This October, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus turns 40 years old. They’re celebrating in style with a weekend of festivities, from a party to the dedication of an AIDS memorial in Golden Gate Park.
Despite the hope that inspired the chorus’ inception, its beginnings were actually quite somber. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ first rehearsal was on October 30, 1978, and less than a month later on November 17, 1978, Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were shot dead by former Supervisor Dan White at City Hall. The Chorus’ founder, conductor Jon Reed Sims, had been inspired to start the group by Harvey Milk’s “Hope” speech.
The loss of Harvey Milk, a beacon of inspiration for the LGBTQ community in San Francisco and beyond, left members of the chorus grieving and shocked. Milk’s assassination brought up the devastating reality of some of the worst struggles of the gay community in the United States. This tragedy led to the first official performance of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus - on the steps of City Hall during a candlelight vigil. Their first performance become a symbol of how a community can endure even in the darkest days.
The vigil marked a world-wide LGBTQ choral phenomenon that was further cemented when the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus went on a national tour in 1981 that was credited for sparking the formation of LGBTQ choruses across the world, from Vancouver to Melbourne. Today, there are over 250 LGBTQ choruses worldwide.
In 1978, Sims also founded the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Marching Band and Twirling Corps (now called the Freedom Band). Together with the Chorus, they were the first openly gay musical groups in United States history.
In the last 40 years, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has stayed strong, providing support and education for the community, and advocating for change through music as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. In addition to releasing over 30 recorded albums, they have put on shows across the country promoting their mission to build community, inspire activism, and foster compassion. The Chorus is now a cultural institution that grows with the changing times and spreads its indomitable spirit across the world.
On average, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus makes 50 appearances a year and holds 13 ticketed events. The group famously sells out their Christmas Eve shows—a fun mix of comedy, music and drag—at the Castro Theatre year after year. While they play their fair share of show tunes from musicals like “Wicked” and “Rent,” and classics like “Imagine,” the Chorus is also known for singing activist music. At their “Bridges” concert last March, they sang the California premiere of Joel Thompson’s “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a monumental piece that honors the last words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by authority figures and inspired by Joseph Haydn’s 1787 composition “Seven Last Words of Christ.”
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus hasn’t just settled for being hometown heroes. In October of last year, to start off their 40th year, they did something unexpected: they embarked on a tour of the Deep South, stopping in the traditionally red states of Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The tour, dubbed the Lavender Pen Freedom Tour, was created in response to discriminatory rhetoric against minorities in the United States. The Chorus wanted to empower its fellow LGBTQ Americans in some of the states where that rhetoric was the harshest. The motto of the tour became “love can build a bridge,” and that is what they did. While touring across these states, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus helped create a network of LGBTQ+ groups in each state, from school Gay-Straight Alliances to choirs like theirs.
“I still choke up when I think about they brave people who chose to stay in those states and fight,” Dr. Tim Seelig, the Chorus’ current artistic director and conductor, said of the experience. “It was shocking to see that struggle firsthand, and realize that some of these people are choosing to fight when they could leave.”
A documentary about the tour, which included community outreach, interfaith services and an “indescribably powerful” march across the famous Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in addition to concerts, is scheduled for release in early 2019. The title: “Gay Choir, Deep South.”
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus hopes to hit the road again soon. The original 40th anniversary plan was an international tour, but the Lavender Pen tour took its place. It will likely take a few years before the chorus can take on an international tour, but they have plenty of plans at home, including their educational youth outreach program, Rhythm.
Dr. Seelig says that even in the Bay Area, LGBTQ exposure is needed at many elementary, middle and high schools.
“Every school we go to, we get unbelievable feedback,” Dr. Seelig said. “The program really strikes a chord with kids.”
So after 40 years of hard work, activism, and some hardship, it’s time for a little celebration.
According to Dr. Seelig, the weekend-long celebration was the result of pure serendipity.
“We started with one event, the reveal of our memorial in the National AIDS Memorial Grove, and then it snowballed,” Dr. Seelig said. “The stars aligned for us.”
The 40th birthday celebration kicks off with a concert titled “TRIBUTE: Our 40th Birthday” on Friday, October 26, 2018 at 8 p.m. at the St. Ignatius Catholic Church. This will be the chorus’ first performance at that church and they will sing in tribute to the almost 300 singers the chorus has lost to the AIDS pandemic, including a song called “When We No Longer Touch,” which was composed in 1991 as the first requiem dedicated to those lost to AIDS. It will be livestreamed on Facebook and Youtube for those who cannot attend.
It wouldn’t be a celebration of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus without a concert, but this one will be unique due to the location. St. Ignatius and the Chorus have a long, complicated history. In 1981, the chorus lost a court battle against St. Ignatius when a judge ruled that the Jesuits at the University of San Francisco could refuse to allow the chorus to sing at St. Ignatius Church. Church officials were concerned that allowing the chorus to sing at St. Ignatius would send the message that the Catholic Church approved of homosexuality. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was awarded damages from a civil suit a few months later.
On Saturday, October 27 at 11 a.m., the Chorus will give a sneak peek at a permanent memorial at the National AIDS Memorial Grove, located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park at the west entrance of the Grove, that has been in the works for 7 years. The installation will center around an eight-foot-tall chime, symbolizing the many artists lost to AIDS, both in San Francisco and in regional, national and international arts organizations. It will be the first permanent memorial honoring singers, instrumentalists, dancers, and artists lost to AIDS from local, national and international LGBTQ and other arts organizations. The memorial will be completed before December and the dedication will take place on World AIDS Day, December 1st.
When the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus set out to build this memorial, they set the 40th birthday month as their unveiling goal. It has been no small feat fundraising the $125,000 needed just for the memorial and engraving names into the memorial will cost an additional $400 per name. Names will continue to be added once a year after the dedication as money is raised. John Reed Sims, the founder of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, will be the first name added. He passed away from AIDS in 1984.
After the ceremony in the National AIDS Memorial Grove, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus will host “Fabulous at 40,” a birthday party in the Empire Ballroom at San Francisco’s Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Ruby-colored attire, to represent a traditional 40th anniversary gift, will be encouraged. There will be a San Francisco-themed menu, music, guests sharing memories and more.
The excitement and festivity of the weekend will culminate in the Sunday’s A Drag brunch on October 28 at 11 a.m. in the Starlight Room of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Guests will experience a uniquely San Francisco experience with a brunch buffet and lighthearted performances from some of San Francisco’s best drag queens and transgender performers. One of the performers, Donna Sachet, is a drag persona a former chorus member originally created as a joke at a San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus retreat years ago.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has been at the vanguard of musical culture of the Bay Area and beyond for 40 years, and there’s no sign they’ll be slowing down anytime soon. If anything, they’re just getting started.
To support the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus or learn more about their shows and volunteering, visit their website.