Wednesday, June 15, 2022

True Stories

Tell me your story and I'll tell you mine

I'm all ears, take your time, we got all night

Show me the rivers crossed, the mountains scaled

Show me who made you walk all the way here

     “Chosen Family,” by Rina Sawayama


This week Vancouver Men’s Chorus performed our first post-covid concerts at Performance Works on Granville Island. Our theme this year is “R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Celebrating Women’s Music.” VMC’s intrepid Music Selection Committee and our stable of skilled vocal arrangers curated a marvelous collection of songs, mashups, and medleys. 


An evening of gay men singing songs by and about women requires a little extra context. Our conductor Willi asked for volunteers to introduce several of the numbers with personal stories about their connection to particular songs. For example, Lenny explained how his generation made “Secret Love” a gay anthem, sharing how he grew up going to Doris Day movies with his mother and recognizing he had a crush on Rock Hudson. Basil, who immigrated to Canada as a child from Yemen speaking neither English nor French, introduced the “Empowerment Medley” with the story of aboriginal Australian singer Thelma Plum, who wrote “Better in Blak” about her experiences with people “trying to take the colour from the conversation.” And Mark closed the first act by convincing the audience – as he had convinced the Music Selection Committee – that a medley called “Great Shoes” would work. (It does, spectacularly.)

Elton & Rina singing "Chosen Family"

Rina Sawayama is a young queer singer-songwriter who was born in Japan and raised in Britain. Last year MTV News described her song “Chosen Family” as “the budding queer anthem uniting global fans.”


At one of the last rehearsals for “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” the conductor announced that no one had volunteered to introduce “Chosen Family.” Willi asked if anyone had a story to share about their connection to the song. Three of us came forward. 

Yogi’s story is about how he came from Indonesia to Vancouver at 18 knowing only two words in English. Now he’s a pillar of the arts and queer communities, and President of VMC.  

Paul's story is about how he and his husband Gerry moved to Vancouver from the U.K. and found a home with the chorus. Two years ago, Gerry died of cancer in Paul’s arms, surrounded by friends from VMC.

Here’s my story:


When I was a kid, one of my friends was teased about being adopted. I remember her telling the bully “Your parents had to take you, but my parents chose me.” 


Thirty years later, my partner and I had the opportunity to adopt a baby girl, who we named Eleanor. Next we adopted Rosalind and then Oliver from the foster system. My daughters are now 16, and my son is 13. Several years ago my ex disappeared from the picture. So I’m a single parent raising three kids alone – an amazing job that typically is seen as “women’s work.” 


During middle school, my daughter Rosalind came out to me in a text. Actually two texts. The first said “Papa, just letting you know I've been going to the Queer Student Alliance after school.” Her second text said “Don't make a big deal about it.”


Last weekend was the high school’s first Prom since Covid. My daughter Eleanor went with her cute nerdy boyfriend. She looked radiant in a sequined Marilyn Monroe dress. Rosalind looked awkward but completely herself in one of my tux jackets. Her goth girlfriend wore a black dress. Rosalind and her goth girlfriend rode to the Prom in a lesbian classmate’s car, together with my daughter's gay boi best friend – a classic skinny twink, with Timothée Chalamet hair. 


The morning after Prom, I went into Rosalind’s room and found the four of them asleep on her king-sized bed – three lesbians and a twinkie, half naked and all intertwined. It looked like the dancers’ dressing room backstage. 


Our next song is by Rina Sawayama. She’s a young queer singer-songwriter who was born in Japan and raised in Britain. You may have seen the video of her singing a duet with Elton John of this song, which is called “Chosen Family.”


I had to wait and grow up and join a gay chorus before I found my chosen family. As a PFLAG father, I’m thrilled my daughter is already finding hers. 

Paul introduced “Chosen Family” at our opening night performance on Friday, which meant he also gave his speech at the dress rehearsal in front of the guys the day before. I drew both the matinee and evening shows on Saturday. 


After the concert Friday, I stayed overnight in Vancouver at a friend’s place. On Saturday morning I walked along the seawall around Stanley Park practicing my remarks. I wanted to be able to speak directly to the audience without notes. I choked up every time I said “As a PFLAG father, I’m overjoyed my daughter is already finding her chosen family.” I tried repeating it 20 times in a monotone, without any decongestion. Fortunately it’s the last sentence.  


Back at the theatre on Saturday, there wasn’t time for me to do a run through. Backstage between acts, Willi asked if I was ready. I told him I expected to make people laugh and cry, including myself.

My speech at the matinee Saturday was a success by the most important measures:  I made it to the end without a PTSD meltdown, and numerous people said “I never knew you were so funny, but I hate you for making me cry.” 


As with the speeches, chorus members share some of the solos, including the duet in “Chosen Family.” Dan and David, a recently married couple, were scheduled to sing the duet Saturday evening. During the break between shows, Dan complimented me on my presentation at the matinee. “But could you make it a little longer?” He explained that David is one of the dancers, and needed a little more time for his costume change before singing “Chosen Family.” 

“Chosen Family” comes at the end of the second act, right before the finale. So I had time to ponder. Where could I add a couple of extra jokes? Did I have anything else I wanted to say? 


I was jealous of Paul’s remarks because he drew an elegant parallel between “chosen” and “biological” families. I already had covered “chosen” and “adoptive.” Wouldn’t it be even cooler if I added “biological” too – like landing a triple axel? 


As I was seeking inspiration, I looked down and saw my rainbow “PFLAG LOVES YOU” wristband. I’m not just a PFLAG father, I’m a PFLAG son, too. So I decided to acknowledge my parents by telling the story of how I got my wristband. 


This turned out to be a mistake.

Performance Works is a cabaret space, which underscores the difference between matinee and evening audiences. As usual, the afternoon crowd was smaller and quieter, with a higher proportion of blue hair. In contrast, the evening show was sold out, and the raucous audience took advantage of the bar both before the show and during intermission. The vibe resembled a combined bachelorette party and tea dance. 


Public speaking with a hot crowd is always more fun for everyone, but it can be unpredictable. I didn’t expect “I’m a single parent raising three kids alone” to be a big applause line, which threw off my timing. When I reached the new story about my PFLAG wristband, I choked up. The audience was totally with me, but I could tell they were worried I wouldn’t be able to finish. So was I.  


Stand-up is like walking a tightrope – losing your balance can be perilous. As lesbian Australian comic Hannah Gadsby wrote in her recent memoir Ten Step to Nannette, when a stand-up confronts trauma, the process can also resemble therapy. The speaker’s job is to guide both herself and the audience safely through the punchlines to catharsis. 

Fortunately, with the support of my family and the chorus, I’ve made immense progress with both PTSD and social anxiety. Although my speech Saturday evening triggered more of my stammer than at the matinee, we arrived home.

Here’s a smooth version of what I was I was attempting to say when I lost my composure at the Saturday night performance. I can’t even type the words without tears in my eyes:


It’s Pride month. Last week I was at the Starbucks near the high school with my daughters. Rosalind slipped this “PFLAG LOVES YOU” wristband on me. “PFLAG” stands for “Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays.” Someone had left a bunch of wristbands at Starbucks in a rainbow-trimmed basket. 

I told Rosalind my mother probably made the basket. 


I was thirty before I came out to my parents. My mother spent the next twenty-five years tirelessly serving on the board of our local PFLAG chapter. She sewed the fifty-foot rainbow flag they carry in the Pride Parade – and made all those baskets full of PFLAG wristbands. Even before I adopted my children, I was already blessed with the best family anyone could have chosen.

I thought I wasn’t ready to tell the story behind these stories publicly yet. But after the matinee Saturday, I posted a copy of my remarks to the VMC group page on Facebook, together with a bunch of Prom pictures. When I logged back on to Facebook after the evening show, I discovered that dozens of friends had already “liked”my post. Because I was using my phone instead of the computer, I’d accidentally posted it to my own Facebook feed instead of the private VMC page. By the end of the weekend it was my most popular Facebook post of the year.


I’d already shared my speech with Eleanor, Rosalind, and her queer Prom posse when I got their permission to tell our story to the concert audiences. But now that my remarks were out there in writing, I realized I needed to make sure my daughters were cool with the final product.


When I got back to the States, I showed Eleanor and Rosalind the published text. Rosalind said “You took out the word ‘goth’ before ‘girlfriend’ – that was my favourite part.” So I put “goth” back in. Eleanor read the speech to her “cute nerdy boyfriend.” He said “I’m not nerdy! I have abs!” 


True story.

Read “For Good,” a story about how I become attached to my first dog, 

in the recent anthology True Stories Vol. IV

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