When “Voices of a Chorus” author Paula Gibson was first invited to attend a concert by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. (GMCW), one of the largest and most prominent gay choruses in the U.S., she was unaware of the profound effect it would have on her life.
“The first gay chorus was the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, started in 1979-80, and then the D.C. chorus was founded in 1981,” Gibson says. “It began in the Kennedy Center, spurred by an outflow of people trying to live open lifestyles, and it was the beginning of the HIV/AIDS era a time of healing, loss and acceptance. A lot of music sort of held a soundtrack of the times, of their lives.”
Gibson was moved by the camaraderie of the chorus and the impact it had on the gay community. A year after she first saw them perform, she was invited to serve on the board of directors, a post she held for three years.
“San Francisco and Washington are sort of the grandfathers of the gay chorus movement,” Gibson says. “There are 300-plus men in the chorus, now, making it one of the largest gay choruses in the country, if not the world.”
Gibson, of Chevy Chase, has a law background and has practiced law part-time since her children were born. Always fond of the writing aspect of her job, Gibson set out with a recorder, intending to document the story of the GMCW in interviews with the members, who range in age from 20 to 70.
“I got a wide variety of responses and, quite frankly, it was quite shocking,” she says. “I didn’t have an understanding of how important it was. I learned a lot of personal information from people who generously shared with me. I learned about their own internal homophobia, how being in the chorus prompted them to be themselves and be who they wanted to be. I learned about the challenges many of them endured living with HIV/AIDS and how the chorus is a lifeline in itself. Also, how it’s helped them overcome drug addictions like crystal meth — by having a place to go every Sunday and do something productive and positive.”
Gibson’s involvement on the board and the research she conducted for the book allowed the author an inside perspective on the growth of the choir, and how its members have matured emotionally and musically over the years.
“Every chorus has found its own voice,” she says. “What you see now is a quality of music, championing the right of very affirming, uplifting robust artistry. They still have some of those songs from the earlier days, but they are now able to do more entertaining and fun pieces now. The other music was also fun, but it had a different sound and different messages.”
Gibson attributes some of the shift in their musical agenda to the advancement of gay rights, but says there still is room for improvement.
“There are positive changes going on, like the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell and gay marriage legislations, but every time you think society is moving forward, you see something that seems like it’s moving back,” she says. “Although it is the 21st century and many are living an openly gay lifestyle, there’s still a lot of pain and challenges.”
It took Gibson a year to research and write “Voices from A Chorus,” which became a candid compilation of 65 interviews that, from the perspective of chorus members, illustrates what she calls “the power of being one voice amongst many.”
“Weaving 65 stories together with feelings and emotions was a challenge, but I would do it again. It was very personal and heartfelt,” she says. “The biggest challenge was that I wasn’t prepared for the level of the emotions I would see in front of me when people told me their stories and I wasn’t prepared for what I would hear. Keeping all that information inside was hard for a while and then hard to write in a way that told their stories in the way that they told it to me.”
Many of the interviews reveal how the chorus members found a place where they could belong.
“I joined GMCW in 2007. I was not welcome at my family home, where I have two autistic children and an ex-wife,” says Salman Shamsi, one of the book’s interviewees. “My entire family is Muslim and everyone is very religious and bitter about the fact that I am gay. When I first joined the chorus, I thought I was the only one who was married and had kids. But now I no longer feel left out and alone. I love being a part of something. It would be scary to imagine where I’d be without the chorus because it wouldn’t be a good place.”
The GMCW performs five concerts a year. To learn more, visit www.gmcw.org.
“Voices from a Chorus,” Razure Press, $24.95, available for purchase at online retailers, local bookstores (Politics & Prose, Trohv, Kensington Row, Kramer Books), www.gmcw.org & www.razurepress.com