The Beijing Queer Chorus Visits Portland!

Posted on: August 7th, 2018 by Reid Vanderburgh GALA Articles No Comments

March 3, 2018
Day retreat. OMG, it’s becoming so real, they’re coming! We watched a short video produced for us by the Beijing Queer Chorus. Real people, saying hello to us. This makes it so much more real.

March 5, 2018
As Bob says, “The most important rehearsal of the term,” the Monday after retreat. Cementing the music in our brains. I’m so nervous about singing in Mandarin, especially singing “Never Ever.” How long have I been singing this song??? How many years, in how many venues, with how many different performers and audiences? I thought it was hard learning to sing baritone on GALA anthems I sang for years as an alto before my transition, but I am finding it’s a lot harder to sing an old familiar song in an unfamiliar language! And it’s THEIR language; will they be able to understand us at all???

March 10, 2018
There were maybe fifty chorus members at the house reception, along with all the hosts to meet their Chinese houseguests. Impromptu, when they started coming through the door, fresh from their bus ride from Seattle, we burst into applause, welcoming them from their long journey. The dream that started two years ago is finally a reality! They looked a bit stunned at their enthusiastic reception, but we just couldn’t help ourselves.
And really – what would have been more fitting? The Beijing Queer Chorus (BQC) first set foot in the United States in Denver at GALA Festival 2016. At that point, our goal of an exchange visit began taking shape. The Portland Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC) has done several exchange concerts with other US-based [choruses] in the past. With BQC, however, PGMC has embarked on a historic undertaking: ours will be the first openly-LGBTQ+ chorus to perform in mainland China. I could wax eloquent about BQC’s week in Portland and our joint concert, but I’d rather share snippets of experience [from] the hosts and guests during that magic week last March:

  • “We went on the Portland Spirit riverboat lunch. There was a couple celebrating their wedding and BQC asked if they could sing a song in the couple’s honor. When accepted, the Choir got up and entertained us with two beautiful songs! The Portland Lesbian Choir hosted a breakfast for all the women of BQC. Many of us were interviewed about life as a gay person here. Some of the interview questions were painful as it brought back times that were much more difficult. I had been a bit apprehensive about having so many [people] in my house, even though I had room. I was worried about the language since I didn’t speak any Chinese. All worries disappeared almost immediately, and we formed friendships that I hope will last. I have the privilege of accompanying PGMC to Beijing this August so I will see my friends, Vanessa, Zora, Summer and shy Akira.”
  • “I absolutely loved having the boys at my home for the time they were in Portland even though it was not good timing; I had just moved and taken on several new projects at work. But it was so worth it! Each one was grateful for having a room to themselves with a nice bed. They seemed to really like my cooking and had hearty appetites, which always makes a cook happy. As a thank you, the three of them (Chuck, Allen and Wesley), cooked a huge traditional Chinese dinner and I invited my mother. They doted on my 86-year-old mother and knocked themselves out making a meal that I will NEVER forget. We spent evenings talking about their lives in China and about their dreams. I was taken by how similar they are to any American guy. We told stories of growing up, family and lost loves. There was a LOT of laughing and some tears as well. We bonded and in the end I felt very close to them. It was a very hard good bye, with many promises of returning. I love the boys, I gave them each a key to my house to keep, so when they return, if I am working, they can just come in and reclaim their bedroom.”
  • “I was jittery with excitement when a small, tired band of bold young men and women hesitantly stepped into the fray of more than 50 singers, sponsors and hosts’ welcoming cheers. This was the first openly queer chorus in China. Up until now I didn’t know that their coming out into their culture was beginning in earnest. Our ten days together couldn’t have been more fun and more eye opening. Our house became home to the four of us, Signe the dog and Ramie and Finnegan the cats. They had a key and full kitchen privileges. We hung around in our pajamas, ate together, talked for hours, and drove them to and from many activities.

The core of the experience was how connected we became. We talked music, coming out, food, families and even politics. Their commitment to making the world better with music and by being out singers in the LGBTQ community was so strong. Sometimes we talked in the way younger women talk with older mentors about their lives, their families, their challenges. A few things that struck me as particularly endearing and sweet were:

  • Talking about dating and relationships
  • Talking about mothers
  • Letting us take care of them when they didn’t feel well
  • Showing us their performance dresses and the dresses that Rick Jung [PGMC’s executive director] gave them from his mother
  • Tuesday night at a brewery and Saturday morning at a cafe with a few singers from PLC (where they made part of their movie about couples).
  • At times we were all live-streamed and members of the Chinese LGBTQ community asked questions about relationships, coming out, challenges we face, our love for our partners and they responded to our answers with emojis and stickers of appreciation. There is something about being cheered on [by] Chinese LGBTQ folks just for being us – for giving them hope.
  • Being at the performance at Grant High School, seeing the way the high school students cheered, the beautiful performances from PGMC and BQC, Rick’s moving history of the two choirs, and especially the removing of the [singers’] masks.

When it was time to leave, gifts were exchanged, I drove them to the bus, and we all cried because we had connected at such a deep level; across generations, cultures, our
common struggles, our common joys, our excitement that BQC is leading the way for LGBTQ people in China. We hope to go to China with PGMC for their historic tour, and maybe we’ll see our young friends again in Beijing. But always we’ll be connected at the level of the heart, all our supposed different demographics is irrelevant. This was a time when we connected with music, laughter, the truth of this social justice, sharing and the moments the heart knows we’ve met true kin.”

After returning to China, here are some reflections BQC members shared about their trip to Portland:

  • Summer: “I think it takes time to build intimate relations among people, just like two cats getting along with each other usually starts with couple days of distrust and probing, how much more human beings. But the trust among PGMC, PLC and BQC comes in a very natural way. The first conversation could cover our love histories, one’s gender identity, open relationships, alienation of families, confrontation with religions, etc. We could show the softest part deep in our heart to others, thanks to the beautiful love and trust we share. This was the first time I could be myself without fearing the outside world. Also this was the first time that I came to realize that queer choirs are queers first. They offer [a] perfect environment for everybody who wants to be self, have someone to rely on when growing old, connect to others when lonely, and be witnessed and blessed for relationships over decades. The 10 days of living together [gave] me the impression that no matter how far we could be, all queer choirs belong to the same family. We love each other so unconditionally, just as we are blood tied.”
  • Akira: “This was my first time attending the event after the concert. Shaking hands, hugging and thanking built a stronger tie among performers and audience. This direct communication was so meaningful, and I would like to bring it to our own concert. This journey made me feel that when I grow old I’ll definitely sing in the chorus. It is the harbor for LGBTQ community.”
  • Ginger: “This trip let me witness the beauty of the west coast, and furthermore understand more about the queer community and exploration of different lifestyles and self-identities. Meanwhile I was very touched that music could build sincerity and love among strangers, and now I believe the meaning and necessity of common ideology. Thanks for such an unforgettable experience.”
  • Claire: “For me, the trip to Seattle and Portland is a journey of exploration. Before leaving China, we set a theme for our journey: What you would like to know about LGBT culture in the US? We had collected questions online from Chinese LGBT community, in order to bring more eyes and ears to the US. Those questions included old-age care, discrimination, and social responsibility which we really wanted to learn from a mature LGBT community. During days in the US, we were amazed by how great queer choirs could be. The wonderful voices deeply moved us, and we are grateful to the two choirs for their hospitality. And thanks to the singers and hosts who would like to be interviewed, we found the answers to our questions, the united community spirit.

The spirit of community enables people to create such great achievements. And it also helps when people [have] suffered from social problems. We believe it is community spirit that brings Beijing Queer Chorus to the US to carry out this friendly cultural exchange. We knew the love and support we received in the US was not just for us. We had the responsibility to help our people to see a different world. After going back to China, we held a sharing session with audiences from Chinese queer community on 24th March. And we are working on having more sharing sessions at universities in Beijing. [We] hope we could influence our younger generation just like we have learned from SMC, PGMC and PLC.”

  • Venessa: “This trip is a perfect chance for us to not only get closer contact with our dear American friends and more knowledge from the outside world, but also to allow us to bring back to them about what and how have we grown in the past two years since GALA Festival 2016 in Denver. It is like a bridge, to send more hope and courage, show more possibilities to us. It is like a magic mirror, from which we see our future, and send our image to those who care, love, and support us. It is like an accelerator, a mentor, to tell us about where we are heading for, about how can we get there faster and steadier, about what kind of risks might be in our way and how we shall avoid, and about where can we do even better.”
  • Mo: “I see equality as the common sense that our LGBTQ community would chase after, and this was the reason I joined Beijing Queer Chorus. But I never expected that our trip to Seattle and Portland [would] change my mind. I was angry for being treated unfairly, and I was fearful to my family being hurt. But I saw people from PGMC and PLC, high school kids, audience, and even strangers. I saw them loving us and caring about us. I saw them coming out fearlessly and living their lives unapologetically. During the last ten years I tried to serve other people in every way I could, to eliminate poverty, inequality, and hate, [but] weariness and doubt always came to me. Now I’ve learned, after this unparalleled experience, that we cannot change this world with knowledge, skills or institutions. Love is the true value that we seek, and love is the true service that we could offer.”

One last note: emboldened by their trip to Portland, seeing the possibility of living authentically and unapologetically, two men of BQC announced their engagement after their return to Beijing. They plan to be married in Portland, date TBA.

Reid Vanderburgh

Reid Vanderburgh is a retired MFT, writer, educator and consultant who sings with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus and serves on the board of Bridging Voices.He has published two books on gender and sexual identities.https://reidvanderburgh.com/

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