Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY

I Was a Groupie with the Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus

By Cynthia Van Ness, © 2004

Originally published in Crescendo: The Newsletter of the Buffalo Gay Men's Chorus, vol.3 no.1, Fall 2004, pp. 3-4.

On Saturday, July 17, forty-two men and three women boarded a tour bus from the parking lot of Buddies on Elmwood Avenue. Friends and family members bid farewell to the Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC) as it embarked upon a week in Montreal at the international festival of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered choruses known as GALA. Along with conductor Barbara Wagner and her sister, my husband and I rode that bus.

After a few concerts, my husband, growing increasingly enchanted by the sound of all-male voices, gave in to repeated urging from his friends in the chorus to audition. Thus it is that the BGMC, which does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, includes a pro-gay but non-gay married guy in the baritone section.

His timing was perfect. The BGMC had just decided to perform at the GALA festival. Gay and gay-friendly choruses from around the world gather every four years to sing for each other and show off their chops. The relatively young BGMC would be in the company of large, well-established groups, including the pioneering San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and the Turtle Creek Chorale of Dallas, a little like going up against Lance Armstrong with only your tricycle.

The festival drew almost 6000 delegates representing over 160 choruses from Canada, the US, Ireland, England, France, Australia, and Germany. Our orientation packets included a government-sponsored map of Montreal’s gay attractions and a festival guide with over 100 pages listing groups and their set lists. Every day featured dozens of performances ranging from 4-voice doo-wop ensembles to passionate gospel choirs to monster choruses of almost 200 voices. Some groups, like Buffalo, were single sex. Some groups were mixed sex, some were mixed-orientation (gay and straight together) and many were ethnically diverse. Some had disabled singers and many supplied sign language interpretors. The audience was not entirely gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered: we heard that an opposite-sex couple flew in from Atlanta just to hear a week of good music.

Every ensemble got a half hour on stage. One chorus had the audience in stitches, singing "I’m so over the rainbow" to the tune of the Judy Garland classic, a complaint about now-ubiquitous rainbow merchandise intended to signify gay pride. The first-ever youth chorus at GALA, a gay-straight student alliance from Seattle, made everyone cheer with their rendition of "Going to the Chapel (But We Can’t Get Married)." They ended by waving miniature Canadian flags and marching across the stage, figuratively entering the nation that now honors everyone’s aspirations for a legally recognized, committed relationship.

Washington, DC, boasting a colossal men’s chorus, moved me so much I could barely speak. They sang about contemporary gay life, including the woes of dating and about the hurt and longing of a military dad and his gay son who feel rejected by each other. What got me was the love song from a gay husband to his wife, knowing that their marriage must change or end. It is hard enough to reach into pain that others have caused you, and some groups did this, singing about being rejected by families, friends, and churches. But it is another thing to delve into the pain you have caused others. Like the festival itself, this song spoke volumes about the maturation of the gay community.

The musical themes were broader than you might imagine. One New York group sang about the plight of the families of the undocumented workers in the World Trade Center who lost their lives on 9/11. Songs touched on longing for peace, presidential elections, coffee mania, spiritual hunger, loved ones lost to HIV, women’s body images, and, of course, marriage.

Taking our cue from enthusiastic supporters of other choruses, we Buffalo non-singers found shiny mylar bicycle streamers, two for a dollar (or US $.72) at the Dollar Store. Five Canadian dollars later, we had something like pompons to wave. After recruiting friendly strangers in our row to root for Buffalo, we were ready for the GALA debut of the Buffalo Gay Men’s Chorus. Finally, their turn on stage arrived. The announcer read the text prepared by founder Roger Parris about how the BGMC was scheduled to hold its first rehearsal on Sept. 11, 2001, and decided on that dreadful day to meet anyway. Then came bragging about BGMC appearances on television and with the Buffalo Philharmonic. The audience was captivated.

A parenthetical note: New York City, with a population of 8 million, has 150 members in their gay men’s chorus. Buffalo’s chorus has 68 members and all but 14 of them got to Montreal, an impressive number. After the chorus filled the stage, our neighbors teased us, saying that they didn’t know Buffalo even had that many gay men!

Barbara opened with their signature piece, the Quaker hymn "How can I keep from singing." It was the first song that the chorus sang at their 9/11 rehearsal. Next they debuted their most challenging piece, "The Adamic Songs," a work that the chorus commissioned from composer and UB professor Roland Martin, using poetry by Walt Whitman. This got the chorus’s first standing ovation. In honor of our Canadian hosts, the chorus then sang "The Stars Are With the Voyager" by Canadian composer Eleanor Daley. They ended with a new hymn intended for the revised Unitarian-Universalist hymnal. "Standing on the Side of Love" was written in Boston this spring during the marriage hearings. It got the chorus a second, cheering, standing ovation. Ten boisterous fans in the third row, stage left, waved sparkly streamers and screamed their heads off.

The audience, some of them active in the gay choral movement for over 20 years, genuinely appreciated Buffalo’s achievement. Few choruses grow from zero to 70 voices in only three years and arrive at their first GALA with serious, commissioned works. As a former Buffalonian who now lives in Arizona said, affectionately recalling Buffalo’s now-defunct mixed-sex chorus, "The City of Good Neighbors Chorale went to GALA one year and we were the worst chorus in the program."

Having impressed a jury of its peers, our city once again showed the world what treasures we have. If you have not yet been to a BGMC concert, you owe it to yourself to experience the newest jewel in the cultural crown of Buffalo.

Updated 18 March 2010