Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Gays of Our Lives

Vancouver Men’s Chorus rehearses on Wednesday evenings from September to June. During the month right before our concerts in December and June, we also add rehearsals on Sunday evenings. This is the time of year where the border agents all wave me through with “Oh, you’re the choir guy.”

A week before Memorial Day in the States, Canadians celebrate Victoria Day. Rather than endure a sparsely-attended rehearsal during the long weekend, our conductor Willi canceled last Sunday's practice. Instead, the VMC Social Committee hosted a viewing party of the video from our concert last spring, “Gays of Our Lives.” Followed by the Game of Thrones finale.

As it turns out, the perfect chorus rehearsal consists of drinking wine and eating chips while watching yourself on TV.

Actually I watched everyone but me. The archive copy of “Gays of Our Lives” was videotaped on the one night I didn’t perform. I can’t remember why I missed the show, but obviously I blame my children.

Interestingly, I was nevertheless obsessed with trying to locate my face among the Second Tenors. It took at least four songs before I finally convinced myself I wasn’t there. But even during the second act, I couldn’t resist looking for myself over on the far left, just in case. 

My initial reaction as the band played the overture and a hundred men streamed onto the risers was bewilderment. It could have been any show from last 20 years. They all blur together.  

As the concert continued, I realized the music itself is still buried in my subconscious. Everything else just seemed vaguely familiar. Indeed, I’ve already moved on – this June our concert is all about the 70s. Frankly they’re more than gay enough.

My second big reaction was that I didn’t remember the concert being this good. It turns out the experience is totally different from the perspective of the audience – you can hear other parts besides the Second Tenors, and the dance numbers actually make sense.  

Since I wasn't among the performers, I think I’m allowed to praise “Gays of Our Lives.” Willi Zwozdesky founded Vancouver Men’s Chorus as a young musician thirty-seven years ago, and he’s still going strong. The chorus is singing better than ever. The soloists, dancers, band, and crew were outstanding. Of course, I’m sure the show would be even better with me in it.

After VMC’s first set, the conductor explained how “Gays of Our Lives” was meant to commemorate and celebrate various days in gay lives. Willi then introduced the song “What Matters,” which was written by Randi Driscoll in honor of Matthew Shepard.

In October 1998, I was in Pittsburgh for the annual conference of LGBT activists. Everyone heard on the news that Matthew had been savagely beaten and abandoned in a field outside Laramie. We organized a candlelight vigil, and found someone in our group from Wyoming who knew Matt.

It’s hard to believe there’s so much hate in the world. And how much of that hate has been directed at people like Matthew Shepard and the men of the chorus.

Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve sung numerous pieces commissioned by gay choruses. Some of the music was fun and fabulous. But for many years, it seems like we were too busy singing about our grief and anger. There was a lot of both – “Rage and Remembrance,” “When We No Longer Touch,” “Eulogy….”

One of the songs VMC sang in “Gays of Our Lives” is from a suite called Naked Man. San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the leather-granddaddy-of-all-gay-choruses, commissioned composer Robert Seeley and poet Philip Littel to write Naked Man. The songs are based on interviews with members of SFGMC about their life experiences as gay men. 

“Dance on Your Grave” is the most powerful moment in Naked Man. SFGMC premiered the work at the deadliest point in the North American AIDS epidemic, when gay choruses regularly sang at members’ funerals. We didn't realize it at the time, but 1996 was just before new combination drug therapies radically changed the impact of HIV on our lives and deaths. “Dance On Your Grave” is a furious danse macabre, driving to its climax in a relentless waltz tempo.

It’s hard to explain to young gays what it felt like in 1980s and 1990s. The whole gay thing was already overwhelming. Then HIV/AIDS was terrifying and infuriating. Watching VMC sing “Dance on Your Grave” brought it all back.

When I was in my 20s, my favorite TV show was thirtysomething. It was well-written and filled with interesting navel-gazing individuals. In November 1989, thirtysomething aired a notorious gay episode. Two characters hooked up – Russell, an artist played by David Marshall Grant; and Peter, an advertising executive played by Peter Frechette. 

Russell and Peter are seen in bed after obviously having sex on their first date. However, the network forbade portraying anything sexual, like physical contact. Instead, the two men talk about other gay things, like coming out. Peter: “I had the obligatory Asian flautist girlfriend.” Russell: “Mine played the clarinet.”

Then one asks the other, “How many?” For gay men of a certain age, there was no need to explain the question. 

Russell and Peter both had the same answer:  “Three. One good friend, one friend, and one friend of a friend.”

Jim Palmer was my first good friend I watched die of AIDS.

I already wrote a whole blog post about Jim and the song from the concert that reminded me of him, “I Shall Miss Loving You.” As we read through the song at our first rehearsal for “Gays of Our Lives” last January, I realized the previous time I’d sung "I Shall Miss Loving You" was eighteen years before, at Jim’s memorial. The miraculous new HIV/AIDS medications came along too late to stop the disease’s progress through Jim’s body. Still, he wanted to see the new millennium. He barely made it. Jim was thirty years old.

I shall miss loving you.
I shall miss the comfort of your embrace….

I shall miss the joy of your comings,
And pain of your goings, and, 
After a time,
I shall miss loving you.

On Sunday night as I watched the video of VMC singing “I Shall Miss Loving You,” I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably in the dark. 

Seeing Vancouver Men’s Chorus sing about the Gays of Our Lives was a profoundly moving experience. Midway through the Game of Thrones finale on Sunday, I figured out why.

Fourteen years ago this month, we were awaiting the arrival of my daughter Eleanor. I watched her being born, then walked out of the delivery room with my life completely transformed. Rosalind and Oliver joined us a few years later.

I recently read Anna Quindlen’s memoir Nanaville, which describes her “adventures in Grandparenting.” Quindlen’s eldest son is a brilliant academic and something of a perfectionist. At one point she observes, “I’m not sure I would have predicted how excellent a father he would turn out to be.” Later she asks her son what surprised him most about becoming a father. He replied “I guess it’s how much I love him in a way I’ve never loved anyone before.”

I can relate. Ever since Eleanor arrived, I’ve been such a Dad. And then such a Single Dad. Most days it’s all I have bandwidth for. But fatherhood continues to be the most amazing experience of my life – eclipsing everything else. Unfortunately, sometimes you forget what came before.

I used to have a pretty gay life. In particular, for the fifteen years before Eleanor was born, I was an LGBT activist. I worked as a gay rights lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. I represented patients with HIV who were denied housing, or jobs, or routine care, and gay men who were secretly tested for HIV without their consent. I challenged numerous hostile and discriminatory government policies. I was co-counsel in the Washington marriage equality case. I gave speeches, taught classes, and organized rallies. Along the way there were many highs and lows. It was a huge part of my life. These are the kinds of experiences we sang about in “Gays of Our Lives.” 

During the last three challenging years in Bellingham, I’ve been immensely grateful as the men of Vancouver Men’s Chorus welcomed me. Now thanks to VMC and “Gays of Our Lives” for also reminding me who I used to be.

We're back on Granville Island in June
Tickets available at

No comments:

Post a Comment