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Rite of Passage

If there was an emotional trigger to this effort of talking with gay men about life and change, it was fired back in 2004 in Montreal, at the quadrennial festival of the international Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses, known in shorthand as GALA. I’d like to talk another time about the power and impact of the gay chorus movement; suffice it to say here that nearly 5,000 attendees from more than 100 groups around the globe converged for a week of music, community, and fun.

But the specific moment I’m thinking of was an historic one: I was witnessing the GALA debut of its first gay-identified youth group, Diverse Harmony. This Seattle-based ensemble had reached out to the growing number of Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools and colleges around Puget Sound, offering a place to sing and be safe.

Now, youth outreach is exactly the kind of concept that makes homophobes froth. “Recruitment” in their minds is the way we propagate ourselves, despite all scientific or testimonial evidence. Perhaps that is the root of yet another widespread old falsehood: that gay men are pedophiles. And I suspect that gay men—certainly of my generation—have internalized those fears just enough to be wary of any appearance of impropriety. (Pick your minority, and you’ll find the sensitivity to a negative stereotype.)

But back to Montreal: Diverse Harmony (essentially, a couple dozen teenagers facing a vast concert hall packed with strangers) put on a nice show; the audience was proud, even indulgent—there was no hesitation in giving them a standing ovation, just for their courage to show up. The trigger came at the end of their set, when their director, speaking from the stage, stopped to acknowledge, thank, and bid farewell to one of the founding members who had “aged out” of the group. (Diverse Harmony, like other choruses of its kind, limits the age of its members from 13 to 22.)

Hugs, kisses and pats, as the other singers exit stage right. The young man is standing alone as the proscenium darkens. The audience is puzzled, disturbed. A low murmur dissolves into silence when two men appear from stage left. They approach the young man and, ever so gently, begin to undress him. The audience is stunned: GALA can get campy sometimes, but it’s always a class act. The casual shirt is unbuttoned, the sneakers and baggy pants removed.

Yet a stack of other clothes has arrived, and the men quickly begin to apply the dark slacks with the satin seam, the sharply starched white shirt, then the shoes, the studs, the bowtie just so. By the time the jacket with tails is carried from backstage—and the audience has begun to put the pieces together—the hall’s speakers are loudly announcing the next act:

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the Seattle Gay Men’s Chorus!”

As two hundred tuxedoed members of one of the world’s largest and most distinguished choruses stride onto the stage, the young man –-now properly attired in the traditional formal wear—is escorted to his new place among them.

The audience explodes in cheers and pounding, and I am not the only one with tears streaming down my face. We have witnessed a rite of passage unlike anything we have ever seen.

Welcome. You have a place here. Join us.

This has cut right through the gap of reticence that has separated one generation of gay men from the next. It has touched that raw spot—and great motivator—of my generation (and so many before us): it is the stifled—maybe defiant—cry that Armistead Maupin so eloquently captured in 1978, in one of the early newspaper columns that would be collected as “Tales of the City.”

In “Michael’s Letter to Mama,” one of Maupin’s iconic characters—prodded by Anita Bryant’s high-profile, virulently anti-gay Save Our Children Campaign of the time—gets over his fears and comes out to his parents. He refutes the notion of “recruitment,” adding:

“No seasoned homosexual ever served as my mentor. But, you know what, I wish someone had. I wish someone older than me, and wiser than the people in Orlando, had taken me aside and said, ‘You’re alright, kid. You can grow up to be a doctor or a teacher just like anyone else. You’re not crazy, or sick, or evil. You can succeed and be happy and find peace with friends, all kinds of friends…Most of all, though, you can love, and be loved, without hating yourself for it.’

“But no one ever said that to me, Mama. I had to find it out on my own…” 

There’s a reason that column catapulted Maupin into international acclaim, and why, among the Boomer-generation men I’ve been talking with, Maupin is mentioned more often than anyone else with a kind of heroic appreciation. With wit, charm and honesty, he defined a time. And a cause.

We have made the world a little bit safer, and a little less isolating, for these kids. And it is time to tell the storyall the stories–of why, and how. So that they understand the importance of doing it themselves.

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