Singing in the Shadow of Pulse – Dona Nobis Pacem

Singing in the Shadow of Pulse – Dona Nobis Pacem September 14, 2016

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

It’s two days after GALA. The Festival is over, but my journey is not. Four years ago, after my first visit to the GALA Festival, I accompanied the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) on a trip to Laramie, WY, where they performed for the Matthew Shephard Foundation. It was a profound experience, and I’ve hung around after this year’s festival in the hope that another outreach concert is planned. Luckily for me, it is, and now I’m on a bus to Colorado Springs, where the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the Denver Gay Men’s Chorus (DGMC), and Out Loud: The Colorado Springs Men’s Chorus, will become the first openly gay choruses to sing in the Cadet Chapel of the United States Air Force Academy, before performing in a local church.

Colorado Springs is gay hate central. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the city hosts three bona fide anti-LGBTQ hate groups, and Focus on the Family (a notorious anti-LGBTQ organization) is headquartered there. The US Air Force Academy itself is not without its own struggles with homophobia: it hit the news in 2013 when it was revealed that the Academy had hired Dr. Mike Rosebush, an advocate of the discredited practice of “conversion therapy” (trying to turn gay people straight), to work in their “Center of Character and Leadership Development.” Rosebush’s book offers “groundbreaking methods that helped his clients achieve sexual purity, peace and heterosexual confidence” – in other words, he believes homosexuality is a condition to be “cured.” The resulting controversy caused one closeted gay cadet to write that, in the Air Force, “If I and the many other cadets I know who are LGB came out it would be devastating for our cadet and future Air Force careers.”

The choruses have work to do, and as we climb the trail to the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel nervous expectation fills the thin, high-altitude air. At a turn in the path the chapel comes into view: it’s extraordinary, seventeen sharp metal fins reaching 150 feet into the clear Colorado sky, its polished surface shining.

An SFGMC member takes in the US Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel
An SFGMC member takes in the US Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

As we enter my eyes are drawn to the aluminum cross hanging above the altar, tilted slightly forward as if ready to take flight. Behind it, the sky forms an awesome backdrop to the performance, wispy clouds visible through the window which forms the back wall of the sanctuary. I take a seat near the front, just behind a pew kept empty to honor prisoners of war, and prepare for the performance.

As the San Francisco chorus travels down the nave and fans out before the altar, I overhear an employee of the chapel: “It’s amazing to see them walk up there. We’re so glad you’re here!” It’s a heartwarming moment of validation for a community which for so long was prevented from openly serving in the armed forces, and which continues to face particular challenges in hyper-masculine, hyper-heterosexual environments like military academies. The chorus takes its place, then a soloist steps up to a mic and begins to sing “Light” from the musical “Next To Normal”:

“We need some light.
First of all,
We need some light.”

And, as he sings, there is light: from the thin, angular windows in the sharp creases of this metal temple streams light of every color, a rainbow benediction.

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sings “Light”

Soon, the full chorus joins the soloist, and not a month since the Pulse shootings, the lyrics hit me like a hammer to the heart:

“Day after day,
Wishing all our cares away.
Trying to fight the things we feel,
But some hurts never heal.
Some ghosts are never gone,

But we go on.

We still go on.

And you find some way to survive.
And you find out you don’t have

To be happy at all,
To be happy you’re alive.

Day after day,
Give me clouds, and rain, and grey.
Give me pain if that’s what’s real—
It’s the price we pay to feel.

The price of love is loss…
But still we pay…

We love anyway…”

I think of the lovers in that nightclub, clinging to each other, shielding each other with their bodies, refusing to give up on love even in death, and for a moment I lose the thread of the music and forget that I’m here to photograph the concert.

Dr. Timothy Seelig conducts the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus

Luckily, the exquisite musicianship of the group soon draws me back in, and I snatch some shots of Dr. Timothy Seelig, SFGMC’s maestro. Seelig is a dynamic conductor, and he holds his chorus in his hands. The singers don’t just follow him: they move with him, rising as he beckons and falling as he pulls away. There is magic in this, watching a man shape soundwaves with his body, more sorcerer than apprentice. I listen as Seelig leads the chorus through a critical phrase and cuts them off, not a consonant out of place. A choral singer since childhood I understand how difficult it is to end a line of music so crisply, and the pause between this line and the next is perfectly placed.

Suddenly, an announcement rings out over the loudspeakers, piercing the performance with the mundane. But Seelig and the chorus hold the moment. He freezes as the announcement runs its course, the eyes of the chorus rapt upon him, the musical tension taut but holding, until the tannoy goes quiet and he continues with the next musical phrase as if the intrusion never occurred. The spell is unbroken, and the audience explodes into applause in recognition of the talent on display. It’s a bravura performance, and when the chorus ends its set the audience rises to its feet. The gay choruses of Denver, Colorado Springs, and San Francisco have made history today, filling a historically straight space with queer music.

As we leave the campus, walking briskly to the buses waiting to take us onto the final performance venue of the trip, we pass a small group of Air Force officers who see the SFGMC t-shirts chorus members are sporting and ask for an impromptu song. The ever-obliging singers launch into “May The Road Rise Up To Meet You,” their voices competing with winds rushing down from nearby mountains. When they’re done the service people shake the hands of each of the singers in turn, thanking them for their presence, and as the sun shines warm upon my face, it feels like we truly have been blessed.

Our final destination is First United Methodist Church of Colorado Springs, but we need to make a little pit stop on the way. When the buses pull into the parking lot I’m confused: surely there’s no concert planned here? No, not a concert: a protest. We swiftly disembark and run down to the large sign facing the main road blaring in metal letters the words “Focus on the Family.” Chorus members surround the sign for a quick photo, then Seelig leads them in a jaunty rendition of “If You Were Gay” from Avenue Q:

“We Love You, Focus on the Family!”

“If we were gay, that’d be okay
I mean ’cause, hey
I’d like you anyway
Because you see if it were me
I would feel free to say that I was gay
(But I’m not gay)”

I stand in the road filming the moment on my phone, blocking the traffic for a couple of minutes while the chorus makes its point. It’s a charming piece of political theatre in a long tradition of queer activism: sassy, funny, campy, and just a little bitchy. I love it. We literally run back to the buses as a perturbed-looking Focus on the Family staffer trundles after us in a golf cart.

Now, onto First United Methodist, and the end of my journey. In comparison with the Cadet Chapel, the space is not as grand: few churches can match that marvel. But the audience is large, warm, and hungry for the music and the message of love these three choruses bring with them. Halfway through the show they have an opportunity to donate to the Pulse Victims Fund and the Citizens Project (a local grassroots organization dedicated to defending and promoting equality, religious freedom, and respect for diversity). Seelig describes himself as “a recovering Southern Baptist Minister” as he asks the audience to dig deep for the collection. It’s a good line, and appropriate: there is something almost religious about this performance. In addition to the shadow cast by Pulse (a shadow given form and flesh by a heartfelt appeal from a member of the Orlando Chorus who has also tagged along for the trip), this concert lands just a day after the shootings of police officers in Dallas. Dr. Seelig is from Dallas, and he brings his sadness and defiance to the podium tonight.

It seems impossible that something as simple as a song could bear the weight of such atrocities. Music can seem such a fragile thing – ephemeral, flimsy, and banal, pleasant background noise in an elevator or something to wait to on the phone. But there is something about the human voice in concert, something about those strands of human sound woven together: song can express things simply speaking cannot. The violence may be unspeakable, but perhaps it is not unsingable, and as the choruses perform I feel for the first time since Pulse that our community is strong enough – that I am strong enough – to meet the challenge it represents. The concert raises $7,000.

During the final number – once again the last movement of “I Am Harvey Milk” – I raise the camera to my face and try to take a picture, but the image is blurry. Confused, I turn it around to examine the lens. It’s only when my tears splash onto the casing that I realize I am crying. I have cried many times since Pulse, but they were tears of anger and frustration, tears squeezed out through furious ducts. These tears are different, fat, rolling things which flow generously, like a leaf which has collected too much water and finally tips. This time, as the combined choruses of San Francisco and Denver sing “Come Out!”, it feels real: less a staged performance and more an urgent demand. Here, in a heartland of homophobia, these GALA Choruses are doing what they were made to do: changing the world through song.

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