, visit wharfdc.com. 

FUTURES, the first building-wide exploration of the future on the National Mall, will open in the late summer and run through summer 2022. This exhibition is your guide to a vast array of interactives, artworks, technologies, and ideas that are glimpses into humanity’s next chapter. Smell a molecule. Clean your clothes in a wetland. Meditate with an AI robot. Travel through space and time. Watch water being harvested from the air. Become an emoji. The FUTURES is yours to decide, debate, delight. Patrons are encouraged to dream big, and imagine not just one future, but many possible futures on the horizon—playful, sustainable, inclusive. Visit the Arts and Industries Building’s website for more information. 

The National Portrait Gallery will open “Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands” on Friday, Aug. 27. Hung Liu (b. 1948) is a contemporary Chinese American artist, whose multilayered paintings have established new frameworks for understanding portraiture in relation to time, memory, and history. Often sourcing her subjects from photographs, Liu elevates overlooked individuals by amplifying the stories of those who have historically been invisible or unheard. More information is available at the gallery’s website.

 After a long COVID drought, music is back! The 9:30 Club has a schedule of shows starting in September, notably the return of the Bob Mould Band on Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. (tickets are $25 and still available). Tinashe performs her “333Tour” on Oct. 3 (tickets on sale July 16). Visit 930.com for the full schedule and hurry, because many shows are already selling out. 

Bob Mould, gay news, Washington Blade
The Bob Mould Band plays 9:30 Club on Sept. 18.

Meanwhile, at I.M.P.’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, more shows are headed our way, including James Taylor and his All-Star Band on Aug. 10. Wilco and Sleater-Kinney perform Aug. 20. For more throwback fixes, New Kids on the Block are slated for Aug. 4 and Alanis Morissette with Garbage and Liz Phair play on Aug. 31. Visit merriweathermusic.com for the full lineup. 

Wolf Trap has a full schedule of events planned this summer as well. Highlights include Renee Fleming on Aug. 6, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on Aug. 12, and ABBA the Concert on Aug. 15. Visit wolftrap.org for the full schedule.

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Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington celebrates 40th anniversary with virtual concert, retrospective

Veteran choir soldiers undeterred through pandemic with Zoom rehearsals

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Members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Washington gather in front of the Supreme Court on Sept. 3, 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

GMCW Turns 40
Streaming begins Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
Available through June 20
Tickets: $25
gmcw.org

Discussion of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington quickly becomes emotional for its members both veteran and newbie(-ish). They’re the kind of strong feelings that only exist when one has sacrificed and invested in something.

“It’s an experience that touches our soul in a way that not that many LGBTQ+ people get to experience,” says tenor Javon Morris-Byam, a gay 28-year-old music teacher who joined three years ago. “We have music tying us together and in the end, we make a product that we can share with the public and that’s a humbling experience.”

Steve Herman, 79, is a founding member, though he doesn’t sing. One of a group of “non-singing members,” he joined in June 1981 and has helped over the decades painting scenery, designing ads, serving on the board and more. His partner at the time had joined the chorus as a singer.

A Gay Men’s Chorus performance in 1983. (Washington Blade archive photo by Leigh Mosley)

Now retired after 47 years in the federal government, he says the Chorus “has been a major centerpiece of my life.”

“This may sound corny, but I couldn’t imagine my life without the chorus,” Herman says.

The chorus is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend with a streaming concert simply dubbed “GMCW turns 40” that can be streamed starting Saturday, June 5 at 7 p.m. and can be viewed until June 20.

Selections will include “From Now On” (from “The Greatest Showman”), “Rise Up,” “Make Them Hear You” (from “Ragtime”), “Truly Brave” and a new song called “Harmony’s Never Too Late!” written for the occasion by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, composers of “Ragtime.” Video clips of past performances will also be included in a montage. Tickets are $25 at gmcw.org.

Thea Kano, the Chorus’s artistic director since 2014 (she was associate director for a decade prior), says “Make Them Hear You” has “kind of become our anthem over the last 10 years,” so contacting its composers for a commission made sense. They premiered it last summer virtually at the Chorus’s Summer Soiree, a COVID-induced postponement of its usual Spring Affair.

Thea Kano, center, joins members of the Chorus at the United States Supreme Court on the day of the Obergefell v. Hodges marriage equality decision in June of 2015.(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kano, a straight ally, directs the Chorus with aid from Associate Conductor C. Paul Heins, Assistant Conductor Joshua Sommerville and accompanist Teddy Guerrant. Justin Fyala has been the Chorus’s executive director since 2016. Staff also includes Craig Cipollini (director of marketing), Kirk Sobell (director of patron services) and Alex Tang (accompanist).

Under the main Chorus umbrella are five ensembles: 17th Street Dance, a 14-member performance troupe started in 2016; Rock Creek Singers, a 32-voice chamber ensemble; GenOUT Youth Chorus, a teen choir of about 25; Potomac Fever, a 14-member harmony pop ensemble; and Seasons of Love, a 24-voice gospel choir.

GenOUT Youth Chorus. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Musically, the Chorus’s repertoire is eclectic.

“(We sing) everything from spiritual to glam rock to punk to traditional classical, and everything in between,” Morris-Byam says. “I love when the chorus is all together and able to produce a big powerful sound.”

Kano says working with Fyala is “a dream” and says under his leadership the Chorus is “in a very healthy financial place, which is wonderful and a very humble thing to be able to say right now particularly given that we’re in a pandemic — that’s not the case with a lot of arts organizations.”

The D.C. Chorus is a quasi-unofficial spin off of its San Francisco counterpart. During an early ’80s national tour, the San Francisco group performed at Washington’s Kennedy Center and had a profound effect on local audiences. Marsha Pearson, a straight woman who lived in Dupont Circle at the time and enjoyed hanging out with gay men, was one such person.

“I couldn’t believe we didn’t have one of these,” she told the Blade 10 years ago for a story on the Chorus’s 30th anniversary. “I thought, ‘We’re the nation’s capital, how come we don’t have this?’”

The Chorus performs at the popular gay nightclub Tracks in 1984. (Washington Blade photo by Doug Hinckle)

She hand wrote fliers — four to a sheet — had her sister photocopy them at her office, cut them up by hand and passed them out at Capital Pride in 1981. Accounts vary about how many showed up to the first practice at the long-defunct gay community center (no connection to the D.C. Center) on Church Street. Pearson remembers about 30. Others say it was more like 15-ish. It was June 28, 1981 and, by all accounts, an innocuous beginning.

Pearson never sang with the group — it was exclusively a men’s chorus. She asked if anybody had any conducting experience. The late Jim Richardson did and became the first director.

“I still remember the first chord,” Pearson told the Blade in 2011. “It was just a simple thing, you know, like do, mi, so, do, but I just got goosebumps. I was just elated that even one note came out, I was so excited. I got those same goosebumps at the anniversary concert last weekend. I put their CDs on and I get the same thing, especially on certain things they sing. You just can’t believe it sounds so great.”

Click here for more about the history of the group. A bio/history is also available at gmcw.org.

COVID has, of course, wreaked havoc on the operation. Thankfully, Kano says, no members have died from it, though a handful (she says fewer than 10 that she knows of), including Kano, have had it and recovered.

The Chorus continued its Sunday evening rehearsals via Zoom, which, because of the precision required for musical performance, was tougher to take online than, say, a business meeting. It never occurred to the Chorus leadership to take a hiatus.

“I look back now like, ‘Why didn’t we take some time off,’ but I think off the top of my head at the time it was like, “We sing and we’re a social justice organization and community is such a big part of who we are,’” Kano says. “And so for suddenly, with no notice, to have something that we love so much and are so passionate about …. to suddenly just turn the lights off, that wasn’t even an option.”

A GMCW rehearsal in 2007. (Washington Blade file photo by Henry Linser)

With the Chorus and dancers and GenOUT, there are about 200 current volunteer performers. It’s been slightly higher at times. Some were deterred by the thought of rehearsing via Zoom although some former members no longer in the D.C. area — even a few overseas — rejoined when virtual participation became possible.

The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement last summer and beyond was a galvanizing event. The Chorus responded with its “Let Freedom Sing” concert, which Kano says celebrated the intersection of Black and LGBTQ people.

Featured soloists perform in ‘Let Freedom Sing.’ (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“It was our way of saying we raise our voice in solidarity with those facing injustice,” Kano says.

But does that get messy at times? Surely not everyone in a choir of this size is on the same page politically, even in a progressive city like D.C., right?

As a nonprofit, the Chorus avoids anything ostensibly political. Kano says the issue did arise when they were invited to sing at a Virginia-based gun-reform event last year. They participated, but carefully.

“So anytime you mentioned guns, it becomes political,” Kano says. “It’s not about whether or not we support the Second Amendment. It’s us standing in solidarity with those who have been victims of gun violence.”

Kano says there’s “a very good chance had this been a non-pandemic year,” they would have been invited to sing at the Biden-Harris inauguration, which she says they “absolutely” would have agreed to.

“We did wonder, though, a few years ago what we would have said if 45 were to ask us,” she says. “We didn’t spend a lot of time on it because we knew that wasn’t gonna happen,” she says with a chuckle.

The holiday shows for the Chorus often involve elaborate costumes, as in this scene in 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Herman says performing at big, pro-LGBTQ “statement”-type events is woven into the Chorus’s history and is understood.

“Every Christmas Eve, we’d sing for the patients at NIH,” he says. “We still do, only then it was primarily AIDS patients. We sang special concerts when the (AIDS) Quilt was first displayed and when there was a March on Washington. We did a lot of community work and outreach at a time when it was really needed.”

Morris-Byam says even today, with so much progress having been made, the Chorus still is needed. He, by the way, calls Kano “one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met.”

“I believe the Chorus is a strong political statement in itself,” he says. “When we’re making a strong, joyful noise, it’s celebrating everything we are, what we can be, and everyone who has gotten us where we are.

The Chorus celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in a performance at Lincoln Theatre in 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

There have been challenges over the years — finding new office space, patching together individual vocal parts for virtual performances — but no warring factions. Kano is, by most accounts, extremely well liked.

The future, Kano says, is bright. She hopes to resume in-person rehearsals in the fall. She spent a big chunk of early lockdown transcribing a Puccini “Gloria Mass” for tenor/bass chorus. She plans to program it with works by Cole Porter eventually.

Ultimately, Kano says, her goals for the Chorus are about making great art.

“Art comes first,” she says. “Because that’s how we deliver our mission. And if we put great art first, it’s going to attract great people. It’s going to both as members and as audience members and patrons, and therefore it’s going to attract great funding, and then all that goes right back into the arts we can further our expansion and our ability to get the mission out.”

Craig Cipollini leads the ‘Grease’ dance auditions in 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)
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Billy Porter talks about his HIV diagnosis and keeping secrets

The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years in the Hollywood Reporter Wednesday

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Billy Porter appearing on Tamron Hall's show Wednesday (Screenshot via YouTube)

NEW YORK – Daytime talk show host Tamron Hall welcomed Broadway icon and star of the hit tv show “Pose,” Billy Porter on her show that aired Wednesday. The Tony, Emmy, and Grammy-Award winning actor revealed the secret he’s been keeping for 14 years that was made public in a piece for the Hollywood Reporter published Wednesday.

Porter discusses his HIV diagnosis from over a decade ago which the actor said he felt a sense of shame that compelled him to hide his condition from his castmates, collaborators and even his mother, and the responsibility that now has him speaking out. “The truth is the healing,” Porter said.

“I was on the precipice of obscurity for about a decade or so, but 2007 was the worst of it. By February, I had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. By March, I signed bankruptcy papers. And by June, I was diagnosed HIV-positive,” he wrote. “The shame of that time compounded with the shame that had already [accumulated] in my life silenced me, and I have lived with that shame in silence for 14 years. HIV-positive, where I come from, growing up in the Pentecostal church with a very religious family, is God’s punishment,” the actor wrote.

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