As it prepares to enter its 30th season, the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus is finding out that its reach is more than just the range of its harmony.
Founded in 1981, the chorus has grown from a clutch of gay men singing to become a second family for its members, a place of common ground between the straight and gay community as well as inspiration and support to other cities wishing to follow the chorus’ lead.
While the chorus has sung across the country, visited several international venues and performs with stars like its upcoming show with Jennifer Holliday, it had never performed in Georgia outside metro Atlanta until this year, and the reaction surprised the men.
“For many, many years we’ve been told by these small cities that this is something that we need to hear, and the response that we got was just incredible, sold out shows, standing ovations,” Executive Director Keith Fenton says.
“The Road Leads Back: Georgia on Our Minds” took the chorus to Macon, Savannah, Augusta and Athens, former homes to many of the members but places where they had never preformed together before.
Lucas Beno joined the chorus in 1998 and after a brief stay in Cobb County refuses to live outside of the Perimeter. The reaction singing in the smaller cities this year stunned him.
Living in Atlanta, it’s easy to feel that “being gay isn’t a big deal, walking down the street holding your partner’s hand isn’t a big deal,” Beno says. But visiting the other cities, “They were so appreciative, and were so glad we were there.”
Fenton says the chorus is in contact with groups in Birmingham and other smaller cities that want to start their own gay choruses.
Finding common ground
The Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus was the first gay organization to have a float in Atlanta’s 4th of July parade, and many of their performances have been in front of straight crowds. Dennis Nance joined shortly after its first season, and said while the chorus has never shied away from having “Gay” in its name, not everyone has been so accommodating.
“Many, many years ago we did a very small performance at the South Dekalb Mall,” he recalls with a laugh, “and the lady announced us as the Atlanta Happy Men’s Chorus.”
Members say one reason the chorus has found success is because of the universality of its music. When asked for some of his favorite memories, board member Ron Chenoweth lists singing two of the chorus’ long time standards: “Ave Marie” and the “Irish Carol.”
“We sung the ‘Ave Marie’ and the ‘Irish Carol’ every years for years, and when you think of singing those songs in that context it just gets to me every time,” Chenoweth says.
Like the “Ave Maria” much of choral music is Christian in nature, something the chorus has never shied away from, even through ongoing conflicts between gay men and mainline Christian churches.
“I can sing a song with religious lyrics even if I don’t agree with the principle meaning behind them,” Nance says. “A song can mean something to me regardless of what it may have been intended to be or what it means to others.”
One of the chorus’ most popular events has been its Christmas Concerts at The Cathedral of St. Phillip. It will celebrate Christmas again this year Dec. 10 -11 with the Atlanta Young Singers of Callanwolde.
For many members, the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus is about more than singing.
“I moved here for work and I needed to meet people,” Beno remembers. “I was living in Cobb County and I didn’t know if there were any gay people anywhere. When I first joined [the chorus] my parents didn’t know I was gay, and they didn’t respond well when I told them… then three days later they came to the concert and discovered, wow, we’re not all weirdos, and since then they’ve done a complete 180 and are completely supportive of me and my partner.”
Members tend to come and go from the chorus, often leaving for a sabbatical only to come back as season or two later.
“You start getting busy and so you take a break and then you miss the people and you want to come back,” Chenoweth says. He took a break several years ago and now serves on the board.
Singing in the chorus can be a rigorous undertaking. Since its beginning the chorus has required auditions and has been pushing its limits musically. Chorus members are required to memorize their music, attend sectional and full chorus rehearsals as well as the performance dates and a yearly retreat. The close work and long hours has formed a bond among members.
Tom Sands is a Realtor and 16-year member of the chorus and considers his fellow singers to be his brothers.
“I can say categorically without a doubt that they are like a second family to me, they mean more than words can say,” he pauses before continuing. “Sorry, got a little emotional there for a second…. If I had to leave Atlanta no doubt the hardest thing to leave behind would be the chorus.”
For many of the singers the weekly contact with friends and fellow singers provides a connection that can’t be replicated.
“The chorus is kind of my link to sanity because your everyday life can drive you crazy between work and everything and then I can go to a chorus rehearsal and feel better,” Nance says. “It’s just something that music can do for you.”
While there will always be an Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, the organization has committed itself to grow beyond a single gender ensemble. The chorus has founded Voices of Change, an umbrella group that will hopefully give birth to a women’s and a youth chorus.
“We had been working with the Atlanta Feminist Woman’s Chorus and when they folded we committed to build a women’s chorus,” Fenton says. “We are hoping to have a small woman’s ensemble by the end of the year that we hope to grow to the size of the men’s chorus within a year.”
The AWFC was an independent women’s chorus for 27 years, but in February 2009 it shuttered its doors and donated its assets to the AGMC with the plan of developing a woman’s group.
Fenton says the chorus is exploring working with schools to further music education, and Sands notes the chorus is considering moving beyond a specifically labeled chorus.
“It wouldn’t have to be just a GLBT youth chorus, or just a lesbian chorus, but just a chorus,” he says.
One thing that will never change though is the name of the flagship chorus, says Fenton.
“We don’t hide our name, we’re very proud of who we are and what we stand for,” Sands says. “We’re the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus, not the Atlanta Men’s Chorus or some other name; we’re the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus.”
Top photo: ‘Dreamgirls’ diva Jennifer Holliday performs with the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus at Encore, an event celebrating the chorus’ 30th season. (by Laura Douglas-Brown)