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Newsom pardons LGBTQ and Black icon Rustin, stained by ‘historic homophobia’

‘Laws have been used as legal tools of oppression’

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Bayard Rustin, Freedom Fighters, gay news, Washington Blade
Black History Month, Bayard Rustin, Freedom Fighters, gay news, Washington Blade
Bayard Rustin (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

It was a patch of blue in the dark storm stalled over the divided states of America. On Feb. 5, California Gov. Gavin Newsom parted the pall and pardoned Bayard Rustin, mentor to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. Though President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Rustin the Medal of Freedom in 2013, the gay civil rights icon still had the stain of a 1953 “morals charge” arrest in Pasadena on his lifetime of achievement.

“In California and across the country, many laws have been used as legal tools of oppression, and to stigmatize and punish LGBTQ people and communities and warn others what harm could await them for living authentically,” Newsom said in a statement. “I thank those who advocated for Bayard Rustin’s pardon, and I want to encourage others in similar situations to seek a pardon to right this egregious wrong.”

Excerpt of the pardon certificate

Rustin’s pardon launches a new clemency initiative for people who were prosecuted in California for being gay. In 1970, after the Stonewall riots and the movement for Gay Liberation, Assemblymember Willie Brown introduced the Consenting Adult Sex Bill to repeal the sodomy law and decriminalize gay sex. Five years later, with help from San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, the bill was finally passed and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on May 12, 1975. But those convicted of engaging in consensual adult sexual conduct remained on the Sex Offender Registry until 1997, when a new law established a process enabling individuals to request removal. However, the original criminal conviction remained.

Newsom’s announcement acknowledges the systemic persecution of LGBTQ people and offers legal reparation.

“In California and across the country, charges like vagrancy, loitering, and sodomy have been used to unjustly target [LGBTQ] people. Law enforcement and prosecutors specifically targeted LGBTQ individuals, communities and community spaces for criminal prosecution. Now, as a proudly LGBTQ-allied state, California is turning the page on historic wrongs,” says the press release.

“There’s a cloud hanging over him because of this unfair, discriminatory conviction, a conviction that never should have happened, a conviction that happened only because he was a gay man,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, chair of California’s legislative LGBTQ caucus said Jan. 21 at a news conference with Assemblymember Shirley Weber, chair of the state’s Legislative Black Caucus, formally asking for a pardon.

“I’m thrilled that Governor Newsom is pardoning Bayard Rustin and that he acted so quickly and decisively in response to our request. I also applaud the Governor for broadening this work to provide other criminalized LGBT people with a path to clear their records of wrongful convictions on homophobic charges. These actions are consistent with the Governor’s deep and longstanding support for the LGBT community,” Wiener said in a statement. “Generations of LGBT people – including countless gay men – were branded criminals and sex offenders simply because they had consensual sex. This was often life-ruining, and many languished on the sex offender registry for decades. The Governor’s actions today are a huge step forward in our community’s ongoing quest for full acceptance and justice.”

“On behalf of the Black Caucus, I want to thank the Governor for granting this posthumous pardon. The Arc of Justice is long, but it took nearly 70 years for Bayard Rustin to have his legacy in the Civil Rights movement uncompromised by this incident. Rustin was a great American who was both gay and black at a time when the sheer fact of being either or both could land you in jail,” said Weber. “This pardon assures his place in history and the Governor’s ongoing commitment to addressing similar convictions shows that California is finally addressing a great injustice.”

“Civil rights champion Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ For our friend Governor Newsom, that time is today. We are grateful to the governor for demonstrating our California values by pardoning civil rights hero, Bayard Rustin — a trusted aide to Dr. King — and for creating a system for other LGBTQ+ people to seek pardon from unjust convictions, said Equality California Executive Director Rick Zbur. “Today, Governor Newsom, and indeed the entire Golden State, did the right thing.”

That the pardon comes at the beginning of Black History Month is notable. On the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote on The Root: “I ask that if you teach your children one new name from the heroes of black history, please let it be Bayard Rustin.”

For decades, this great leader, often at Dr. King’s side, was denied his rightful place in history because he was openly gay,” said President Obama, presenting Rustin’s medal to his longtime partner, Walter Naegle on Aug. 8, 2013. “No medal can change that, but today, we honor Bayard Rustin’s memory by taking our place in his march towards true equality, no matter who we are or who we love.”

Born in 1912, Rustin learned about racism early on learned from his a Quaker grandmother in his West Chester, Pennsylvania hometown. She was also a member of the NAACP and intellectual civil rights leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson were house guests.

Seventeen-year-old Bayard Rustin, 1929. (Photo courtesy of the Estate of Bayard Rustin)

In high school, Rustin challenged the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws by defying the rules to sit in the segregated balcony of a movie theater — for which he was arrested, as he recalled in the documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin.

I once went into the little restaurant next to the Warner Theatre, and—can you believe it?—there was absolute consternation. That was the first occasion in which I knew West Chester had three police cars. They surrounded the place as if we were going to destroy motherhood. I purposely got arrested, and then I made an appeal that all the black people and white people who were decent-minded should give 10 cents to get me out of jail. And I got out, because they took up a collection.”

February 7, 1986 issue of the Washington Blade, featuring Peg Byron’s interview with Bayard Rustin.

Rustin knew he was gay in high school, he told Washington Blade reporter Peg Byron on Feb. 5, 1986. But he remained closeted until 1947 after an encounter with a child on a bus trip in the South:

“One of the reasons that I decided that I should no longer remain in the closet came from an experience I had as a black. One day, in 19…, way back as far as 1947, I walked into a bus in the South, all prepared to do what I had always done in the South. Take a seat in the rear.

As I was going by the second seat to go to the rear, a white child reached out for the red necktie I was wearing and pulled it. Whereupon its mother said, “Don’t touch a nigger.”

Something happened, and I said to myself, If I go and sit quietly in the back of that bus now, that child who was so innocent of race relations that it was going to play with me, will have seen so many blacks go in the back and sit down quietly that it’s going to end up saying, “They like it back there, I’ve never seen anybody protest against it.” That’s what people in the South would say.

So I said, I owe it to that child, not only to my own dignity, but I owe it to that child that it should be educated to know that blacks do not want to sit in the back, and therefore I should get arrested letting all these white people in the bus know that I do not accept that.

Now, it occurred to me shortly after that that it was an absolute necessity for me to declare homosexuality, because if I didn’t I was a part of the prejudice. I was aiding and abetting…

Peggy Byron: Sitting in the back, yeah…

BR: … the prejudice that was a part of the effort to destroy me. And that in the long run the only way I could be a free whole person was to face the shit.

But from my own experience I know how long it can take till you free yourself. Thirty-four years is a long time to free yourself.”

Bayard Rustin demonstrating in late 1940s Washington, D.C., to “Free Imprisoned War Objectors.” (Photo courtesy of the Estate of Bayard Rustin)

During those closeted years, he organized strikes in college, advocated to free the Scottsboro Boys, in 1936 joined the Young Communist League which fought segregation but left disillusioned when they dropped fighting Jim Crow to fight to get the US into World War II. Rustin then found two other pacifists – A. Philip Randolph, the head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and A. J. Muste, leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), who both became mentors.

By now Rustin was on FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s radar. Muste hired him to handle race relations. In 1941, the three pacifist socialists proposed a march on Washinton to protest segregation in the military and employment. After a meeting with President Roosevelt in the White House, FDR issued Executive Order 8802 (the Fair Employment Act) banning discrimination in defense industries and federal agencies. As an act of good faith in response, Randolph cancelled the march over Rustin’s objections. The military was finally desegregated in 1948 by President Truman, meaning black Americans fought racism and the Nazis and fascism, only to come home to Jim Crow.

Meanwhile, Rustin came to California to try to help Japanese Americans who were losing their property and their rights as the federal government imprisoned them in internment camps. He also foreshadowed the Freedom Rides by trying to desegregate interstate bus travel in 1942, for which he was arrested outside Nashville, beaten but never charged.

By 1948, the year after he came out, Rustin was well-known enough to be invited to India for an international pacifist conference.

“Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated earlier that year, but his teachings touched Rustin in profound ways. ‘We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers,’ he wrote after returning to the States. ‘The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places so wheels don’t turn,’” Prof. Gates writes.

The incident for which Rustin was pardoned happened in 1953. By now a respected organizer, Rustin traveled around the country giving speeches. After a speech one January night in Pasadena, police officers found him having sex with two white men in a parked car. Rustin was arrested, sentenced to jail for 60 days and was forced to register as a sex offender for the “morals charge.”

The arrest severely damaged his career in a country terrified by McCarthyism. He was forced to cancel speaking engagements and resigned from his leadership position with Muste’s Fellowship for Reconciliation.

Bayard Rustin (right) and Walter Naegle, 1986. (Photo courtesy of Walter Naegle/Estate of Bayard Rustin)

He struggled to find work, resorting to manual labor as a furniture mover, Naegle said later.

“I know now that for me sex must be sublimated if I am to live with myself and in this world longer,” he wrote in a March 1953 letter.

In 1955, Rustin secretly wrote “Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence.“In 1956, he found his way back into the civil rights movement, traveling to Alabama to advise Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on how to organize his Montgomery Bus Boycott using Gandhi’s principles of non-violence. The two were introduced by Rustin’s friend Coretta Scott.

“King really had a very, very limited idea about nonviolence,” Julian Bond, who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman. “It is Bayard Rustin who really tutored him, who said, ‘This is what you have to do.’ Rustin was horrified to see these pistols in King’s home, you know, and these armed guards around King’s home, because it just went against everything he believed in about nonviolence. If it hadn’t been for Bayard Rustin, Dr. King wouldn’t have had any understanding, I don’t think, of nonviolence. And Rustin tutored him and made him into the person we know he became.”

But that arrest record and the “open secret” of his homosexuality haunted him. Rustin was forced to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference he co-founded after the powerful New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. threatened to tell the press that he and King were lovers.

Gay historian, John D’Emilio author of “Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin,” told Amy Goodman:

Bayard himself was very aware that given social attitudes towards homosexuality and gay men and lesbians, he couldn’t wear it on his sleeve. He couldn’t, you know, be out there with the rainbow flag. This was before gay liberation. So Bayard himself was perfectly happy to keep this in the background and to move out of the way, if that was going to be good for the movement.

What made him unhappy and what made him feel like he had been done wrong was when people disavowed him. And there was a point, in 1960, when Rustin and Mr. Randolph and Dr. King were part of organizing major demonstrations at the presidential conventions, Republicans and Democrats, and at that point Representative Adam Clayton Powell from Harlem didn’t like the fact that these radicals, someone like Bayard Rustin, was getting so much attention and moving into his sphere in the Democratic Party.

And he put out the word to Dr. King that if you don’t distance yourself from Bayard Rustin, I am going to claim that there is something going on between the two of you. And that scared Dr. King, and Bayard made the decision to resign from his position. But he also expected at that point that he would be defended. And when he wasn’t defended, it was—it was painful. It was very painful. And he spent a couple of years, mostly—in the early ’60s, mostly involved in the peace movement rather than in the civil rights movement because of that rupture. And it’s the March on Washington that brought him back into the center of things.”

That was around 1962,” Rustin told the Washington Blade via the special Making Gay History podcast. “And, naturally, I took the position that if people feel that I am a danger to some important movement, I would leave. But the thing which distressed me was that if… if Martin had taken the strong stand then that he took a year later, in ’63, vis-à-vis Strom Thurmond, he could have overcome it and kept me. But I understand his doing it, and I hold no grief with him about having done it. I just wish that he had shown the strength in ’62 that he showed when he backed me completely in ’63. But he was a year older and had another year’s experience.”

A. Philip Randolph brought Rustin back into the fold to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom but NAACP’s Roy Wilkins saw Rustin as a liability and forced him to take a deputy position.

But then FBI Director J. Edger Hoover slipped Rustin’s arrest record to rabidly anti-gay South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond – who had secretly fathered a child with his African-America maid. Three weeks before the march, Thurmond went public, trying to destroy the unprecedented event by denouncing Rustin as a gay communist and placing his arrest record in the congressional record.

Rustin told the Washington Blade:

“Now this became very clear to me in 1963, when I was organizing the March on Washington. And Strom Thurmond stood up in the Senate of the United States and for three-quarters of an hour, attacked me as a draft dodger, which was untrue, because I was a conscientious objector and well known as being a Quaker opposed to all violence. He attacked me as a former member of the Young Communist League, which was true. I had been. He attacked me as a homosexual. Which of course I was.

PB: You were the original commie-pinko-fag of the day, I suppose.”

 BR: Yeah, exactly. Now, there were 10 leaders of that march. One of the most important Jews, the most important Catholic, the most important Protestant, Walter Reuther representing the trade union movement, and six black civil rights leaders.

When he attacked me, I had absolutely no basic apprehension and for a very good reason, because I had spent a great deal of my life defending prejudice against Catholics, against trade unions, against Jews, against blacks, against Protestants, and therefore I inwardly knew that those leaders, knowing of my history, had to come to my defense. And they did. And the important thing was that they voted that only one person should speak, and that was the founder of the march, Mr. A. Philip Randolph.”

For what spans five pages in the Congressional Record, Thurmond not only submitted the arrest record but the news articles about the arrest and conviction.

“The article states that he was convicted in 1953 in Pasadena, California, of a morals charge. The words ‘morals charge’ are true. But this is a clear-cut case of toning down the charge. The conviction was sex perversion,” says Thurmond.

“The senator is not interested in me if I were a murderer, a thief, a liar or a pervert. The senator is interested in attacking me because he is interested in destroying the movement. He will not get away with this,” Rustin said.

King and the other Big Six backed Rustin up this time because the attacks came from one of the worst Southern white supremacists. But after the march, Rustin was quietly denied his role as the seventh in the Bix Six group of civil rights leaders who called for the march: A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Jim Farmer, Whitney Young when the chief organizer of the march was disinvited to the White House to celebrate with President John F. Kennedy.

And yet, according to an extensive CNN report commemorating the 50th anniversary of the march, it was Rustin who saved the march for the organizers – from a Kennedy take over.

“The Kennedys were almost morbidly afraid of this march. They understood there’d been nothing like it,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, who helped plan the march, told CNN.

“The Kennedy administration was afraid that if there was violence on the march, it would mean that the Civil Rights Act, which John F. Kennedy had just introduced, would never get passed,” said march planner Rachelle Horowitz. “When we first began planning the march, there was a concerted effort by the Kennedy administration to get it called off and to not let it take place.”

“They kept a watchful eye on the planning of the march,” said John Lewis, the 23-year-old elected to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “They stayed in touch with the (march) leadership,” which had been broadened to include four white leaders, representatives of the Protestant, Jewish and Catholic faiths, and civil rights advocate and United Auto Workers president Walter Reuther.

Reuther was recruited by the White House “to infiltrate the march and steer it away from radical rhetoric and direct action,” wrote Charles Euchner in his book “Nobody Turn Me Around,” about the historic march. “And so he did.”

Though JFK had come around to the idea of the march, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy’s office inside the Justice Department’s room 5110 “was the command center,” Jack Rosenthal, who was the department’s assistant press officer at the time, told CNN.

“There was a proposal on the table that Kennedy speak to the March on Washington,” march planner Courtland Cox told CNN. “And Bayard knew this would have been a disaster because it would’ve been taken over by (Kennedy) just because he’s president. It would’ve been Kennedy’s march.”

From CNN:

“So, Cox said Rustin and he excused themselves from that particular meeting and took a walk to the bathroom. Clearly flummoxed about the problem, Rustin took a sip from his back-pocket flask and came up with an idea on the fly.

“And Bayard got back into the meeting and he literally made this up,” Cox recalled. “He said that he heard … if the president spoke the Negroes were going to stone him.”

After that, the idea of Kennedy speaking at the march was never considered.”

None of the feared outbreaks of violence occurred.

“After the March on Washington was over, President Kennedy had invited us back down to the White House,” Lewis said. “He stood in the door of the Oval Office and he greeted each one of us. He was like a beaming, proud father. He was so pleased. So happy that everything had gone so well.”

Kennedy told King: “And you had a dream,” added Lewis.

Rustin’s role was overshadowed – as were his remarks at the march that August 28, 1963:

“We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963! We demand that we have effective civil rights legislation—no compromise, no filibuster—and that include public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC and the right to vote. What do you say? We demand the withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. What do you say?”

Rustin died of a perforated appendix on August 24, 1987, survived by Walter Naegle, his partner of 10 years.

One last thing, Julian Bond told Amy Goodman:

“I could not think of anybody else who at the time would have stepped forward, taken hold of this March on Washington, pull together all these hundreds of thousands of peoples, the buses, the trains. You know, I saw something just recently: They made 800,000 sandwiches. Imagine that. And it was all done at Bayard Rustin’s desire.

One thing I think we’re not hearing about Bayard Rustin is his sense of humor. He once said that Dr. King couldn’t bring vampires to a bloodbath. That was the kind of organizer Dr. King was not. But Bayard Rustin knew he was an organizer and was just wonderful at getting people to do things that they didn’t think they could do or didn’t know they wanted to do. He was just a great, great person….

I think those of us who were there in 1963 didn’t immediately realize how significant this was. As you said during the program, we didn’t see many people there early in the morning. The crowd grew and grew and grew. But even when they were all there, you had no idea how many there were. You know, you can’t look out at this mass of people and say, “This is 250,000 people.” You just have no idea who they are. And I think, for me, driving back to Atlanta later that day and then reading newspapers the next day in Atlanta and hearing what other people had to say about it, only then would we began to understand the significance of this thing—the largest gathering ever at a civil rights protest.

People came together to demand civil rights in America, and that was tremendously significant. But, as you say, if you compare these demands that Bayard read at the march with where we are today, you can see that clearly most of these things have not been achieved, and we still have a long, long way to go.”

While Rustin didn’t attend the White House meeting, he and A. Philip Randolph did make the cover of LIFE magazine.

“Rustin was one of the most important social justice activists in the U.S. in the 20th century,” says historian John D’Emilio.

That 1953 arrest record hung like an invisible chain around Rustin’s neck. Now he is really, finally free.

If you think you are eligible and would like to seek clemency, you can apply for a pardon and receive updates and information on the clemency initiative at www.gov.ca.gov/clemency

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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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Final season of ‘Pose’ is must-see TV that matters

Groundbreaking FX drama has left its mark

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When the COVID pandemic hit in the early months of 2020, there were certainly more pressing and essential worries for us to grapple with than how it would impact the next season of a TV show. Yet it’s a testament to the power of “Pose” that many among its legion of fans were at least as concerned about the show’s disruption as they were about the possibility of running out of toilet paper.

The powerhouse FX drama — which spotlights the legends, icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground ball culture in the late 1980s — had already made history. Not only did it feature the largest cast of transgender actors in regular roles, it boasted the largest recurring cast of LGBTQ actors ever included in a scripted series. In its first two seasons, the show racked up accolades and honors (including a Primetime Emmy for Billy Porter as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series) while breaking new ground for the inclusion and representation of queer people — and especially transgender people of color — in television, both in front of the camera, and behind it. With the end of its second season in August 2019, fans were hungry for a third — but thanks to COVID, its future was suddenly in question.

So, when word came that the show’s third season would have its debut on May 2, it was the best news since finding out the vaccines were finally going to start rolling out. But it was bittersweet: Along with confirmation of the series’ imminent return came the sad revelation that the new season would also be the last. “Pose” would be coming to an end with a final, seven-episode arc.

As any viewer of show can attest, there were a lot of threads left hanging when last we saw its characters. That means there’s a lot of ground to cover in these last chapters in order to give everyone — characters and audience alike — the closure they deserve.

The show’s official synopsis goes like this: It’s now 1994 and ballroom feels like a distant memory for Blanca, who struggles to balance being a mother with being a present partner to her new love, as well as her latest role as a nurse’s aide. Meanwhile, as AIDS becomes the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44, Pray Tell contends with unexpected health burdens. Meanwhile, a vicious new upstart house is emerging in the ballroom world, and the members of the House of Evangelista are forced to contend their legacy.

Obviously, there are a lot of details left hidden in that broad overview, and fans are undoubtedly full of questions about what they can expect to see.

Fortunately, the bulk of the show’s main cast convened on Zoom last week (along with show co-creator and Executive Producer Steven Canals and Executive Producer Janet Mock) for a press conference to discuss their “Pose” experience, and while they didn’t exactly give away any spoilers, they definitely dropped some tantalizing hints about what’s in store for audiences in the farewell season.

In truth, most of the discussion was dominated by reminiscences and expressions of mutual appreciation, sure signs that the feeling of family we see onscreen is something that has taken hold off screen, as well. But in between the affectionate banter, the cast and creatives addressed several questions that might be most on viewers’ minds.

Perhaps the most pressing of these — why, after only three seasons, is the critic-and-audience-acclaimed show calling it quits? — was taken on by Canals, who explained:

“I always knew what the beginning and what the end of the narrative would be. And when Ryan Murphy and I first met in September of 2016, we felt really strongly that that particular narrative made sense. And so, while we certainly could have continued to create narrative around these characters and in this world, and we certainly had a conversation in the writers’ room about it … I think we all agreed that it just made sense for us to ‘land the plane,’ if you will, comfortably — as opposed to continuing to give an audience story that just simply didn’t have any real core intention or a real thrust towards specificity.”

Also of interest was the obvious subject of how the parallels between the current pandemic and the AIDS crisis that looms over the show’s narrative might be reflected in the new episodes. While he didn’t hint at any direct connections in “Pose,” Porter used the subject to underscore a theme that has always been one of the show’s most important elements:

“I think the parallels are quite profound. I know that as a Black gay man who lived through the AIDS crisis, I have been dealing with a lot of PTSD during this COVID time. It’s very reminiscent of what it was like then. The best news about that is that I survived. We got through it, and there is another side to it. We can get to the other side.

“I feel like that’s what ‘Pose’ really accomplishes this season, reminding the public that it’s when we come together and when we lead with love [that] we get to the other side.”

Mock elaborated on the theme of resilience by discussing the importance of showing the strength of House mothers like Blanca and Electra (Dominique Jackson), who hold together — and lift up — their entire community:

“It’s that matriarchal power and lineage that I think the ballroom is, and what trans women are to one another, that then feeds everyone else and enables them to shine and have all the things that they want in the world. For me, it is [about] that celebration […] of Black trans women — that they’ve created this space, that they brought everyone else in with them, and that, at the end of the day, they are often the ones most often forgotten.

“I think with this season, I want everyone across the industry, the audience, to realize that. I think it’s essential, and it’s important.”

Mock also talked about the way “Pose” focuses on the small, day-to-day lives of its characters as much as it does the larger-than-life splendor of the ballroom culture in which they participate:

“We wanted to ensure that we show the everyday, mundane moments, as well as the great, grand celebrations. The ballroom is are presentation of what it means to congregate and share testimony and to love on each other, and our show is a celebration of the everyday intimacies. So, for us, while we were plotting these big, grand moments […] we wanted to bring in traditions — weddings, matrimony, all this stuff — that our characters get to engage in. We wanted to be a part of the tradition of that, and all the moments that a family shares together. We wanted to make sure that all of those things were celebrated in this.”

When discussion turned to the unprecedented level of support and collaborative inclusion with which the show’s queer cast were bestowed by Ryan Murphy and the rest of the creative staff — from the presence of trans women like Mock and Co-producer Our Lady J in the writers’ room to the extensive reliance on the insights and talents of real-life members of the ballroom community — Jackson was quick to add that besides giving the show its ferocious authenticity, it gave her an increased recognition of her own worth:

“I will never, ever, ever walk into a space thinking that I need to impress them […] I will never walk into a space being fearful of my identity stopping me from anything. Because of this journey, when I walk into spaces now, my identity is not because I’m an abomination. My identity is a plus. My identity is my value. So, when I walk into spaces now,they need to impress me. You can be the biggest Hollywood director, producer, whatever, but you’re not going to take my story or relay stories that are reflective of my life or my existence and make them into anything you want, because of ‘Pose,’ because of Ryan, because of Steven, because of Janet and Brad [co-creator/executive producer Falchuk), because of Our Lady J, because of my cast members.

“I will never walk into spaces or live a life or an existence thinking that I need to impress anyone.”

Porter concurred, adding:

“There was never, ever a space in my brain to dream what‘Pose’ is, what Pray Tell is. I spent the first 25-plusyears of my career trying to fit into a masculinity construct that society placed on us so I could eat.‘Pose,’ and Pray Tell in particular, really taught me to dream the impossible […] the idea that the little, Black church sissy from Pittsburgh is now in a position of power in Hollywood in a way that never existed before. You can damn sure believe that I will be wielding that power and there will be a difference and a change in how things go from here on out.”

If the cast members themselves have found themselves feeling more empowered thanks to “Pose,” so too have the millions of LGBTQ people — and allies — who have tuned into it since its premiere in 2018. The show is one of those rare entries into the cultural lexicon that simply allows its queer and trans people to live authentic lives, giving long-withheld representation to countless viewers who were able to see themselves reflected back from the screen for perhaps the very first time. It’s that powerful sense of validation provided by “Pose” that keeps it standing tall in an entertainment market now providing so much LGBTQ inclusion that it’s becoming dangerously easy to take it for granted.

Whatever moments of heartbreak, joy, and celebration “Pose” brings us as it plays out its final act — and there are sure to be many — we can all be sure it will leave us with a message expressed through an oft-heard line of dialogue that Mock says she found herself writing “over and over again” during the series’ run:

“You are everything, and you deserve everything this world has to offer.” It’s that nurturing sentiment the “Pose” has been instilling in us from the beginning, like a mother to us all.

And that’s why so many of us can’t wait until the first two episodes of its final season air at 10 p.m. (both Eastern and Pacific), Sunday, May 2, on FX.

The final season of “Pose” will begin to air on FX on Sunday, May 2, at 10 p.m. ET. (Photos courtesy of FX)

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