When I asked my friend Rod Culham if I could join the new gay men’s chorus in London, Ont., my request was well intended. I’m a straight supporter of LGBTQ equality, and by signing up I could make a statement about inclusivity. I probably had a certain scenario in mind: “straight guy joins gay choir, group hug, triumphant performance.”
Then came Orlando.
Months before, Rod had announced that, after years of dreaming about it, a gay men’s chorus was going to be created in London. Rod is the music director at our church, Thamesview United in Fullarton, Ont., and we also sing together in the London Pro Musica choir. So I approached him. “Is the new men’s chorus also open to straight guys?” Turns out, a few other straight guys had asked the same question.
Rod thought this was a terrific idea; so did his co-founder, Clark Bryan, CEO at the Aeolian Hall in London and accompanist for the chorus. Within minutes, the name had morphed from “Gay Chorus” to “Pride Men’s Chorus.” More than half a dozen allies joined the group.
There was much teasing, as we began to learn songs like It’s Raining Men and Keep It Gay. It was intriguing to be in the minority. The vocabulary is different, the jokes are different, the allusions are different. It was instructive to be temporarily removed from a social milieu that tilts so strongly toward the hetero. Turns out our intention to be inclusive doesn’t always translate into social reality.
Our premiere concert was set for July 21 last summer. We had a large repertoire. We had been rehearsing for two hours, every Sunday evening, for months.
But on June 12, violence erupted at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, leaving 49 victims in its wake. Clark and Rod immediately began working with other London LGBTQ groups to put together a memorial vigil at the Aeolian Hall.
The night of the vigil, 300 people packed the hall itself and another 700 listened to an audio feed from the parking lot. But not everyone came. Social media carried many comments from people who were afraid to attend — fearful that Orlando meant LGBTQ people could be targeted at any event identified with their community.
As I stood on stage among the 30 men of the chorus, I thought about personal safety. I’ve long known that our gay and lesbian friends face daily worry unknown to me as a straight guy. But until the vigil, I hadn’t felt it. On stage, that changed for me. Perhaps for the first time, I caught a glimpse of the fear that’s a reality for many of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters.
The names of the Orlando victims scrolled above us, and we sang with all our hearts: Lean On Me, We Shall Overcome, He Ain’t Heavy, Rise Again. There were cheers, and there were many, many tears.
I thought I had joined the chorus as a statement of inclusivity. It turns out that it was a lesson I needed to learn about living with the pervasive anxiety that someone will treat you badly, hurt or kill you, just because of who you are.
For me, the vigil continues.
Paul Knowles is a freelance writer in New Hamburg, Ont.