After a security briefing last night, which not only covered the state of LGBTQ affairs in Ukraine but also our own personal safety, we awoke this morning to take a walking tour of Lviv with at least seven security personnel in tow. I say “at least” because we were told that we won’t see all the security that is in place for us. Violence against LGBTQ people, while technically against the law in Ukraine, is still common.
On the one hand, there’s a bit of a rock star feeling having your own security detail. On the other hand, having someone watch your every move makes you begin to watch your own actions and behaviors. Should I have worn a more masculine shade of blue? Should I avoid certain movements? Should I lower my voice (sorry tenors)? Should I say the word gay in public? Questioning this kind of thing, to many of us, is like questioning if we should breathe. And it makes us all the more aware that it is our role to use any privileges we have to help those who have fewer.
The backdrop of security was only eclipsed by the backdrop of renaissance, baroque and classicism that is preserved in the architecture of a city. With its roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Polish rule and that of the USSR, Lviv is a perplexingly western European city, lying somewhere in the visual landscape between Prague and Vienna. As the mayor of Lviv said in his address before our concert tonight, everyone leaves a bit of their heart in Lviv — and I can see why.
Now about that concert. Our first official performance was the opening of the America Days weekend festival in Lviv. Taking place at the Lviv Philharmonic, an acoustically and visually rich concert hall, this concert was a 75-minute set combining our music and stories about the LGBTQ experiences our singers have had back home. If Lviv didn’t know we were gay (and to be fair, some of them didn’t,) it became unmistakable tonight.
It was a notable concert for many reasons. To borrow a phrase from the hit musical Hamilton — it was about who was in the room where it happened. This impressive list included the mayor of Lviv, the governor of the Lviv region, most of the U.S. Embassy staff including Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, and several U.S. military personnel including Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe.
Notably, one of the Catholic bishops from the Lviv diocese was present. Even after we started, he stayed for four songs. Leaving early may seem like an insult from the U.S. perspective. True, an American rebuffing the performance of a diplomatic guest may be insulting. But for a Ukrainian, it’s a different matter. It wasn’t until the stories in between songs began to explicitly discuss same-sex marriage that the bishop decided to leave. Overall, it’s a huge sign that the people who make policy and influence opinions in Ukraine showed up publicly to our concert. As we understand it, nothing like this has ever happened. And as one Ukrainian on social media said, “the sky didn’t fall.”
After our concert, Hodges approached us and remarked of the performance, “I know courage when I see it.” Think about that. In a post “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” world, hearing the head of NATO land command in Europe tell a group of gay guys that they are courageous is pretty incredible. Maybe he knows just how much security we have while we’re here. Potomac Fever and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington family supporting us back home are, indeed, courageous.
However, I would respectfully amend what Hodges said. He made this very kind and supportive statement to us backstage, under the cloak of security, and in good company. The courage, in my mind, is also in all the people who attended the concert; all the people who are already tweeting about the concert; the people Hodges oversees to make sure we are safe all over Europe; and all the people who worked through government red tape (on the US and Ukraine side) to make the concert and tour happen.
In Washington, we are lucky. We can go to any concert, any museum, any meeting, and our lives are relatively safe (the Metrorail notwithstanding.) The people who came to our first concert tonight, and who will come visit us on the rest of the tour, are the truly courageous ones. While we can go home safely after this tour, our audiences may risk personal safety, political scandal, employment, and familial relationships if they show support in a country where 72 percent of people have a negative view on LGBTQ rights.
So to those who show up, who advocate for what is right, who use their power and influence in Ukraine and abroad to save more lives, we say to you: We know courage when we see it.
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.