Thursday, February 6, 2020

After the Fall

Photo: Dee Pool

After my recent post “OK Boomer, I was accused once again of being too harsh on members of the Baby Boom generation. [Ed. Note: As if that were possible.]

I want to make it clear that I don’t blame the gay Baby Boomer cohort for destroying the planet and my dreams. That was their straight male Republican brothers. Some of my best friends are Boomers. For example, I sit next to some perfectly nice Baby Boomers during chorus rehearsal.

Nevertheless, as I suggested in “OK Boomer,” I have a complicated relationship with the gay Boomers. Trust me, it’s not a sexual thing. The only Boomer I ever dated was a girl. (That’s what we called women back in the 80s. At least in Utah.) 

It’s not me, it’s you. 

Michelangelo (1511)

Exactly what kind of relationship do I have to the Boomers? I figured it out when I was 
doing theatre in Utah at Palace Playhouse and the Hale Center Theatre:  I’m doomed 
to be type-cast as the Baby Boomers' nerdy gay little brother. 

Remember, however, I’m also an eldest child. I have three younger, quintessentially Generation X brothers. This whole “kid brother” relationship with the Boomers messes with my wiring.

Thomas Cole (1828)

Being born in 1964 actually makes me part of a power cohort of Gen X icons:  Michelle Obama, Laura Linney, Janeane Garofalo, Courtney Love, Lisa Simpson, Keanu Reeves, Matt Dillon, Jeff Bezos, Rob Lowe, Joss Whedon, Lenny Kravitz, Stephen Colbert, and my fellow Utah Mormon L’Wren Scott. Plus sardonic gay writers Dan Savage, David Rackoff, and Bret Easton Ellis.

Maybe we didn’t have the same shot at paradise as the Baby Boomers. But we got a great view.

Salt Lake Temple Garden Room (1892)

This month I read in the college alumni magazine that my first English professor died. Karen Lynn Davidson was also the director of BYU’s Honor’s Program. She was a quietly feminist role model in a patriarchal desert. I still rely on the literary tools she taught me in her introductory criticism seminar. And I can still recite from memory much of the poetry we studied. Like this sonnet by Robert Frost:

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words....

Never again would birds’ song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came. 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that singing in a choir is good for your health. Especially for gay men. Not only do we desperately need a welcoming community after escaping from our families of origin, but everyone also knows we’re musically inclined. 

In Fall 1978, several gay men in San Francisco posted flyers around the Castro inviting folks to join in organizing a chorus. In response, one hundred men showed up at a middle school gym on the night before Halloween. They enjoyed fellowship and sang songs including “If They Could See Me Now” and “Stouthearted Men.” On the day of their fourth rehearsal, openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus made its public debut that night when they sang at the spontaneous candlelight vigil at City Hall. [Ed. Note: This paragraph foreshadows and encapsulates four subsequent decades of LGBT choral history.]

In 1981, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus went on an eye-opening national tour. Seeing SFGMC perform inspired the formation of gay choruses in numerous cities, including Chicago, Seattle, and Vancouver. 

Windy City Gay Chorus, GALA Festival 1996

In 1995, I moved from Seattle to Chicago to take a job as Director of the ACLU’s AIDS & Civil Liberties/LGBT Rights Project. I immediately found a welcoming community by joining then-fourteen-year old Windy City Gay Chorus.

I was part of the choir’s second generation. Quite literally – the organization had just acrimoniously parted ways with its founding artistic director, so I began singing with WCGC the same year its young new conductor took the baton. 

During my five years with WCGC, we traveled to Tampa, San Jose, Indianapolis, and Wisconsin. We regularly sang at memorials services for each other. However, with the arrival of protease inhibitors and combination therapy, AIDS became a longterm diagnosis for many patients. HIV began to fade from view.

Seattle Men's Chorus singing Happy Birthday”
 to Debbie Reynolds on her 77th birthday (2009)

Although I’d already been an audience member and supporter of Seattle Men’s Chorus for over a decade, I didn’t begin singing with SMC until I returned from Chicago in 2000. 

By then, the Chorus was both a beloved community institution and a well-oiled arts machine. We regularly sold out Benaroya Hall and the opera house. We sang with artists like Kristin Chenoweth, Debbie Reynolds, Tituss Burgess, and Frederica Von Stade. We performed in Montreal, Berlin, and Yellowstone National Park. 

While I was in Seattle Men’s Chorus, we regularly wore red ribbons, and we displayed the SMC AIDS memorial quilt in the lobby. Occasionally the chorus sang at memorial services, or reminded the audience and each other that HIV was still here. But what I remember instead from those years is the wide variety of other issues that raised our voices:  queer youth, marriage equality, mental health, sexism, bullying, anti-discrimination protections, trans rights, and the worth of all families.

Vancouver Men’s Chorus (early 1980s)

This is an early photo of Vancouver Men’s Chorus. Or, as we call that bygone disco era, the “Vancouver Mustache Chorus.”

The year I moved to Bellingham, Dennis Coleman finally retired after conducting Seattle Men’s Chorus since 1981. Dennis’ departure made VMC founder Willi Zwozdesky the longest serving conductor in the gay choral movement. When I joined VMC, I told Willi he had to stick around for another fifteen years to keep me company, just like Dennis had. Eleven more years to go.

Like its Seattle counterpart, Vancouver Men’s Chorus combines a vibrant gay community with a successful arts organization. An increasingly diverse array of gay men fills the risers, including a bevy of young gay boys who marvel at their elders’ stories. We are all witnesses and survivors.

VMC recently learned of the deaths of two veteran members of the chorus. In contrast with the plague era, we gather to remember our brothers’ lives with joy and sadness, not terror and rage. 

Vancouver Men's Chorus (2018)

Like the Baby Boomers, my generation of gay men remembers a world where HIV was an automatic death sentence. Unlike the Boomers, my generation came out into a world where we knew AIDS was already waiting to kill us.

I’ve never been jealous of the Boomers for their prelapsarian paradise of free love and sexual liberation. I already know what hedonism looks like. Instead, I wonder what it would have been like to show up for rehearsal with a newly-organized San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, or Windy City Gay Chorus, or Seattle Men’s Chorus, or Vancouver Men’s Chorus – to build a gay community with no plague on the horizon. I wish I could remember singing together before all those memorial services for ravaged young gay men. 

That’s the real reason I envy my gay Baby Boomer brothers: I never got to grow an innocent gay mustache.

Previously in “AIDS is Not a Picnic”:  “Set Theory

Next:  “Avoidant

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