Change of scene
In July 2013, 200 singers from Australia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) choirs gathered in Hobart to raise the roof at their fourth Out and Loud Festival.
Somewhere quieter, in the Tasmanian Museum, a small room is titled ‘The Power of Change.’ The guide explains that the collection depicts “key areas of twentieth century Tasmanian life and their national and international significance.” At one end are two posters of the State’s gay history. One is a giant pink triangle on a black square with words picked out in white, “GAY AND PROUD”. The other is a map of Tasmania in pink with the initials H.U.G. (Heterosexuals Unafraid of Gays), a group founded in New Zealand in the 1980s. An offshoot of H.U.G. formed in Hobart to help push for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which finally happened in 1997.
Before their concerts at Federation Hall and at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), the singers participated in a four-day masterclass on choral singing with Charlie Beale, Artistic Director of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
So, how was it that LGBTI choirs from Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra and Hobart all joined up to sing in Tasmania, led by a New Yorker?
The catalyst for the gay liberation movement is seen by many as New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969, named for the police raids on the Stonewall Inn and the subsequent demonstrations by members of the gay community. It wasn’t the first time that gay men and lesbians fought oppression, but it became a significant moment in time to raise the voice of LGBTI people, including through music. New York’s Stonewall Chorale formed eight years later and is considered the first-ever gay chorus. It began its life as the Gotham Male Chorus, and two years later was joined by women to become the world’s first lesbian and gay chorus. Other trailblazers included Philadelphia’s Anna Crusis Women’s Choir, a feminist choir that formed earlier in the mid ’70s, along with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus. The San Francisco chorus was the first to proudly use the name ‘Gay’ in its name and the first to record an LP. Its 1981 tour to several US cities encouraged the formation of many LGBTI choirs, including in neighbouring Canada, and later, Australia.
Within a few years, LGBTI choirs were in every major US city. Don Lee, a US media producer, recently wrote about the importance of these choirs in an article on the Evolution of GLBT Choruses for The Voice, Chorus America’s magazine. According to Lee, these choirs soon became “a safe space in the face of AIDS and prejudice.”
The first LGBTI choral festival was held in conjunction with the first Gay Games in San Francisco in 1982. With an initial membership of fourteen choruses, GALA (the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses) was formed in 1983 to serve an expanding choral movement. Three decades on, GALA now has 180 member choirs, not only in North America but also in Europe, South America, Africa and Australia. Robin Godfrey, GALA’s Executive Director, recalls the intention behind the first choral festival: “It started out of a desire for initial choruses to meet and support each other. It is still a time to gather with the other choruses and celebrate.”
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