May 27, 2016 at 12:40 pm EDT | by Chase Maggiano
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington travels to Ukraine

GMCW, Gay Men's Chorus of Washington, Ukraine, gay news, Washington Blade

Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington arrive in Ukraine on May 27, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Chase Maggiano/Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington)

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington has sent its small ensemble, Potomac Fever, on a State Department-sponsored diplomacy tour to promote LGBTQ rights in Ukraine. This tour came about due to the success of our Cuba concert tour last summer. Earlier this year, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine called us up and said they loved what we did in Cuba, and would like us to bring that kind of diplomacy to Ukraine — a country that is deeply in need of unity on LGBTQ and other issues.

I am beginning this travelogue from the Kiev airport. Notably, the capital of Ukraine is pronounced KEEV by Ukrainians and KI-EV by Russians. No doubt this is one of many cultural distinctions we will encounter for the next week here. We are approaching our 20th hour of travel to get to Ukraine, so I’m writing this a bit bleary-eyed.

Before we even boarded the plane, we had learned that the Ukrainian political activist and captive in Russian prison, Nadia Savchenko, was just released back to Ukraine after two years. The “Joan of Ark” of Ukraine has been a symbol of national unity and anti-Russia sentiment since her capture. This impressed upon us the seriousness with which human rights and freedom are part of the dialogue in the country we’re about to visit.

Our first travel stop was Munich, an airport apocalyptically empty and sparkling clean in the morning hours. It also seems big enough to have it’s own zip code. We found lounge chairs to sleep/read in for a couple of hours until the next flight. For this trip, I am re-reading the “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” — an innovator and diplomat who spoke and wrote about individual freedom, equality, and political autonomy his entire life. Seems fitting considering the circumstances.

After a two or so hour plane ride from Munich to Kiev, we find ourselves in a bare bones but clean airport for the second layover of our travel. The Kiev airport has a colorful piano available to the public for playing (which reminds me of the Sing for Hope pianos in NYC.) Naturally our first thought was, “if Ukraine encourages public performance, we came to the right place.” So we had our first pop-up performance right there in the airport.

Our final destination today is Lviv — one of the most beautiful cities in Eastern Europe. When we finally get in around 10 p.m. tonight, we will have a cultural and security briefing with the U.S. Embassy.

Speaking of security — what is unique about this tour for GMCW is that we are doing very little public promotion ahead of time. This is a stark contract from Cuba, for which we hired a publicist in the U.S. and were on the radio every other day leading up to the tour. Additionally, for this tour we are highlighting the name Potomac Fever more than Gay Men’s Chorus. In recent months and years there has been violence in Ukraine against LGBTQ people during public event and rallies, so this nuanced messaging is understandably for our safety.

You’ll even notice that the publishing of this blog, including any concert location info, won’t occur until after events have taken place. In a way, it harkens back to the early days of GMCW when we sometimes used the name Federal City Performing Arts Association in an attempt to shield supporters and singers from unnecessary questioning and harassment in the early 80s.

Returning to this approach is strange considering the post-marriage equality experience we enjoy back home. But it is important to first meet people where they are if we want to establish any kind of trust or connection. It also underscores the need for this type of diplomacy at home in places where discrimination is still alive and well. That’s why GMCW will be traveling to North Carolina this summer, as another extension of our Beyond the Beltway program.

Chase Maggiano is the executive director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. He is posting periodic posts from Ukraine on his blog ChasingTheArt that he is allowing the Washington Blade to repost.

  • Does it make sense that other performers are boycotting NC due to it’s anti-GLBT laws yet GMCW is going to perform there? It’s like people boycotting South Africa for it’s apartheid days but an African-American going to perform anyway.

    • If you think a GMCW performance is just about entertainment, you haven’t been to a GMCW concert before. The chorus going to North Carolina to add our voices to the fight against anti LGBT laws is akin to freedom fighters descending on the south to fight discriminatory laws in the 1960s.

      • I’ve been to those concerts before. They’ve been to gay pride and were at the Kennedy center honors show for Elizabeth Taylor. I’ve heard no political message beyond your groups name!

        To compare going to a concert hall in nc for a performance to freedom fighting in the streets sounds pretentious and silly. Are people paying for your concert? What makes it a fight on your part against discrimination? Are you going to sing we shall overcome?

        If other performers like Bruce Springsteen stand with us in boycott and we condemn those that won’t cancel shows like him what does it say when you’re going anyway? No solidarity with our allies!

        Further back in the sixties performers of color like Ray charles wouldn’t perform in southern states that had segregation laws!

        • As I said in response to one of your previous comments, there are many ways to fight for freedom. Like Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial, after being turned away by the DAR, we know that we are not welcome in many corners of the world and in our own country–but we sing where we are asked to, when we are able to. And when we do, we have a specific repertoire that–yes–includes empowering anthems that speak to our continued struggle and the hope of one day to be free.

          Our concerts, in situations like this, are usually in churches and at rallies, not concert halls and stadiums. We pay our own way with no promise of reimbursement, because we believe our message and our presence is that important.

          • When you have someone in San Diego, not a backwater, substitute your voices with a woman at a game and you’re taunted as you leave as reported in the press that shows a problem. Even Marian Anderson faired better.

            Have you actually made a notable impact in changing minds as a result of your performances?

          • That wasn’t our chorus, but the San Diego chorus incident just points to how much more work we have to do. And without a doubt, yes, our impact has been quite notable in not only changing minds, but hearts. Just talk with the parents of singers, who hadn’t talked with their kids for years, but finally agreed to attend a concert. Talk with the audience member in Cuba who came up to the singers afterwards to tell them he’d been waiting decades to be in a place where he could wave a rainbow flag without fear. Listen to the singers in the chorus who sat in the back of the audience and were emboldened to not only come out, but to join the group to help others do the same. Ask the singers at a MLK Day celebration, who received boos and catcalls from the hostile audience when the name of the group was announced, only to have that same group on their feet and clapping at the end of the song.

            It’s no secret that music changes lives.

  • What’s the point of this visit if you pretty much hiding who you are, also not promoting your visit, and then claiming that you promoted LGBT or that Ukraine is fine with LGBT.

    • The purpose of the trip is not to antagonize those who would do us harm. It is to empower those who are on our side to continue the fight for freedom.

      • Yet like real freedom fighters you won’t risk going to jail or personal injury. How are you empowering people exactly?

        • I think you intended to say “unlike freedom fighters.” But there are many ways to fight for freedom. Going to jail isn’t a requirement, and having a security detail doesn’t guarantee you won’t be attacked.

      • So you are afraid of Ukrainian radicals while being guarded by cops, but yet you want to empower people that actually live there to stick their neck out and possibly get killed? It’s kinda of like our US corporations that won’t do business with “anti gay bigots” here in states by have no problem making money in U.A.E where they chop heads from gay people. Looks like a publicity stunt.

        • Ah, you want to solve all of our geopolitical and human rights problems with one little tour by a small group of gay singers? We are a strong crowd, but not as powerful as you’d like. So sorry to disappoint.

        • I’m sorry we don’t live in a perfect world. All we’re trying to do is make it a little more so. The opportunity was offered for a small group of openly-gay American singers to perform in various places in Ukraine, something that has never happened before. If we wait until conditions are perfect, we will be waiting a very, very long time.

  • Please stay safe and together. Do not be too trusting. Gay Pride Parade marchers there have been attacked in the recent past. A prayer for your safety has been said.

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