Historically, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people have seldom had a “voice,” a comprehensive, recognized presence with full participation in the American culture. Today, however, LGBTQ choruses are flourishing. The Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA), the national support organization for LGBTQ singing groups, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2008. The passage of New York State’s Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA) and the rising success of the Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus are just two examples of many developments changing history for the better.
The BGMC idea was first conceived in 1999. Guided by Roger Parris (still one of our singers), a vigorous group of men worked throughout the coming year to make the BGMC organization a reality. With the support of the Rochester Gay Men’s Chorus to encourage them, a steering committee consisting of a dozen dedicated members had written the by-laws and incorporation papers, held fundraisers for seed money, agreed on a mission statement, elected officers and directors and (after a thorough search) hired Barbara Wagner as BGMC’s Artistic Director. She, in turn, arranged the appointment of Debi Overton as our charter accompanist. Both women highly respected musicians in WNY. Barbara Wagner became one of the few female conductors of over 150 gay men’s choruses in the United States and Canada.
Auditions were held in May 2001, with 36 chorus members on board after the first day. Soon there were over 50. Rehearsals began on September 11, 2001, a day of shock and sadness throughout our land. The difficult decision to go forward with the rehearsal, despite the tragedy of that day, proved to have been wise. Forty men, many not knowing each other, gathered in an eerie silence. As they and Ms. Wagner held hands for the first time in a community circle, there were anguished murmurs of meditation, grief and prayer. They sang ….(From you I receive, to you I give, together we share and from this we live”). They learned that long-lived and classic American hymn,“How Can I Keep From Singing?”. It remains to this day the Chorus theme song and a continuing reminder for its members of mutual family togetherness and inspiration that the Chorus always aspires to attain. It was the processional music at the opening of BGMC’s first public concert (“Music From the Heart”) on February 9, 2002. The men of the Chorus, singing this music with feeling and intensity, strode down the aisles of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Buffalo, with uninvited (but welcome) television news cameras recording the event. The audience that night was huge – the Church was filled, chairs lined the aisles and, sadly, people had to be turned away at the door. All concerts after that were offered twice in each performance weekend until, some years later, the Chorus began presenting three times in the weekend and, for a short time, three weekend presentation each year rather than just two. Audiences continue to be large, diverse and enthusiastic.
The Chorus has commissioned a number of compositions and special arrangements of music for its concerts. Two of them were especially commissioned for performance by the Chorus at the quadrennial GALA Choruses Festival of LGBTQ choruses from all around the United States, Canada and elsewhere. The Chorus commissioned “Adamic Songs”, a six-part composition featuring poems by Walt Whitman, the creation of Buffalo’s Roland E. Martin. Also a BGMC commission, “Yes!” was composed by the renowned Adolphus Hailstork. “Yes!”is based on a poem by Countee Cullen, the Harlem Renaissance poet, dealing with the struggle for racial harmony. The Chorus performed these new works respectively at the GALA Festivals of over 150 LGBTQ Choruses in Montreal in 2004 and Miami in 2008.
The Chorus has also enjoyed remarkable creative support from other Buffalo composers and arrangers. Madeline Davis, longtime leader of the LGBTQ movement in Buffalo and founder of the LGBTQ Archives, has provided the Chorus with many poignant tunes and texts. Along with many of the GALA composers, Buffalo’s Phil Sims, musician extraordinaire, has composed many beautiful arrangements for the Chorus. Marty Wimmer, a very capable and creative spirit with his moving words and music, continues as a faithful contributor to the BGMC repertoire.
Along with its efforts and growing musical success, the BGMC has received honors in many forms and venues. A number of awards from Artvoice’s “Best in Buffalo” proclaim the Chorus the best local choral group. The Chorus was asked to sing on the Kleinhans Music Hall stage with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on two occasions, once for a subscription concert in 2004 and another as a benefit for the Orchestra and Buffalo’s Olmsted Parks Conservancy in 2006, with Maestra JoAnn Falletta conducting. Mary Louise Nanna, founder and conductor of Ars Nova, asked the Chorus to sing in her Viva Vivaldi Series. BGMC was recognized by the Empire State Pride Agenda in 2005 with the ESPA Award for Community Service awarded to the Chorus for the excellence of its music and its dedication to the community. In March 2008, BGMC was chosen to receive the prestigious Buffalo and Erie County Arts Council Award for exceptional contributions to the arts and cultural community in Western New York.
BGMC’s success has brought many requests from worthy organizations to perform benefit concerts, and the Chorus attempts to honor these requests when it is able to do so. The Chorus has received grants and gifts and much support from both the LGBTQ community and the community at large. It is pleased to be able to reciprocate.
A major force in the BGMC success has been the impressive dedication, hard work and unflagging efforts by the Chorus singers, as well as the dedication of its non-singing members and volunteers. The Chorus understands the need to create a positive social impact in the affected communities as effectively and meaningfully as possible. It finds itself in a relatively conservative environment, a factor that, if anything, should make its efforts and impact all the more important, and, it continues to hope, all the more effective. In addition to its influence on the community at large, it is clear that the Chorus has helped raise the self esteem of an historically marginalized portion of our society. Its high profile has helped to create a positive model for those who are grappling with the negativity that is too often imposed on LGBTQ people.
The Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus takes great pride in what it has been able to accomplish since its first rehearsal on September 11, 2001. Probably the greatest accomplishment has been its success in weaving the different lives and personalities of its members and of the communities it serves through the tug and magic of music, sung from the heart. The Chorus is, truly, a family.