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‘Boys Don’t Cry’ at 20: rethinking trans actors

Cis actress Hilary Swank won the Oscar playing a trans man but would it happen today?

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Boys Don't Cry, gay news, Washington Blade, transgender actors, transgender characters
Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her work in the 1999 movie ‘Boys Don’t Cry.’ (Photo by Bill Matlock; courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures via Blade archives) 

It’s been 20 years ago this month since the release of “Boys Don’t Cry,” the Fox Searchlight movie that depicted the true story of Brandon Teena, a trans man played by Hilary Swank, who adopts a male identity in Nebraska but is murdered in a hate crime.

Directed by Kimberly Peirce, whose interest was piqued by a 1994 Village Voice article about Teena, the film was made for $2 million and made $20 million at the box office. It premiered Oct. 8, 1999 at the New York Film Festival and went into wider release later in the month. 

Swank won a bounty of awards for the role including prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Chicago Film Critics, the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Independent Spirit Award, the Golden Globe and the Oscar. It was both widely praised in reviews at the time and holds an 88 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. 

It’s unlikely, though, that Swank would get cast in the role were it made today. With trans actresses Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Hailie Sahar and Angelica Ross having been cast on the Ryan Murphy FX drama “Pose,” and Scarlett Johansson all but forced to withdraw last year from her planned movie “Rub & Tug” (she was to play a trans character based on Dante Gill, who ran massage parlors in the ‘70s and ‘80s that were brothel fronts) after a backlash ensued, many say it’s a new day for trans actors. Of Johansson, trans actress Trace Lysette (Shea on “Transparent”) wrote on Twitter, “Not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived.”

Cisgender backlash

Cis, straight actor Jared Leto won an Oscar for playing trans in the 2013 movie ‘Dallas Buyers Club.’ (Photo courtesy Focus Features via Blade archives)

Elle Fanning drew ire the year before for being cast in “3 Generations” as Ray, a female-to-male trans teen. A groundswell had been building with actors like Matt Bomer in “Anything” (2017), Eddie Redmayne in “The Danish Girl” (2015) and Jared Leto in “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013) drawing muted but present backlash. 

Conversely, on TV, trans actress Candis Cayne earned the distinction of being the first trans actress to play a recurring trans character on a primetime show when she played Carmelita on ABC’s short-lived “Dirty Sexy Money” (2007-2009). Trans actress Nicole Maines plays the first trans superhero as Dreamer/NiaNal on The CW’s “Supergirl.” In its latest report, GLAAD says there are 26 trans characters currently on TV, vs. 17 in its previous report. 

Leto ended up winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role. Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar for his and back in 2005, Felicity Huffman was nominated for playing trans in “Transamerica.” A trend was clearly at play — playing trans is Oscar catnip for cisgender actors. 

That’s a problem, working trans actors today say.

“The Academy seems to see it as some heroic transformation, but is it any more a feat of acting than what, say, Daniel Day-Lewis did as Lincoln, or any number of great performances you could name,” says Samy Nour Younes, a trans male stage and screen actor in New York. “Beyond the fact that they’re playing another gender identity, the roles are usually not that good. If you watch ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ ‘Transamerica’ or ‘Dallas Buyers Club,’ which is the worst among them, they’re not particularly well written characters period, not because they assumed a marginalized identity, but we think there’s something inherently taboo or exotic, but in a stigmatized kind of way, about it. Like, ‘Oh, you’re so brave, you deserve an Oscar,’ when it actually wasn’t that great.”

Younes says “Transparent,” the hit 2014-2019 (it just wrapped with a musical finale on Amazon Prime Video Sept. 27) show on which he guested twice in its fourth season, was a game changer just before “Pose” hit big. Although cis actor Jeffrey Tambor played Maura, a retired college professor who comes out as trans, creator Jill Soloway enacted a “transfirmative action program” for the show (cast and crew) where trans applicants were hired in preference to cis applicants. Tambor (“The Larry Sanders Show,” “Arrested Development”) left the show in late 2017 amid sexual misconduct allegations. 

“Just letting trans people in the room — directors, writers, consultants — makes a huge difference,” Younes says. “That’s when we start getting layered and nuanced characters that tell stories beyond their transitions, with interesting people. We’re seeing less and less of a need for the Eddie Redmaynes of the world who say, ‘Oh, I did so much research,’ which I call bullshit on that because if you’d really done so much research, you’d have an understanding that we’re not just some costume you can slip on which just helps solidify the Academy’s thinking that that’s all it is and playing trans becomes a farce.” 

The casting conundrum

Tammara Billik, a veteran Hollywood casting director known for her work on “Married … with Children” and the famous coming-out episode of “Ellen” in 1997, says things have come a long way since the “Boys Don’t Cry” era.

For one, she says, TV has come into a “golden age” that has “provided a lot more opportunities for all kinds of inclusive roles.”

“Not just with ‘Pose’ and ‘Transparent,’ but now there are a number of trans actors,” Billik, a lesbian, says. “I just read something about their being a trans actor in a series regular role on ‘The Politician’ with Ben Platt. I didn’t know anything about that. It’s happening without a big splash, it’s happening on weekly shows, so I think there is tremendous progress in terms of the trans actor community, particularly on TV.”

Film, she says, is different.

“When ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ came out, gosh, I don’t think I knew a trans actor at the time. … It certainly wouldn’t have been a time when a trans actor would have been cast. Now you would be hard pressed to cast that role with a cis actor,” Billik says. “You just wouldn’t do it, right?”

She says the Johansson episode was “a giant shift.”

“In both a good and bad way,” Billik says. “It’s good for the actors and a good way to show more diversity on television but we’ve also seen a backlash against particularly trans women of color. I’m not saying ‘Pose’ is responsible for it, but people get angry when you show them the truth. We’re all wondering why so many trans women of color are being targeted for violence. Is it because we’re seeing their images more on TV, is it because people have been emboldened by Trump? I don’t know the answer to that.” 

It’s an issue GLAAD has been working on for years. Nick Adams and Alex Schmider, GLAAD’s Transgender Media Program team, work with TV networks, production companies, showrunners, script writers, casting directors and agencies as well as PR firms to help bring what it calls “fair and accurate representations for transgender people to the screen.”

They say things are improving dramatically.

“Hollywood is beginning to tell more accurate and well-rounded stories about transgender people and casting trans characters more authentically,” Schmider said in an e-mail comment to the Blade. “Not only are trans characters starting to be written with more nuance, complexity and humanity in the worlds in which they exist, but casting has also begun to evolve in positive ways.”

By their count, there’s only one cis actor still playing a trans role on TV. 

The issue is a bit more complex, casting vets say, than “casting more authentically.” Alexa L. Fogel, casting director for “Pose” and a slew of HBO shows such as “Oz,” “The Wire,” and others, says it’s “a really complicated issue” that has multiple angles.

“TV is easier in that you’re creating characters, you’re creating roles, you’re creating stars,” she says. “In the case of ‘Pose,’ none of these people were known before. A lot of them hadn’t really acted before. These roles could be crafted around these people’s strengths to some degree, not so much in the character of Elektra, with her we had to find someone who could deliver what was on the page, and that was challenging for sure, but I think the other side of it is that certainly with films, there are certainly situations in which you need to sell tickets to things. Certain things might not get made without movie stars. These are complicated questions and I don’t know that anyone knows the answers to them all yet, but it’s a conversation.”

The decision to cast trans actors on “Pose” was made prior to Fogel’s involvement with the show. She says that added a layer to the casting process, but she didn’t see it as an extra burden.

“It’s part of the joy of the job,” says Fogel, who declined to state her own sexual orientation or gender identity. “It’s about rising to the challenge. I never considered that it couldn’t be done. It was just about, you know, doing the research, getting ambassadors to the community, making sure I had enough time to meet enough people. Anytime you do something that’s less visible, it’s more time consuming.”

How deep was the talent pool?

“I wouldn’t say it was a huge talent pool, but I’ve done a lot of projects where you just have to really put your head down and do extra research and this was one of them,” she says. “It was challenging but it never felt that it was going to be impossible. It just meant we had to do extra work.”

She’s not aware if the Screen Actors Guild tracks its members’ gender identity (SAG did not respond to requests for clarification on that). Fogel says membership is easy to secure once she casts a lead role.

Could ‘Pose’ be a fluke?

Indya Moore as Angel on ‘Pose.’ Moore is one of several trans actors in the cast, which has been a game changer for trans representation on TV. (Photo by JoJo Whilden for FX)

Is “Pose” a one-off or a game changer? 

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think yeah, the ground is certainly shifting in terms of the conversation,” Fogel says. “I think it’s ultimately about the writing, about the culture and what people feel like they want to see. People want real representation and that seems to be happening across the board.” 

Billik agrees.

“‘Pose’ is telling a story that’s really spectacular and a lot of people are really responding to it, so I don’t think it will be a one-off,” she says. “I think we’ll see a whole slew of trans actors cast because of it.”

Aneesh Seth, a trans actress on the Netflix show “Jessica Jones,” says there’s still “a long way to go.”

“Athough trans folks have gained some control over the types of trans narratives out there, they can still tend to be reductive and focused on our trauma,” she said in an e-mail. “Where are the stories of trans folks winning? Falling in love? Having successful marriages and careers?”

Is this the end, at least, of the big stars taking home Oscars and nominations for all the major trans movie roles? And how realistic is it — theoretically — for a trans actor to have given the caliber of performance Swank gave in “Boys Don’t Cry”? 

Some say it’s a chicken-or-the-egg argument. If trans actors had been given time to build up their resumes on equal footing with a Swank or a Jared Leto, who knows what they might have achieved? That’s not to say they had easy rides — Swank and her mother, for a time, lived out of a car upon moving to Los Angeles as Swank pursued her dream. But inarguably, upon starting her acting career, she got cast in varied roles far faster and more regularly than any trans actor would have fared, especially in the ‘90s.

Fogel, especially, says it’s hard to account realistically for “what ifs.”

“You can’t really know the answer to that without doing the work,” she says. “I couldn’t have answered any of these questions about ‘Pose’ before I’d done it. The process is so important when it comes to casting. You really have to do the work to find the people, it’s all about the process.” 

Looking ahead

The path ahead, many agree, is bright. 

“I actually think Time magazine jumped the gun a little bit when they put Laverne Cox on the cover for ‘Orange is the New Black’ and said it was ‘The Transgender Tipping Point,’” Younes says. “Not to take anything away from her, but I think the tipping point is actually now because it’s not just one, it’s multiple roles. There’s a brand new pool of talent and we’re more open to the fact that it could come from anywhere.” 

Several folks interviewed for this piece mentioned bit parts they’d seen trans actors cast in of late. Billik just saw “Moulin Rouge” on Broadway and said one of four ladies in the opening number was trans. Younes knows a trans colleague in the ensemble in “Tina: the Tina Turner Musical,” which opens at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on Broadway next month (previews are in October). He also cites two trans actors with brief speaking parts in this summer’s “Spider Man: Far From Home.”

GLAAD reps helped cast Zoey Luna, a trans Latina actress, in “The Craft” reboot from Sony as Lourdes, one of the lead girls in the coven who happens to be trans. In 2018, not one of the 110 major studio films released included a trans character, according to GLAAD.

“So this casting and character are game changers in the film landscape,” Schmider says.

Non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon on Showtimes “Billions,” is another positive step, many agree. And Daniela Vega made history in “Fantastic Woman,” a 2017 Chilean drama that won an Oscar. Vega was the first trans presenter in the history of the Academy Awards when she presented in 2018. 

“This isn’t a trend, this isn’t just the topic du jour,” Younes says. “For decades, all we could get were playing the dead hooker on ‘Law & Order: SVU.’ … I hope it’s a continuing trend for trans people making inroads in entertainment.”

SIDEBAR: ‘Boys Don’t Cry’: problematic in retrospect?

Although it was seen as fairly groundbreaking in its day, the 1999 film “Boys Don’t Cry” hasn’t aged particularly well, some argue. 

Donna Minkowitz, the writer of the original Village Voice story that inspired the movie, apologized last year in a piece she wrote (also for the Voice) called “How I broke, and botched, the Brandon Teena Story.”

“For years, I have wanted to apologize for what I now understand, with some shame, was the article’s implicit anti-trans framing,” Minkowitz wrote. “Without spelling it out, the article cast Brandon as a lesbian who hated ‘her’ body because of prior experiences of childhood sexual abuse and rape. … At the time, I was extremely ignorant about trans people. Like many other cis queer people at the time, I didn’t know that there were gay trans men, trans lesbians, bisexual trans folks, that being trans had nothing to do with whether you were straight or gay, and that trans activism was not, as some of us feared, an effort to stave off queerness and lead ‘easier,’ more conventional heterosexual lives.”

The trope of the butch lesbian who takes things “just a little too far” and comes out as trans, is a recurring one, trans actor Samy Nour Younes says. He, too, found the film adaptation “problematic.” 

“There was a similar storyline on ‘The L Word,’ when Max Sweeney starts taking hormones and becomes this raging monster, a really awful storyline. Seeing some of those things and ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ were the first representations I saw of a trans masculine storyline and stopped me from coming out sooner.”

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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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