“Keepers of the Light”: A Musical History of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus

Music forms a critical part of every documented human culture, providing a functional and emotional form of communication. Studies show that individuals who make or listen to music experience heightened levels of oxytocin and endorphins, resulting in decreased pain perception and relief from symptoms of depression. Within groups, creating music can sync heartbeats, leading to psychological group bonding and improved feelings of self-esteem.1 In short, music accomplishes deep psychological, emotional, and physical work, and tells the kinds of stories that words alone cannot do. I’d like to tell you one of those stories today. It’s a story about singing as activism, mourning, memory, and hope, as well as one historically significant concert, specifically.

The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus was not the first gay chorus in America. That distinction belongs to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the world’s first openly gay chorus, which held its first rehearsal in 1978. After seeing the SFGMC perform at the Boston Opera House on June 16, 1981, Josef Bevins and several of his friends placed ads in the Gay Community News, inviting volunteers to form a similar chorus in Boston. The group, known as the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, began rehearsals in February 1982, and their debut took place at the Arlington Street Church as part of the Boston Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival on June 20.2

Program from Boston Gay Men’s Chorus performance. (Courtesy of the author)

For many, simply stepping on stage was, in itself, a remarkable feat. As one member recalled later, “The idea of going out on stage as an openly gay person was unheard of, at that point. It felt almost forbidden.” Indeed, there were a number of members for whom the professional and/or personal risks of being associated with a gay chorus were too great. In order to protect each member’s safety, the organization’s first director, Lee Ridgeway, permitted the use of pseudonyms in concert programs, and allowed members to step away before publicity photos were taken.3 For many others, however, performing with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus was liberatory. According to another founding member, “Certainly, it was intimidating to be up there [on stage], as gay men singing out in public, in Boston, for the first time… that was the way I came out. So it was… a very radical thing for me to do personally.”

On February 16, 1983, the BGMC celebrated its first anniversary with a sheet cake at Fritz’s, a gay sports bar in Boston’s South End.4 It had taken some time for the chorus to find a sure financial, social, and artistic footing; as the LGBT paper Bay Windows noted, “It seems that gay choruses all over the country hit the same evolutionary snag as they decide whether to be primarily gay or primarily musical… the BGMC seems undecided.”5 However, as the influence of anti-gay conservative and religious groups gained traction across the country and AIDS continued to affect the LGBT community, many gay and lesbian choruses recognized that performing as an openly gay chorus was a critically important political and artistic statement, and that the two could not be separated. Through music, these groups were in a unique position to break down stereotypes, overcome prejudice, and form bonds of empathy and support. Through music, as well, they were able to provide comfort, strength, and support to their members during some of the most difficult of days.

Members of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus present a check to the AIDS Action Committee. (Courtesy Northeastern University Library)

At the time of the BGMC’s formation, there were approximately 100 people who had been diagnosed with AIDS in Massachusetts.6 That number grew to almost 2,000 by 1988. Joseph Molloy was the first member of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus to pass away as a result of AIDS in 1987. When he became too ill to sing, members of the chorus remained at his bedside around the clock. The chorus also performed at his service at the Grace Congregational Unitarian Universalist Church in Framingham, but were not identified in the memorial program out of respect for his family’s wishes. By 1995, some forty members of the chorus had died. Music became a form of public grief and private commemoration as the chorus sang at countless memorial services. As a way to cope with these losses, the organization determined that membership in the chorus transcended death, stating: “It matters not how long these men sang with us. Whether they sang for a single performance or dozens, they are forever part of our chorus family.” Additionally, members who were too ill to sing were still listed in the program and attended every performance they were able. The BGMC also organized an HIV+ Support Group for members living with HIV and AIDS.

With the advent of the 1990s, the BGMC worked hard to understand “how its political, social and artistic roles reinforce one another,” and how they could use their talent and their public identity to support the wider LGBT community.7 They followed in the footsteps of other gay and lesbian choruses across the country with performances of NakedMan and Hidden Legacies, two pieces that commemorate the dead and demand dignity and agency for those living with AIDS. In the program for Hidden Legacies, the BGMC explained, “By sharing our music with you, we express ourselves openly and proudly as gay men singing through the diversity of their own loves… In this seemingly endless health crisis, we must daily confront our mortality and learn that we must be there for each other for strength and support.”8 Eager to break down further barriers, the chorus decided to use its fifteenth anniversary in 1996 to make musical history.

The wide availability of protease inhibitors, which stop the Human Immunodeficiency Virus from replicating in the body, provided hope for many people living with HIV and AIDS, and offered a new way of looking at the future. The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus saw this moment as a time for headlines, but also as a critical moment of reflection and storytelling. As one member explained, “Those of us who went through it, don’t want people to forget, that having been such a significant part of our history.” With these goals in mind, the BGMC extended an invitation to the Treble Chorus of New England to perform with them at their annual Christmas concert. The program was a fairly standard one, including Hebrew prayers, traditional Christmas carols, contemporary holiday pieces, and selections from Handel’s Messiah. What made this event unique was that it marked the first time in American history that a gay chorus and a children’s chorus performed on the same stage. This is where I become part of this story.

Boston Gay Men’s Chorus performing in their 2016-17 season. (Courtesy Gretjen Helene Photography)

I grew up singing, and when I was finally old enough to join, I became a member of the Treble Chorus of New England. Our concert with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus took place during my third year in the chorus. At the time, I had no idea we were making history – having grown up in a stereotypically reticent Catholic school, I had very little familiarity with the gay community, or understanding of what AIDS truly was. I knew that I was singing in one of America’s most acoustically perfect performance spaces. I knew that I was singing with a wonderfully kind, eminently talented group of singers who laughed and cried more during rehearsals than we had ever been allowed to do. I loved how men delighted in incorporating our voices into their skits and medleys, but also were eager to encourage us to love singing, and to recognize the immediate and vital power of our combined music. I noticed that the BGMC reserved the first few rows of seats at the front of the house for members who were too ill to perform, and that they sang every note of their performance for those men. Even to one who didn’t know the history of this chorus and its members, that bond was palpable.

It wasn’t until this past summer, however, while I was exploring the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus archives at Northeastern University, that the real import of this concert made sense. I found my name in the program, listed as an alto, although I switched to soprano for that concert to help the sound balance. On the page facing the TCNE roster, I read the list of BGMC members who had been lost to AIDS. I read the program notes, which stated that this event was part of “the BGMC’s ongoing mission to help people understand that we are all children of one world… to encompass the many holiday traditions of this season – all of which celebrate the spirit of light.”9 And I realized that this concert wasn’t simply about challenging the stereotypes that exposing children to gay men could be harmful. It was about establishing a legacy, and passing on what they had learned as a music group. It was about passing on their story, their songs, and their love for all that music could do, to people who had not endured what they had. We, each in our own way, in our own time, were “keepers of the light,” of music, of memory, and of hope. It’s an honor to finally recognize that gift, and to try and tell that story here.

Notes

  1. Russell E. Hillian, MSW, MT-BC, “The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus,” Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services 14, no. 3 (2002): 79–94. Return to text.
  2. Program, “It’s a Nice Day to be Out,” Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade Boston 1982, Boston Gay Men’s Chorus Archives, Northeastern University Archives. This archive is uncatalogued, and I am indebted to the dedicated and wonderfully welcoming archivists at the Northeastern University Archives for their help and support in my research for this project. Return to text.
  3. Program, “Dawning of a New Decade: 1982–1993,” Hidden Legacies 1993, Boston Gay Men’s Chorus Archives, Northeastern University Archives. Return to text.
  4. Board Meeting Minutes, January 17, 1983, Boston Gay Men’s Chorus Archives, Northeastern University Archives. Fritz’s closed in 2013, a victim of the extensive gentrification of Boston’s South End. Return to text.
  5. “Choruses That Can,” Bay Windows, March 22, 1990. Return to text.
  6. Michael H. Ward, The Sea is Quiet Tonight (New York: Querelle Independent, 2016), 105. Return to text.
  7. Robert Dyer, “Gay Men’s Chorus Makes a Statement,” The Boston Globe, March 8, 1991. Return to text.
  8. Program, “Dawning of a New Decade: 1982–1993,” Hidden Legacies 1993, Boston Gay Men’s Chorus Archives, Northeastern University Archives. Return to text.
  9. Program, “Keepers of the Light,” Boston Gay Men’s Chorus Archives, Northeastern University Archives. Return to text.

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4 Comments

Stephen Williamson

What a lovely article as it touches deep in my heart seeing how my older brother was a founding member of BGMC. Thank you Stephen Williamson

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Dave Lee

Bridget, Thank you for this wonderful reflection on the early days of the BGMC. I joined the BGMC in January of 1986 after seeing there holiday concert in December of 1985. It was the beginning of what is now 33 years of merging music and my identity as a gay man. 18 years with Boston, 2 with San Francisco and now 9.5 with Chicago, I laughed, cried, celebrated, and mourned with my brothers and sisters – and, yes, sang with you too. This world is a better place because of the gay choral movement. and I am a better man because I have proudly been a part of it. Stephen: I like Rab, will never forget your brother. Love to you both. Dave

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Swissmai

What a lovely article! I never thought about how radical the idea of a gay chorus must have been (and still would be in some parts of the world) The part of the seats reserved for those to ill to perform made me tear up.

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