All Together Now
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sings across the aisle in the Deep South.
The rain had started that morning, one of those steady showers that saturates raincoats and civil rights landmarks. Alabama’s Brown Chapel AME Church was musty inside, the creaky pews and old carpet hinting at all that began here half a century ago: the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, Bloody Sunday on the nearby Edmund Pettus Bridge, John Lewis’s skull split on the asphalt, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The people filling the sanctuary that day were 225 gay and mostly white men, members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the world’s largest and oldest gay men’s chorus (the candlelight vigil after the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in 1978 was its first public performance). To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the group had been planning a grand international tour. Then Election Day came and with it a stark reassessment of priorities. A new vision materialized: Over eight days in October, the chorus would rumble through the reddest of the red states, giving more than a dozen performances in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, and meeting as many non-Californians as possible. Partly the visit represented an escape from the singers’ liberal bubble, and partly it was outreach and fundraising for LGBTQ folks along their route.
But at its heart, the tour was a response to something broader that had come into focus over the past year — what board chair Steve Huffines called “a breakdown of decency, and heightened levels of animosity and violence.” At a moment when the country felt polarized, the plan was to stop despairing and do something.
The trip was a behemoth. Seventeen flights. Six buses. More than 800 miles of open road. Dedicated medical, mental health, and security teams. Enough hotel rooms to shelter a small village. One Melania Trump costume. Discussing stops along the way, one of the organizers urged the singers not to bother asking whether this was a gay restaurant or that was a gay bar. “We are six coaches of San Francisco’s finest. Wherever we stop is gonna be gay.”
On this rainy Monday, the Brown Chapel was gay, a fact that didn’t suit the small group of protesters beginning to gather. They’d driven out from Montgomery and now posted up by the church steps with handmade signs: If it weren’t for heterosexuals you wouldn’t be here and Church should not support sin. The chorus’s security team, mostly off-duty and retired cops, headed into the rain to gauge their intent. The protesters proved to be just kids. “This is our first protest,” one announced proudly. The security team moved on.
Back on the buses, a couple of guys joked about the signs — a wording critique here, a handwriting analysis there — but as a group, they’d agreed in advance to avoid familiar old confrontations. They’d come to try something new.
It turns out that bridging divides via bus involves a good deal of bus. That morning in Selma, some listened to a meditation podcast — “You are safely within a force field” — then watched The Princess and the Frog on warbly bus TVs. Words With Friends gave way to naps, naps to bingo, bingo to Twitter. Water bottles rolled under seats. Dollar stores and leafy poplars and gun shops and Cracker Barrels scrolled by.
Then the buses would stop and the singing would begin, a precise but booming phenomenon, more detonation than song. The songs themselves were sentimental and ribald, rousing and maudlin. Here was “We Shall Overcome,” there was the saucy “Color Out of Colorado.” (Sample line: “You can try to take the KY from Kentucky, though I doubt you’d get very far.”) They’d arranged small church performances and large sold-out concerts and joint appearances with local choruses and roundtable discussions about community issues and interviews with local media that, one sensed, wanted to capture cultural clashes. Through sheer visibility in the community, the chorus hoped a more humane, less caricatured version of themselves would trickle into the local imagination.
By and large, their encounters with locals weren’t really about clashing at all. In Alabama, an older man approached a couple of chorus members on the sidewalk. In 1981, he’d been living nearby, he said, struggling with his sexuality. That year, he heard that the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus would be performing in Texas. He didn’t go; Texas wasn’t exactly next door. But the simple fact of them coming within 600 miles was enough. He found the courage to come out of the closet and has been grateful ever since.
In Jackson, after singing at a local church, the chorus was preparing to leave when the minister came banging on one of the bus doors. He was in tears. He’d lost a number of congregants with his more inclusive sermons. Now, those same congregants, having watched the singers from San Francisco, told him they’d been wrong.
One morning in North Carolina, Gareth Gooch, the chorus’s photographer, came across a homemade cardboard “church” on a city sidewalk. Standing near it was a middle-aged man in jeans who introduced himself and proceeded to convey that God had told him to build the church. They got to talking, and Gooch explained why he was in town — he was a gay man on tour with a group of gay singers.
The man froze. Gooch surmised he’d never knowingly met a homosexual before. Then he proposed that they get on their knees to pray the evil spirits away. Gooch politely declined. Instead, he offered to talk about being gay. He calmly explained that it wasn’t a choice, and for that matter, he wasn’t a demon, child molester, or monster. They were all children of the same God, he said, and then thanked the man for his time. To Gooch’s surprise, the man looked him in the eye and asked for a hug. The two stood there on the sidewalk, holding each other quietly.
For some in the chorus, the tour was a homecoming. Phillip Whitely grew up closeted in a deeply conservative Baptist family in Georgia — “guns, bible college, protests at the abortion clinic, all of that.” They were a musical family, and Whitely loved them, but denying a core part of himself was crushing. He moved to California after college and came out. Two decades later, he has a husband and a psychotherapy practice in San Francisco. Though Whitely returns home regularly, his parents had never seen him sing with the guys.
Whitely has a boyish face with close-cropped hair, both of which vanish halfway through a Gay Men’s Chorus performance, when he steps out in a wig and busty ball gown as Patsy Cline. His bawdy, liquor-swigging version of the late country singer’s “She’s Got You” is a strange feat of alchemy. The lyrics tell a pop song’s simple tale of heartache — “I’ve got the records/That we used to share/And they still sound the same/As when you were here” — but somehow his yearning and shattered voice transform it into something else: a performance about being gay in America, about being an American in America.
A couple of months before leaving San Francisco, he invited his parents to the chorus’s big show in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“They have no clue I ever put on a dress,” Whitely said. “I’m excited to finally stand up and say, This is me, with no embarrassment or shame or apologies.”
On a warm, bright afternoon, the buses squealed into Knoxville. That night was the big concert at the Civic Auditorium, a vast, modern performance hall. The mayor would be in attendance (some commenters expressed disapproval on her Facebook page), as would local media. For Whitely, the focus of the evening was his parents.
Not long after he’d invited them to attend, his father told him they simply couldn’t go in good conscience. But just before the auditorium lights dimmed, a sober-looking couple arrived, he in khakis and plaid, she in a floral-print shirt. Whitely’s aunt, uncle, brother, and sister-in-law had come, too, apparently less troubled by the morality of it all. Whitely beamed, introducing them to whomever he could, and then the show began.
His parents had missed the Irish blessing that families of chorus members are given before performances, but they caught everything else: the sentimental “Brave”/“True Colors” mashup, the spiritual “Nearer My God to Thee.” And then Patsy sauntered onto the stage.
Whitely’s voice exploded, all longing and defiance and irony and sincerity. As he extracted from his cleavage a framed photo, a handsaw, a golf club, and other ridiculous items, the camp and the heartbreak swirled in a weepy celebration of all that is impossible and beautiful and absurd in life. I watched the woman in the seat next to me do a weird laugh/cry combination that felt entirely appropriate.
Whitely’s parents sat stone-still. No laughing, no crying. When the rollicking Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir came onstage at the end — 50 members had come on tour with the Gay Men’s Chorus — Whitely’s parents were just about the only audience members not dancing. Whitely’s dad’s arms were crossed.
After the concert, Whitely’s parents stood quietly under the house lights as admirers dropped by to gush over their son. Amid all the praise, his dad put out a hand and patted his shoulder.
“I love you, and I’m so happy to see you,” he said. But not a word about the performance, nor from his mom. When a friend said something about Whitely’s solo, she said, “Well, you should hear his sisters sing.”
Then it was time to say goodbye, and Whitely felt something shift. “When they were leaving, he couldn’t just say goodbye and walk out the door,” Whitely said of his father. “He kept looking back awkwardly. I felt bad for him — like I was seeing him as an old man for the first time. It was one of those moments where you realize, Your time’s done.”
A few weeks later, long after the hundreds of singers got back on planes and returned to the Bay Area, Whitely flew to Georgia for Thanksgiving. He brought his husband, Antonio. They played with the nieces and nephews, ate turkey, flew back to California.
Afterward, Whitely’s father sent him a text: “We love you guys.” One of those words was new, and maybe that was something.