San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Concert Tour Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the first men’s chorus to identify as gay, toured eight U.S. cities just as news of HIV-AIDS—first called a “gay cancer”—was hitting the press. The group’s founding inspired the formation of several other gay men’s choruses throughout the United States.

Summary of Event

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC), the first men’s chorus to identify itself as gay, toured eight U.S. cities in the summer of 1981, just two-and-a-half years after its first meeting. It could be argued that choral music as a form of resistance to oppression was in the air because the tour happened in the same year that Sister Singers Network Sister Singers Network and the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses GALA Choruses (GALA Choruses) began taking form. [kw]San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Concert Tour (June 6-June 20, 1981) [kw]Gay Men’s Chorus Concert Tour, San Francisco (June 6-June 20, 1981) [kw]Chorus Concert Tour, San Francisco Gay Men’s (June 6-June 20, 1981) San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Gay Men’s Chorus, San Francisco[Gay Mens Chorus] Choral movement Music;gay men’s choral[gay mens choral] Arts;performing [c]Arts;June 6-June 20, 1981: San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Concert Tour[1470] [c]Organizations and institutions;June 6-June 20, 1981: San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Concert Tour[1470] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;June 6-June 20, 1981: San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Concert Tour[1470] [c]HIV-AIDS;June 6-June 20, 1981: San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Concert Tour[1470] Sims, Jon Reed Kramer, Dick Davidson, Jay

The formation of SFGMC followed a growing wave of new, mostly lesbian-feminist choruses, such as Anna Crusis (Philadelphia, 1975), the Los Angeles Community Women’s Chorus (1976), and the first of the movement’s mixed-gender, gay and lesbian choruses, the Stonewall Chorale in New York (which began in December of 1977 as the Gotham Male Chorus and changed its name when women joined in 1979).

SFGMC came into being through the visionary action of Jon Reed Sims, a musician who had successfully organized the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Marching Band & Twirling Corps for the Gay Pride Day parade (June, 1978). While the band and twirling corps decided to continue performing beyond the parade, Sims expanded his vision for gay performing arts by placing flyers around San Francisco to start a men’s chorus with plans to pass the director’s torch to someone else as soon as possible. Reportedly, more than one hundred men showed up for the first rehearsal on Monday, October 30, 1978. As a program from April, 1980, explains,

Four weeks later [after the first rehearsal], Dick Kramer, the present director, attended his first Monday rehearsal. It was the night of the shocking double-murder of Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Those members who showed up that evening experienced an unplanned, emotional and hastily rehearsed debut, as they sang a hymn by Mendelssohn on the steps of City Hall following the spontaneous candlelight procession of thousands of mourners that gathered there.

The chorus’s impromptu performance at this historic event provided for the group a sense of its own sociohistorical importance from the start.

Under Kramer’s direction, the chorus went on to gain critical acclaim in its hometown, and in 1981, it produced its own national tour in conjunction with the Bay Area Women’s Brass Quartet. Beginning on June 6, the groups traveled to Dallas, Minneapolis, Lincoln, Detroit, New York, Boston, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., using music, as noted in their calls for financial support, as a “cultural and social bridge between our community and the community at large, fostering knowledge, understanding, and sensitivity across social and sexual categorizations.” It was hoped that the national tour would provide a “significant contribution to the efforts of gay people to eliminate fears and prejudices that stand in the way of their open participation in our culture.”

Indeed, news reports from the tour, which ended on June 20, indicate both the depth of the fears and prejudices, as well as evidence of the chorus’s success in breaking through them. In Dallas, the Ramada Inn decided to relocate the group from its centrally located hotel to a hotel on the outskirts of the metropolis in a primarily Baptist town, Mesquite. The Dallas Morning News refused to run the chorus’s ad, programs for the show never were delivered, and a local preacher chastised the city for renting the performance hall to the group, threatening a protest. Even without the expected protesters, the numbers in the hall were less than anticipated.

In Detroit, a news crew covering the event turned its cameras on the audience members, many of whom reportedly ducked in fear. In Nebraska, the CBS-TV affiliate, KOLN-KGIN, canceled the chorus’s scheduled appearance on the morning show. The First Plymouth Congregational Church board, however, voted to rent space to the chorus for its performance, and community members filled it to standing room only. Letters to the editor in response aired the range of arguments for and against both the church’s and the station’s actions, creating open discussion of issues that had clearly been closeted.

Indeed, throughout the tour, music critics praised the quality of the performances while letters to newspaper editors in tour cities and to the chorus proclaim both the prejudices and the profound impact that the chorus’s performances produced. For example, Brother Joseph A. Izzo of Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., wrote to The Washington Post, “By the beauty of their music they can bridge the gap of misunderstanding, heal the wounds that have been inflicted upon us for many centuries and demonstrate to the Jerry Falwells and the Moral Majority types that we are real human beings, not moral misfits.”

The praiseworthy quality of the performances and the stature of some of the performance venues, including the Kennedy Center in New York City, proved instrumental in moving the group and its issues beyond mere curiosity and into the national light. As music critics across the country agreed, SFGMC could not be easily dismissed because they were good, and also because they were reviving an art form that had waned. As Boston Globe music critic, Richard Dyer, wrote, “The sound of massed male voices…is not one we hear much anymore.” The mix of message and medium that came out of the tour proved strategic in a manner that became more apparent, as homophobia reached fevered pitches with the coming of HIV-AIDS. The pride that came from singing and from listening to the group—especially because it was making music through this particular art form—countered, in a way, oppressive social forces against gays and lesbians.

The financial cost of the tour to the chorus and its members had been substantial. To pay for the more than $300,000 price tag, several members took out second mortgages on their homes, with the promise they would be paid back by the end of the tour. In fact, the “tour debt” was not fully paid off until early 1991, just shy of ten years later.

Significance

While the significance of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus tour has been much debated, what is clear is that the tour inspired those in tour cities and surrounding areas to come out and sing. Choruses who mark the tour as the inspiration for their own formation include the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C., Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, and the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. Dallas, New York, and Seattle already had gay-identified men’s choruses. Los Angeles and Chicago soon followed with their own choruses. The tour also had reverberations beyond the LGBT community because of its “outness,” scope, venues, quality performances, and community outreach. San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Gay Men’s Chorus, San Francisco[Gay Mens Chorus] Choral movement Music;gay men’s choral[gay mens choral] Arts;performing

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Attinello, Paul. “Sims, John Reed.” In Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Classical Musicians, edited by Laura Kuhn. New York: Schirmer/Macmillan, 1997.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brett, Phillip, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. New York: Routledge, 1994.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses. http://www.galachoruses.org.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon, Eric. “GALA: The Lesbian and Gay Community of Song.” Choral Journal 30, no. 9 (1990): 25-32.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadleigh, Boze. Sing Out! Gays and Lesbians in the Music World. New York: Barricade Books, 1998.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McLaren, Jay. An Encyclopaedia of Gay and Lesbian Recordings: An Index of Published Recordings of Music and Speech Expressing Themes Relevant to Gay Men and Lesbians. Limited ed. Amsterdam: Author, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. http://www .sfgmc.org.

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