The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles kicked off its 40th anniversary last week with a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The concert, a collaboration with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus and others, commemorated the uprising at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago this month.
Chorus member Rob Gordon remembers walking into the first GMCLA rehearsal 40 years ago in West Hollywood. He’d seen the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus perform on tour at Hollywood High School the year before and after that, “pretty much everywhere they went, a chorus sprang up, like they were Johnny Appleseed.”
Gordon, known in the group as a “first nighter,” said he sensed something powerful about the chorus from the get go.
“You know, even in 1979, any time a large group of gay people got together in public it felt like a revolutionary act,” he recalled. “Because it basically didn’t much happen.”
The chorus formed only 11 years after the police raid at the gay bar Black Cat Tavern in Silver Lake on New Year’s Eve, 1966. The Los Angeles Police Department regularly raided bars and harassed LGBT businesses, relying on laws prohibiting lewd behavior and indecency.
The Black Cat raid and subsequent protests were a precursor to the uprising at Stonewall a year-and-a-half later. So by the late ‘70s, Gordon was eager to join a group where men had to be out to be in it. He said it was deliberate choice to put the word gay in the group’s name.
“I remember feeling right from the very first rehearsal that this was a very ambitious group that really wanted to accomplish something,” he said.
What that something could be was undefined and no one at the time knew how much work running a nonprofit arts organization would take.
“We raised money by passing the hat at rehearsals,” he said. “But really the energy from the very beginning was very strong.”
Certainly, no one was thinking 40 years down the road. A few short months ago, the entire organization was close to folding.
“I wasn’t sure at first whether we could continue,” Lou Spisto, executive director of the chorus, said. “We all kind of took a very serious look at where we were and it did not look that promising.”
The chorus was mismanaged under previous leadership that created turmoil and pushed it into a deep financial hole. Spisto, a former board member, has experience as a turnaround man in arts organizations so he was called to take over the executive position in February. He knew what had to happen would be drastic. He set about cutting the production budget and overhead, and laid off staff. Then he went on a fundraising mission. It seems to have worked.
“I’m not going to tell you that we are incredibly stable,” Spisto said. “I’m going to tell you that we’re turning the corner and we’re working towards stability. We’re continuing to assess where we go and who we are.”
The chorus has a double identity. It is part performing arts nonprofit and part social activism organization. It was this identity that drew Rob Gordon to it in the beginning.
“The thought occurred to me … that music would be a great soft sell for getting some public coverage of the gay community,” Gordon said. “Because, really, discussing anything gay in the media was still very difficult. So if you put together a musical group, who was explicitly gay and if you performed well enough so you attracted some attention for that, it would produce more outness, more media coverage, more awareness. It would produce the situation where the better you sang, the more political good you would do.”
The Right to Fight
The foundation for this right to assemble and express themselves was decades in the making, according to Brad Sears, executive director of The Williams Institute, a think tank focused on LGBTQ+ policy and law.
Well before the Black Cat or Stonewall, Los Angeles was a hub of activism and legal action on behalf of the community. The Mattachine Society was founded in L.A. in 1950 and it became an important political organization within a few years. Its now-defunct publication One Magazine – whose August 1953 cover story was titled “Homosexual Marriage?” – launched the Supreme Court case that ultimately allowed the widespread dissemination of LGBT literature.
“What rights do you need to fight for,” Sears said, “to even be a group in the United States? You had to have the right to express yourself. So First Amendment rights of expression were really important. Then there was the right to association. Obviously you needed to be able to come together and form groups to form a community. And this was necessary both socially and politically.”
Most states had laws that prohibited gay people from congregating, particularly in bars. Part of alcohol beverage control regulations said you couldn’t serve alcohol to “known homosexuals … so it’s important to remember that without these basic First Amendment rights, Stonewall wouldn’t have happened, Black Cat wouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Neither would GMCLA exist.
The chorus has weathered the political battles of the past 40 years, and today has about 300 members. Rob Gordon, 76, is one of only a handful of first nighters left. He has sung in every show but two (there are three a year). He sees the generational divide in younger members not as one in which many young men don’t know what it was to be closeted, but as one of life and death.
“The big dividing line is the AIDS epidemic. Because people who are too young to have watched all their friends die are in a different circumstance,” he said. “After a while [in the 80s and 90s] we decided that unless there was a really strong reason for it that we wouldn’t sing funerals for anybody but our members because there were just too many, and even so there was a period of some years where we were singing a funeral a month.”
Into the Future
Under new leadership, the chorus is moving cautiously, but optimistically.
“We are asking ourselves what are we to be in the next 40 years?” Lou Spisto said, “because we are now in a very different place than we were in 1979.”
Spisto wants to see the chorus stabilize and refocus on its existing community outreach programs including music education in L.A. schools and juvenile halls. He wants to see more free concerts in neighborhoods throughout the city to reach more people “who need our voice to help them find their voice.”
He also wants to finally realize the goal of creating a permanent endowment for the organization to make sure it survives any future financial instability.
Lastly, he wants more commissioned work from diverse composers like “Quiet No More,” the massive eight-movement tribute to Stonewall that the chorus performed Thursday night to that packed house in New York City.
“I think as the rainbow flag expands, we have to look to all populations and all kinds of people who can help create work for us,” he said, “who we can help build their own voice.”
Onstage a lot of voices were represented.
The piece, co-commissioned by the New York and L.A. choruses and 18 others from across the country, was a collective effort by seven composers two years in the making, sung by 564 men and women from 11 of those groups.
“Fifty years from Stonewall and it means a lot, it’s a great moment,” Spisto said. “Forty years since we began. These are really important milestones and we need to use this as a platform from which to build. And to sort of reaffirm who we are and what we can be for this community.”
The chorus and its guests will perform “Quiet No More” at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Aug. 16.