by A.J. Jano
Wait, what group is performing where?! I had to read the email twice to make sure I wasn’t imagining the words. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C. was performing at the Washington D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as part of the center’s annual lineup of holiday concerts. I had to go see this for myself!
This concert marked the first time the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has ever hosted a performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C. This came about when earlier this year Dr. Stephen Whitehead, a member of the LDS Church, presented the idea to Elder and Sister Chappell, the directors of the Washington Temple Visitors’ Center. Dr. Whitehead works with a member of the GMCW, Emérito Amaro-Carambot, and had attended a number of performances by the chorus. Elder and Sister Chappell welcomed the suggestion, listened to a recording of the chorus that touched them very much, and agreed to meet with Dr. Thea Kano, the Artistic Director of the GMCW to discuss the event.
After meeting with Dr. Kano and her assistants, Elder and Sister Chappell extended the invitation to the chorus to be part of the holiday programs at the temple visitors’ center. Elder Chappell said that they were encouraged to take this step of outreach towards the LGBT community because they knew that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (now the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square) held a joint concert last year in California with the Gay Men’s Chorus of San Francisco. Sister Chappell added that when they approached the Missionary Department about this idea, they were very supportive and saw the performance as a way “to welcome all of God’s children into this building and have them feel loved and accepted and valued and included.” The Chappells’ hope is that this concert is an outreach of love and a warm connection through music for all of us.
The sold-out Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C. performance is one the Chappells were really excited about. Elder Chappell said that only 7 of the 38 concerts in their holiday concert series have sold out so quickly. Other sold-out performances were groups returning to the visitors’ center from previous years. The GMCW is one of very few new groups to sell out this quickly, especially this early in the season.
Dr. Kano recalls the meeting in June, it was one of the hottest days of the year. Dr. Kano immediately loved the venue at the visitors’ center, saying that it was “gorgeous, and not a hard sell” to come perform there. During the meeting, Elder and Sister Chappell expressed that they wanted to focus on diverse programming for the center’s holiday concert series. Dr. Kano looked at the lineup of ensembles and groups performing at the center this month and thought it was “an extraordinary representation of the D.C. community at large.” Dr. Kano had come to the meeting ready to ask some hard questions. One of these questions was whether the chorus would be billed by its full name, as the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C.? Historically, there has not always been a comfortable bridge between the local LGBT and religious communities, and over its 39 years, the GMCW has performed at other religious venues to which they were invited but where their hosts were unwilling to use the full name of the chorus. This was a deal-breaker for Dr. Kano, saying, “We are what we are!” Not only did the Chappells agree that the full name of the chorus would be used, but they also wanted the concert to reflect the diversity of music that represents the chorus.
The hour-long performance included bellringers playing the handbells, African drums, a dancer, and even balloons. The rich voices of the chorus, with two sections of tenors, one section of baritones, and one section of basses, filled the theater and captivated an audience of several hundred people of all ages. There were a number of international Christmas songs from around the world, holiday favorites like Adeste Fideles (O Come All Ye Faithful) and It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, along with newer songs like Dear December by Bobby Jo Valentine. Several members of the chorus, some with LDS backgrounds, spoke about touching personal experiences and the importance of love and inclusion. The chorus closed the evening with what Dr. Kano called their “anthem,” which they sing at all their performances, Make Them Hear You from the musical Ragtime. The audience gave a standing ovation.
It truly was a beautiful concert and very befitting a season that celebrates the birth of One who taught “love your neighbor as yourself” and “love one another as I have loved you.” The mood had been set as you drive onto the temple grounds and are immediately transported to a wonderland of lights and colors on a massive scale. The Festival of Lights at the temple is breathtaking and definitely evokes the holiday spirit. The feeling continues as you enter the visitors’ center and you are struck by the number of very large beautifully decorated Christmas trees and then you find yourself standing before a larger-than-life statue of the Reason for the Season – the Lord Jesus Christ. The experience was awe-inspiring and gave rise to a swell of mixed emotions. After the concert, the hall was buzzing with the sound of all the attendees talking about the concert. The air filled with the joy and upbeat spirit that this group of queer singers and musicians left in the hearts of the audience.
Beth, a Methodist from Atlanta, Georgia, was here with a friend. She said the concert was amazing and particularly loved the song Dear December. She added that this must be “a big deal for the congregation,” referring to the LDS Church, and she loved how the church was bringing everybody together and how it was all about love. She said that she had hope that this means a better future for relations between religious institutions and the LGBT community.
Mike, a gay man and former member of the LDS Church, also enjoyed the performance thoroughly. Commenting about the uniqueness of seeing a gay men’s chorus concert at an LDS visitors’ center, Mike laughingly said, “This ain’t my mama’s church no more.” He added that he thinks this concert will relieve some of the tensions that exist between the Church and the LGBTQ community, emphasizing that there is still a long way to go. He jovially concludes, “That is a Sacrament Meeting that I would go to.”
Aaron, James, and Marc are members of Affirmation: LGBT Mormons, Families & Friends. They talked about how surprised they were when they first heard about the concert. James couldn’t believe that the Church would put the name of the chorus on its Facebook page. They all thought the show was great and was a positive step. Aaron commented about the dancer and wondered if everyone in the audience was comfortable with a shirtless dancer performing at the visitors’ center. They loved the song Dear December, but they were really glad to hear the closing song Make Them Hear You.
One prominent audience member was none other than JaLynn Prince. Having directed over 600 performances at the venue, she declared the concert to be “absolutely amazing!” She felt that this was one of the most, if not the most, significant performances that she has seen at the visitors’ center because “bridges were being built, some unspoken things being spoken, and [the concert was] putting a face on people” from a community that typically remained hidden. She added, “I think this was extremely powerful!” What touched JaLynn most were the statements made by chorus members with LDS backgrounds. “I assume they’re all former members. It sounded like that’s how they framed it. There’s still fondness about the tradition; they’re still carrying with them a part of it. I can only imagine, though, the loneliness of being separated from that, wanting to have a bridge there, and not having the bridge built. I think tonight a lot of bridges were perhaps constructed to help other people not necessarily have to go through all of that angst.”
For me, this concert evoked a swell of conflicting emotions. I cannot deny that having the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington D.C. here is a huge milestone for the Church. It does build a bridge and it does raise hope that at some point in the future the Church may be more accepting of who we are as queer children of God. I certainly pray for the young generations of LGBT members currently in the Church, and I hope, as JaLynn said, that events like this can pave the way for a time when others will “not necessarily have to go through all of that angst.” I’m very grateful for the GMCW and their willingness to be a voice and a beacon for the rest of us. I’m also grateful for Elder and Sister Chappell and the visitors’ center for hosting this event and doing what they can to lay a foundation of inclusion.
Real and sturdy bridges aren’t built so quickly and easily. A single concert is only one step forward in a longer process of change and healing. The loneliness and angst of which JaLynn spoke were very real for me on that day. Earlier in that afternoon, I received a letter in the mail from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City confirming that my name was permanently removed from the records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I am no longer a Mormon. Yes, this was done at my request, but I didn’t resign my membership because I stopped having faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I resigned because I saw no bridge between me and my Church. My testimony of my faith journey over the last 2 years which brought me to accept myself as a gay man is not a testimony that is accepted or welcomed in our fast and testimony meetings at Church, and if there is no room for my faith journey and testimony in the Church, then there is no room for me. In truth there is still a long way to go for the LGBT community can truly feel accepted and have a sense of belonging in the Church.
Dr. Kano acknowledged these tensions exist and that even some members of the chorus did not feel comfortable performing at the visitors’ center because of the LDS Church’s stance on LGBT issues and so they have opted not to participate in the event. However, Dr. Kano clarified, “Our mission is to raise our voice for equality and acceptance and justice for all people, and we can’t do that if we don’t show up and engage as an organization.” She added, “It comes down to one word, and that is LOVE, and what I’ve really admired and respected in my communication with everyone here at the center, from the get-go, is that word comes up in almost every conversation.” Love is what we have in common.
Sister Chappell echoes Dr. Kano’s words with her own experience. “Personally, my journey with this whole process has been so tender and heartwarming. I feel so connected to the chorus members who have come here and feel such a love for them and a genuine friendship with them. It’s been enlightening and joyful for me, and I feel like I have found new friends.”
Dr. Kano’s feelings were not only reciprocated by Elder and Sister Chappell and their entire team of sister missionaries and other volunteers; they were clearly expressed in the voices of the chorus and reflected in the rising joy and hope in the hearts of everyone in the audience – myself included.