Where We Stand

Posted on: January 28th, 2017 by Steve Smith GALA Articles 2 Comments

Back in October, a couple of weeks before the U.S. national election, my board colleagues chose me to serve as Board president of GALA Choruses for 2017. I can recall feeling excited at the prospect of helping to lead our association through a continuing era of progress. And then November 8th happened.

Many of us know this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King. As I read it, I hear in it the voices of all of the people in our movement, people of all genders, all colors, and all backgrounds:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

So where do we — GALA Choruses — stand? And while I’m going to focus on what’s happening here in the U.S., similar strains of discord and right wing backlash challenge our members in Europe and around the world.

So where do we stand? Well, I think we can let go of one tired debate. LGBTQ choruses are still relevant. The times require our voices. How many times have we said, often by rote, that our voices change hearts and minds? How often have we talked about building bridges? We instinctively know it to be true because we have lived it.

But I will be honest. I personally have been struggling since the election. I still feel angry and disgusted. I struggle with the idea of building bridges — of finding common ground — with people who made this choice. How do we extend our hand in goodwill without validating or normalizing the turn towards hate-filled behavior we have seen in recent months? I continue to struggle.

After the election, President Obama, no doubt reeling from the result, had the wisdom to say: “We all go forward with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens, because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy.”

That was my Cher “Moonstruck” moment: I snapped out of it.

If President Obama could muster the confidence to stand and speak with respect for our electoral system, then we as choruses can damn well stand and sing. Indeed, our vibrant democracy depends on us doing so. Too many people voted out of fear, out of a sense of loss. Fear is the breeding ground of hate. We know all about this in our own lives. It is in our DNA as LGBTQ choruses to confront fear with hope. No less an expert than Harvey Milk said, “You’ve gotta give ‘em hope.” This is why we sing. We sing to engage with people. We sing to tell the truth about our lives and these are times in which telling the truth matters.

I would like to challenge those of us who lead our choruses to think about four things in the coming year.

  1. The medium is the message.
    Remember that Marshall McLuhan quote from the 60s? The existence — the very presence of LGBTQ choruses has meaning and has moral authority. We often spend so much time and energy worrying about what we will sing, we sometimes lose sight of the big picture:  the power of our voices as witnesses in our communities. When we sing with artistic excellence, our choruses present an innate authenticity and dignity that the most effusive lyrics can never express. Being there matters, now more than ever.
  1. We must take care of ourselves and our organizations.
    The demands from our community to sing at events, to champion causes, to engage, will increase in ways we have rarely experienced. As leaders, we will hear from dozens if  not hundreds of members and allies, all of whom are eager to give us their opinions of what we need to do.
    Leading a gay or lesbian chorus is challenging even on the easy days. But the times will not stand by and wait while we suffer burn out or while our choruses start to crack from infighting or exhaustion.
    We must take care of ourselves as leaders. Much like nurses or firefighters, we have to be healthy ourselves before we can help others. And while our instincts will be to pour our time, energy and resources to fight against what we see in our news feeds every day, we cannot deplete the energy and resources of our organizations and expect them to thrive.
    Let’s pace ourselves: this is a marathon, not a sprint.
    And let’s be strategic: strategy is about making choices. We must pick and choose wisely and have the courage to say no when it is in the self interest or our organizations.
  1. It’s about more than just us.
    Of course our LGBTQ identities will continue to be the focus of our missions. But the rhetoric of the election reminds us of the destructive power of division—of the time honored technique of demonizing one group as “the other.” We’ve been the other. In many places LGBTQ identities still are the other. Many of the intersecting identities that make up our choruses and our communities are also targets of this oppression. We join latinx, immigrant, African-American, feminist, and trans communities in the struggle for justice.
    We’ve been successful as a choral movement because we know how to use music to tell stories that teach…that humanize…that inspire…that tell the truth. That’s our secret sauce. Let us take that skill and extend our reach to forge new collaborations with allied communities. Let our  next round of stories be about us AND our relationships with others. “No one is free until we are all free.”
  1. Let’s develop a positive message.
    Of course we will lift our voices to resist attacks against our human rights. But in the midst of negativity, we must provide a positive vision of the world we want to live in. Through the power of music, our voices transcend words and policy and politics. We can change hearts and minds because our voices  have the ability to align hearts and minds. We are a source of the very compassion and inspiration that motivates people to work for a better world. Let’s remind our audiences what we’re fighting for.
    We’re GALA Choruses and we stand together at a time of challenge and controversy. I’m still feeling angry and I’m OK with that. Righteous anger can move us to action, and action is necessary. There is work to be done. More than we would wish for, but not more than we are capable of. Thank you for the work you do at home and for our movement. Our voices matter more than ever. GALA Choruses is here for you as we continue to change our world through song.

Steve Smith

Steven F. Smith serves as President of the GALA Choruses Board and Executive Director of the Seattle Choruses. He has provided transformative leadership for a diverse array of performing arts organizations. Most recently he served as Executive Director of Revels, a $1.4M multidisciplinary theater company, where he led a successful financial turnaround and revitalized the audience, growing attendance by 21% over a four year period. From 1995-2010 he led the acclaimed Boston Gay Men’s Chorus through an unprecedented period of growth in which he tripled its annual audience and grew its budget four-fold. Earlier positions included production for Northeastern University’s Music Department and coordinating the residency of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at the Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts. Steve also managed an international roster of concert organists and English cathedral choirs for Karen McFarlane Artists Management.

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  • Teddy Witherington

    Great blog, Steve. You’re board president for a reason and it shines through in this message!

  • Jim Johnson

    Great piece! Thanks – I needed that.