Thou, Lord, our Refuge

San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus stepped up when Harvey Milk was shot down

Who They Are: The world’s first out chorus and one of the largest musical groups in the world.

What They’ve Contributed: The San Francisco version of the chorus is credited with starting the choral movement. Today, there are more than 240 in the United States alone. They’ve also continually advocated for equality while giving marginalized queer people a way to heal and find acceptance through friendship and music.

Why We’re Proud: While many choruses throughout history had gay members, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was the first-ever to have “gay” in its name.

Founder Jon Reed Sims started the group after being inspired by Harvey Milk’s speeches on the importance of coming out. But some of its earliest members feared calling the group “gay” would discourage people from joining or leave them open to harassment and worse.

Then, during the group’s fourth rehearsal on November 27, 1978, Milk, the first out gay elected official in California’s history, was assassinated. After concluding rehearsal, the Chorus carried copies of German composer Felix Mendelsohn’s “Thou, Lord our Refuge” to City Hall and performed publicly for the first time at the candlelight vigil. Attendees and choral members wept as the singing began.

The group’s 1981 nine-city national tour and its related album — the first of 33 albums that the group would release — sparked interest in other cities to start their own gay choruses.

Then, a second tragedy struck: the start of the HIV epidemic. Over the next 15 years, HIV would claim the lives more than 362,000 Americans — over 250 of which were SFGMC members.

During this time, the tenor of the group became less celebratory, more somber. They performed AIDS requiems, sang at the bedsides of dying friends and listed deceased chorus-members as part of the group’s “fifth section.” Outside of rehearsals, members visited dying pals in the hospital, informed one another how to join clinical drug trials and did their best to offer love and support after some of the members’ own families had rejected them.

Sensing a need for healing, in 1996, the group’s then-conductor, Dr. Stan Hill, commissioned poet Philip Littell and composer Robert Seeley to interview chorus members about their experiences coming out, finding love, facing discrimination, serving in the military, wrestling with religion, losing loved ones and accepting themselves.

Littell and Seeley wove these experiences into NakedMan, a musical work about the bravery gay men require to love authentically and without shame. As the group began rehearsing it, members would burst into tears, hearing their own life experiences conveyed in song for the first time. During this period, Hill said that the chorus became a bit like a church where traumatized gay men could find love and healing.

It’s merely one example of the many ways the SFGMC has continued its political engagement into the current day.

In 2013, Broadway composer Andrew Lippa interviewed chorus members who performed at Milk’s candlelight vigil and turned their experiences into oratorio that the chorus performed on June 26, 2013, nearly 25 years after Milk’s death and the day that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

Two years later, the chorus raised over $30,000 for the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, a local K-5 public school that emphasizes non-violence, diversity and strong family and community connections.

The new performance space of San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus
The new performance space of San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus

In 2017, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus performed 25 concerts in seven days in four states considering discriminatory legislation. Their tour was an attempt to bridge the widening chasm of the American political landscape, and director David Charles Rodrigues filmed it for his documentary, Gay Chorus Deep South, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Rodrigues said: “The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is one of the tightest, most loving, embracing communities I’ve ever witnessed in my life. These men, the rehearse every Monday and Thursday for a full year with almost no time off. They’re so dedicated. It is their church. It’s a church that promotes love without boundaries, that promotes just being there for each other.”

Stunningly, the group operated all these years without a permanent rehearsal space of its own. Only this year did the group purchase a $9.6 million building in San Francisco’s Mission District at 170 Valencia Street. Not only will the building serve as the chorus’ permanent home, but the group has also taken steps to establish it as a national center for the arts.

It’ll be the first-ever LGBTQ arts center in the United States and will eventually provide free and highly discounted space for queer-related art groups, cultural activists, community leaders, educators and showcases that might not thrive otherwise in a city where community space is limited and expensive.

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