Singing in the Shadow of Pulse – Dies Irae

This post is the second of a three part cycle on the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses Festival 2016. Part One is here. Part Three is here.

It’s the end of the second full day of the GALA Festival, and I’m angry.

GALA – the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses – was formed in 1983 in order to serve the rapidly-growing movement of gay and lesbian choruses which was forming at the time. There were 39 choruses at the start (approaching 200 now), and GALA’s mission was to support the growth and musicianship of these choruses and thus aid them in achieving their social mission. That mission, in GALA’s own words, is to “change our world through song.” GALA believes, as do I, that music can be a powerful catalyst for social change, and that choral singing can serve to open hearts and liberate LGBTQ people from an oppressive culture.

This means that GALA has always been political. It was impossible, in the early 80s, to be an organization dedicated to serving an LGBTQI choral movement without being political. The first lesbian and gay chorus in the US was called The Stonewall Chorale (the allusion is clear), and individual GALA choruses have frequently presented explicitly political music with the full support of GALA itself. GALA choruses have commissioned choral works which explore the HIV AIDS crisis; the assassination of Harvey Milk; homophobic bullying; marriage equality; and transgender identity, among other highly-politically-charged topics.

GALA itself used not to be protest-averse. In 1992 the Festival first came to Denver, where it is again this year. At that time each GALA Festival featured a public parade, and it just so happened that the Festival coincided with the debate over Amendment 2, a ruthlessly homophobic piece of legislation which sought to void existing anti-discrimination legislation protecting sexual minorities in Colorado, and prevent such legislation from being passed in the future. GALA Festival delegates, like any self-respecting queer would, marched through Denver carrying signs denouncing the measure – with the full support of GALA itself. Amendment 2 passed (to the shock and pain of the LGBTQ community in Colorado), but GALA had taken its stand against bigotry.

Not so this year. Just weeks before GALA Festival 2016 organizers were notified that the Western Conservative Summit (WCS) would be in Denver on some of the same days, in a convention center very close to the performing arts complex in which we would be singing. Headlining the Summit were Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, alongside a host of some of the most despicable bigots in US politics. Included were notable homophobes Phil Robertson (“We just love ’em, give ’em the good news about Jesus—whether they’re homosexuals, drunks, terrorists. We let God sort ’em out later, you see what I’m saying?”); and Carly Fiorina, long-time supporter of a Constitutional Amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage, whose recent campaign for President became ever more homophobic as her support diminished.

If that were not enough, the WCS itself made headlines in 2015 when it dis-invited the Log Cabin Republicans (an LGBT conservative group) from tabling there, citing their support of equal marriage rights as the reason, and distributed pamphlets from notorious hate group the Family Research Council to all attendees purporting to debunk “myths about homosexuality”.

These people are not our friends.

So GALA took the opportunity, just weeks after the worst atrocity visited upon LGBTQ people in decades, to mobilize its 6600 delegates in protest of their hateful homophobic and transphobic views. Or, that’s what I think GALA should have done. Instead (I feel in my least charitable moments) we cowered in our concert halls, citing security concerns as an excuse not to engage our oppressors. Except for a few concerts on the streets of the city, and chance encounters between individual singers and random Western Conservative Summit delegates, we made no effort to directly engage with the homophobia being fomented right on the doorstep of our Festival.

I understand that many GALA delegates want a break from explicit politicking and a chance to sing alongside friends and comrades in peace. I know that organizing a protest of any magnitude is difficult and carries risk – particularly in a heated political season. I’ve learned, through many years of activism, that some hear “protest” and see only rage-filled ranting and conflict, and they don’t want any part in that. But in my heart I can’t help but think that the decision not to engage explicit homophobia steps away from our concert venues is a missed opportunity to “change our world through song.”

One of the most powerful moments of the Festival was a 20th Anniversary performance of “I Am Harvey Milk”, an operatic exploration of the life of the legendary politician who was assassinated shortly after becoming the first openly gay elected official in the USA. Composed by Andrew Lippa, the piece has many highlights, but for me the final movement has always hit hardest. Using text and extrapolations from Milk’s own speeches, the finale calls on the audience to “come out” – not just in the traditional way (coming out of the closet as LGBTQI), but in a broader sense: “coming out” of the closets of fear which prevent us from being active in our community in the pursuit of justice. The soloist playing Milk (this time it’s Lippa himself) sings: “My name is Harvey Milk, and I wanna recruit you…I’m tired of the silence, so I’m speaking out…Who’s will is greater than their fear?…The hate won’t vanish on its own!” In this way the composer asks us to consider ourselves all as Harvey Milk: we, the piece insists, could live like Milk did. We are Harvey Milk – if we dare to be.

The final movement closes with the chorus simply repeating the words “Come out!” over and over again. The phrase is repeated twenty-five times, each time louder, adding more voices and more notes to the chord with each repetition, the upper pitches climbing higher and higher, the orchestra joining with more and more parts, the music growing, swelling, pulsing until the whole chorus is just blasting you with sound and you can feel it in your bones and in your soul: COME OUT!

It’s epic, and as I stand applauding in the Denver Convention Center I look around and see thousands of LGBTQI people cheering, clapping their hands raw as tears stream down their faces. This call to “come out” has released something primal in the GALA community: we know what a slow death the closet is – a rejection of self itself – and how coming out is one of our bravest and most potent political acts. In that room we are all Harvey Milk.

Yet were we Harvey Milk outside this sanctuary stadium? I fear we were not: not as much as we could have been. The conjunction of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses Festival and the Western Conservative Summit in the same city at the same time was a perfect opportunity to use our song to change the world: the very mission of GALA. Yet when we had the chance to raise our voice in protest, we chose not to: we were literally preaching to the choir.

Well, I’m tired of the silence, and I’m speaking out. My will is greater than my fear. We saw our own gunned down at Pulse. We see people of color gunned down daily on the streets by police, and now police being shot in reprisal – while politicians like the ones at Western Conservative Summit explicitly encourage race war while disparaging immigrants, the poor, and our queer community in the vilest way. They hate us and we said nothing. We are willing to sing about Harvey Milk, and cheer others singing about Harvey Milk, but when called on to act we weren’t willing to BE Harvey Milk.

The hate won’t vanish on its own. Queer culture is a culture of protest, and we need to come out. We need to sing out. We need to use our song to change the world. In a post-Pulse world, a political LGBTQ choral movement is needed more than ever.

My name is James Croft, and I’m here to recruit you.

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