By Krista Thomas, Cal Performances’ Associate Director of Communications
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC), who performs with us this December, has been a powerful voice of change since its founding 45 years ago. Created by Jon Reed Sims who recruited members by way of flyering the city’s telephone poles, the group was organized with the simple goal of providing more music for the local Gay Freedom Day Parade. However, less than a month after their first practice, the chorus of already more than 100 singers was pulled toward a more serious subject.
November 27, 1978, the night of the group’s fifth ever rehearsal, marked the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Moved by the city’s sense of loss, over 100 members of the chorus followed the candlelight vigil march onto the steps of SF City Hall and, in an emotional moment, spontaneously began singing. Just like that, the choir made their first public appearance—one rooted not just in the idea of a celebration of identity, but committed to the true work of the community, of calling for justice and working for solidarity.
Following this performance, they held their first formal concert in December. The group credits a significant portion of their publicity and resulting sold-out shows those first few years to a public standoff with the San Francisco Chronicle which, in 1979, refused to publish the cover art for their “Lovers Too” concert that featured a drawing of two men kissing. The chorus protested by blocking the entrance to the newspaper’s office and, in the end, was able to generate significant press and community support. (The Chronicle would prove to be a great ally and champion of the chorus later on!)
In 1981, SFGMC embarked on their first national tour—a costly endeavor that necessitated three SFGMC members taking out mortgages on their houses! But the investment was one that undoubtedly paid off. This landmark tour hit nine major cities across all regions of the US and is credited as the direct inspiration for many gay men’s choruses that sprung up immediately following. Lauded affectionately as the “grandfathers” of the gay choral movement, SFGMC sparked a true national (and, later, even international) trend which is still evidenced in the official histories of local groups like the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC as well as the national Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA), which formed to help organize this plethora of new organizations.
The tour finished with a home concert in San Francisco, during which the chorus received the key to the city. And while the tour was and continues to be cause of tremendous celebration, it coincided with the very beginning of a period of great difficulty for the choir and the nation at large: The same San Francisco Chronicle issue that celebrated the group’s return also bore the headline “A Pneumonia that Strikes Gay Men.” What at this time in 1981 was positioned as a small and perplexing outbreak would, in the decades to follow, become known as the HIV/AIDS Epidemic.