The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Proves San Francisco Is Still Amazing
It’s been a dismal time to read about our beloved Paris of the West in the news these days. As it has in the past — notably in the 1980s in the grips of local political assassinations and the HIV crisis — San Francisco is the ire of national outlets for its “doom loop” woes and an ongoing, visible housing crisis. There are real, serious, nigh-insurmountable issues in the Bay Area. But it’s more than that: It’s in vogue to dunk on San Francisco, certainly for conservatives throughout the United States, but even locals find themselves wringing their hands and sighing. That’s why it’s more important than ever for us San Franciscans to find a little twinkle in our eyes, a skip in our step.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) gave me a new lease on my adopted home. The group formed in 1978 when Jon Reed Sims decided the city’s gay community could stand for a bit more music. Then, the newly-formed chorus served as a beacon of hope in the aftermath of the slaying of openly-gay district supervisor Harvey Milk. The group sang on the steps of city hall during Milk’s vigil, and some of those singers are still in the chorus 45 years later. In July the group will perform Hello Yellow Brick Road at Davies Symphony, a testament to how far the organization has come.
That powerful history was lost on me when I first signed up to audition. I love singing, and was in choir and voice lessons all through my childhood. When my uncle died in 2022, I felt a renewed longing to perform again, looking for new ways to harmonize with him. A friend mentioned the SFGMC and the group held auditions in fall 2022; I tried out with “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and attended my first rehearsal in January 2023. Things became a bit clearer to me over time — I could sense a current of passion and exuberance running through nearly each song for nearly each member. The group inspired choruses around the country to form, just as it inspired me to keep using music as a way to look at my own sexuality and gender. But it wasn’t until a chorus retreat in Petaluma that I put the pieces together: this group of performers is totally unique in the whole world, a Bay Area original creation that could only spawn from a city as rich in culture and art as San Francisco.
Call it the 1 a.m. Whitney Houston-singing or the rolling green hills, but at those cabins in Sonoma County, amongst hundreds of queer singers, the significance of the SFGMC hit me like a ton of yellow bricks. I’m inspired every week I go to rehearsal, checking in with friends and belting everything from Disney songs to Elton John. These days the organization boasts numerous outreach programs, like the RHYTHM outreach program that sees singers go to Bay Area schools to perform. Furthermore, SFGMC recognizes and awards young artists through its Give ‘Em Hope Awards. The chorus’ historic building on Valencia Street is set for a proper restoration by the end of summer 2023. In June, the group will even sing the national anthem at a Giants game. For me, these efforts represented such an idyllic way San Francisco and its residents can not only rally together, but enjoy tremendous art at the same time.
The plague of a depressing downtown and obsession with our city’s troubles is not San Francisco’s first illness. In the 1980s when the chorus sprang to life the gay and queer communities in the city and in the country dealt with the terror and trauma of HIV and AIDS, willfully ignored by the federal government. You don’t need me to remind you of the city’s most recent pandemic, also willfully ignored by the federal government. But burying our heads in the sand and ignoring personal responsibility can’t be blamed on anyone but ourselves.
“Ignorance is the night of the mind,” Scarecrow reads to Dorothy in The Wiz. “But a night without moon or star.” It’s a Confucious quote that he pulls from his head, allegedly full of garbage. It’s possible keeping our eyes on San Francisco’s future — with a helping hand from its own revolutionary past — could be as deceptively powerful as this small moment in paving our own yellow brick road in the Bay. It’s certainly not going to help to wring those hands or sit on the sideline whistling an awkward tune. Imagine how dark that night must’ve seemed after those hateful killings in city hall. Better to sing a power ballad of action, like those singers in 1978 on the steps of city hall.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus will perform Hello Yellow Brick Road at Davies Symphony on July 19.