New York City Gay Men’s Chorus Performs at Carnegie Hall

The New York City Gay Men’s Chorus became the first gay musical group to perform at Carnegie Hall. One year later, Meg Christian and Cris Williamson became the first out lesbians to perform there. With the chorus’s founding came a surge of gay and lesbian choral groups and the founding of the umbrella organization, GALA Choruses, which stages an international festival with hundreds of choruses and thousands of singers every four years.

Summary of Event

Only two years after it was established, the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus (NYCGMC) made its debut at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall and then Carnegie Hall, on December 8, 1981. New York Times music critic Theodore W. Libbey, Jr., who noted that the concert had been sold out, considered the singers “impressive” “glowing,” and “vibrant.” The amateur vocal ensemble continued to earn the respect of music critics and not only became a musical force, commissioning new works, but also became for many the “face” and “voice” of out gay men. [kw]New York City Gay Men’s Chorus Performs at Carnegie Hall (Dec. 8, 1981)
[kw]Gay Men’s Chorus Performs at Carnegie Hall, New York City (Dec. 8, 1981)
[kw]Chorus Performs at Carnegie Hall, New York City Gay Men’s (Dec. 8, 1981)
[kw]Carnegie Hall, New York City Gay Men’s Chorus Performs at (Dec. 8, 1981)
New York City Gay Men’s Chorus
Gay Men’s Chorus, New York City[Gay Mens Chorus]
Music;gay men’s choral[gay mens choral]
[c]Arts;Dec. 8, 1981: New York City Gay Men’s Chorus Performs at Carnegie Hall[1490]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;Dec. 8, 1981: New York City Gay Men’s Chorus Performs at Carnegie Hall[1490]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 8, 1981: New York City Gay Men’s Chorus Performs at Carnegie Hall[1490]
Sims, Jon Reed

There exists a long history of community-based theatrical and musical ensembles, some formed to celebrate a municipality, others to empower the marginalized: religious groups, abolitionists, suffragists, temperance movements, unions, and ethnic or racial groups. Shortly after the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969, one of the earliest GLBT groups was established by composer Roberta Kosse. Kosse, Roberta Originally formed to perform her compositions, her lesbian chorus performed from 1971 to 1980. Performing in the first three New York City Gay Liberation Day parades, the Victoria Woodhull All-Women’s Marching Band Victoria Woodhull All-Women’s Marching Band (established 1973) was not exclusively lesbian, but its theme song was “When the Dykes Go Marching In.” One of the oldest ongoing lesbian or gay choruses is the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir, Anna Crusis Women’s Choir formed in 1975 in Philadelphia. As the modern gay and lesbian rights movement gained more momentum, other vocal ensembles began to appear: The Gotham Male Chorus (established 1977) changed its name to the Stonewall Chorale Stonewall Chorale in 1979 when women joined the ensemble, making it the nation’s first lesbian and gay chorus.

When founded in 1978 by Jon Reed Sims, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus
Gay Men’s Chorus, San Francisco[Gay Mens Chorus] was the first to proclaim its gay identity publicly in the group’s name. A twelve-city tour in 1981 had the effect of inspiring many other individuals to organize same-gender or mixed choruses in their own communities. (The same year NYCGMC appeared at Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus garnered its first “mainstream” validation when a San Francisco Chronicle music critic proclaimed its work “superb.”) When Gay Games I was held in San Francisco the next year, fourteen choruses met for the first West Coast Choral Festival, Choral Festival, first West Coast an event that led to the formation of the GALA Choruses GALA Choruses Network. Incorporated to achieve nonprofit status, the umbrella organization’s name was changed to GALA Choruses.

The first National Gay and Lesbian Choral Festival, Choral Festival, National Gay and Lesbian held in 1983 in New York City with twelve choruses, featured pieces commissioned to out composers Libby Larson Larson, Libby and Ned Rorem. Rorem, Ned GALA Choruses still produces international festivals every four years; Festival VIIe was held in Montreal, Canada, in 2004 with more than 160 choruses from the United States, Canada, England, Ireland, Germany, and Australia and with six thousand delegates in attendance. International membership in GALA Choruses has grown to ten thousand singers in more than two hundred choruses.

While membership in GALA is open to gay, lesbian, and mixed choruses, the bulk of the member choirs are composed of gay men. A parallel organization, Sister Singers Network Sister Singers Network (established 1981), was formed to facilitate communication and support for women’s and lesbian vocal ensembles. Now consisting of forty-five member choruses, the network promotes and produces regional, national, and international women’s choral festivals.

One reason for the relatively low number of lesbian choruses is that the common musical style in lesbian culture is of the folk/pop genres, rarely choral or traditional in nature. The abundant lesbian musical repertoire is identified by much more original music than is the gay repertoire and is more likely to be performed by a solo woman at the keyboard or with a guitar. Olivia Records was formed in 1973 not only to promote women’s music, especially lesbian-feminist songwriters, but also to change the very nature of the recording industry. Distributing music made by and for women, the label gave voice to many singers and songwriters until Olivia shifted focus in the 1990’s to cruises and resorts. Although “womyn’s” music concerts peaked in the 1970’s and 1980’s, other independent music labels and distribution companies, such as Goldenrod and Ladyslipper Music, continue to produce and distribute lesbian music.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Olivia, founder Judy Dlugacz booked the prestigious Carnegie Hall for a concert by Meg Christian and Cris Williamson in 1983. Given that Williamson’s The Changer and the Changed (1975) had sold more than 45,000 copies in its first year of release, Dlugacz was convinced that the market for lesbian music was bigger than anyone had realized. The Carnegie Hall event sold out three months in advance and resulted in a record album that is still sold today.

Seven marching bands united in 1982 to form the Lesbian and Gay Bands of America Bands of America, Lesbian and Gay
Lesbian and Gay Bands of America (LGBA) to network and promote community band music. In addition to performing at three Gay Games, member bands have merged to participate in two marches on Washington and in President Bill Clinton’s inaugural parade in 1993.

While many GLBT marching bands, drill corps, and choral ensembles have enjoyed broad-based audience support—in part because they operate within traditional community-based performing arts groups—acceptance has not always been easy. GALA Choruses members won a lawsuit in 1986 to allow their organizations to use the word “gay” in their names when performing at conventions of the American Choral Directors Association.


Early ensembles were novelties in the sense that they were groups of out gay men or lesbians, or both, who provided a visual example of the “gay community.” By raising their collective voices in song, the troupes also provided “an affirmation that society is possible,” according to cultural historian Jacques Attali. Music reflects the social order, and the fact that the choruses are polished, professional, rehearsed, “quality” ensembles gives the lie to myths that gays and lesbians are degenerate, subhuman, or otherwise incompetent.

As part of the twenty-fifth anniversary season of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, the organization established the Youth Pride Chorus, Youth Pride Chorus which made its debut at Carnegie Hall in June, 2003. Continuing the dual mission of being a social as well as an artistic force, the young people’s ensemble was envisioned as a public display of the gay community providing mentorship to gay young adults between the ages of fourteen and twenty-one.

In 2004, the NYCGMC consisted of 250 voices. The group performed three concerts in either Avery Fisher Hall or Carnegie Hall, continuing the tradition it started in 1981. New York City Gay Men’s Chorus
Gay Men’s Chorus, New York City[Gay Mens Chorus]
Music;gay men’s choral[gay mens choral]

Further Reading

  • Attinello, Paul. “Authority and Freedom: Toward a Sociology of the Gay Choruses.” In Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, edited by Philip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • Galtney, Smith. “All Together Now.” Out, December, 2003, 50.
  • Gordon, Eric A. “GALA: The Lesbian and Gay Community of Song.” Choral Journal 9, no. 30 (1990): 25-32.
  • Hadleigh, Boze. Sing Out! Gays and Lesbians in the Music World. New York: Barricade Books, 1998.
  • Libbey, Theodore W., Jr. “Music: New York City Gay Men’s Chorus at Carnegie Hall.” The New York Times, December 10, 1981, p. C14.
  • Shapiro, Amy. “A Chorus of Activism.” The Advocate, October 11, 2004.
  • Wise, Matthew W. “Choruses and Marching Bands.” In Gay Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, edited by George E. Haggerty. New York: Garland, 2000.

1973: Olivia Records Is Founded

September, 1975: Anna Crusis Women’s Choir Is Formed

August 20-22, 1976: Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival Holds Its First Gathering

1981-1982: GALA Choruses Is Formed

June 6-June 20, 1981: San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Concert Tour

1992-2002: Celebrity Lesbians Come Out