In 1978, the country’s first gay men’s chorus grew out of an impromptu performance on the steps of the San Francisco City Hall. Demonstrators had gathered there following a candlelit procession on the eve of the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and openly gay city supervisor Harvey Milk. What began as a single expression of solidarity quickly spread around the country. After the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’ first national tour in 1979, similar choruses quickly sprang up in every major American city.
The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles was one of these offshoots. Formed by a small group of West Hollywood men in July 1979, the GMCLA has since survived the AIDS crisis — when it lost more than 150 members — toured internationally three times, and now boasts 226 men who donate at least 60,000 hours annually to community programs.
They will perform at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza on Dec. 14, in a matinee preview of their upcoming Christmas spectacular It’s a Fabulous Life! at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. The event will be co-sponsored by the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance, with proceeds benefiting the AIDS Project Ventura and the Youth Empowerment Program.
Though the GMCLA has been known for its sometimes outlandish performances, the Christmas concert usually promises a more sedate affair. Original songs and production numbers remain part of the mix, but Bruce Mayhall, GMCLA’s artistic director and major conductor, says the chorus likes to honor a traditional spirit.
“At the holiday season, people want to hear familiar music. And they want to laugh . . .We emphasize the principles of brother- and sisterhood and tolerance and acceptance and warmth.”
Tolerance will play an especially big part this year. In honor of its 30th anniversary, the chorus invited their members to submit their own stories of holidays past. The result is a show built around eight narratives of growing up, coming out and singing out, interspersed with playfully titled numbers like “Ménage a Trois,” an arrangement of three classic Christmas songs.
For Mayhall, the format captures both how far the gay community has come and the challenges that remain. After all, there are now gay choruses in more than 200 American cities, and a film about Harvey Milk’s life is generating early Oscar buzz. But setbacks like the recent passage of Proposition 8 serve as potent reminders of persisting struggles.
“We still have a lot to do,” Mayhall says. “We think sharing history is really important with a new generation of people. We think that music is a particularly effective way of telling stories about our lives.”
The chorus’ members put a face to an issue that some people continue to ignore, says Jay Smith, executive director of the Ventura County Rainbow Alliance.
“There’s still a lot of people who walk around saying, ‘I don’t know any gay people. I think I had a nephew who had a friend who had a brother who had a neighbor who was gay, but I don’t really know anybody.’ These are practical ways that in the long run help us win the hearts and minds of people.”
Yet the chorus challenges not only its audience, but those men who choose to be part of it. (And for the record, you do not have to be gay, or even a man, to join, though currently all but the pianist fall under this category.) For many members, joining the chorus means breaking through what Mayhall calls “the last closet door.”
“Standing on a stage and proclaiming who they are — it’s something that’s really powerful for people even if they’ve been out in all other places of their life for a long time,” he says.
For that reason, it’s no coincidence that the concert will help benefit the Youth Empowerment Program. The weekly drop-in program offers a safe space for young adults ages 13 to 23 struggling with their gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender identites. Oxnard student Lawrence King was a participant before he was shot to death by a classmate earlier this year.
The GMCLA, showcasing as it does adult men who have successfully navigated that difficult terrain of sexual identity, appears to offer a steady, reassuring hand.
“It’s one of those things that gives hope to young kids, that provides them with role models,” Mayhall says. “It allows them an opportunity, when they decide who they are, to live their lives in a community that is supportive and creative and positive.”
To that end, the GMCLA and the Rainbow Alliance hope to sell out tickets this year, while offering a fun kick start to the Christmas season. Smith, who has watched the GMCLA’s shows for 20 years, hopes audiences enjoy “a little bit of Los Angeles culture in Thousand Oaks” and promises a good time.
“They’re tremendous. They’re incredibly talented. It’s top-notch, world-class entertainment.”
Sunday, Dec. 14, 3 p.m. at the Thousand Oaks Performing Arts Center’s Janet and Ray Scherr Forum Theater. 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd. 449-2787. Tickets also available through ticketmaster.com.