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Outreach to HIV+ Women – NYCGMC

An NYCGMC small group is currently working in a new partnership with a non-profit in the Church Avenue area of Brooklyn, that supports HIV positive women from West Indian and other Spanish and French-speaking countries, living in a less affluent and predominantly minority neighborhood of New York City.

The chorus and social work professionals from the non-profit put together a unique and custom-built program which combines singing with personal discussion about issues around living with HIV/AIDS. Our hunch was that the groups would learn a lot from each other. After a detailed planning session, the 5 chorus singers were carefully briefed, both about the singing, the clients' needs and the talking points that might come up.

Singers sat in a circle amongst the women, informally dressed. After an initial ice-breaker chat and some introductions in mixed pairs and small groups, the rhythm of the first 90 minute session was that we sang a song and a discussion was then facilitated in which the women took the lead, and the singers (all gay men, some positive some negative) shared what the music meant to them personally as appropriate. We sang and then talked around four songs: Destiny's Child/Beyonce's 'Crazy in Love'; Edith Piaf's 'Je ne regrette rien' (No regrets); 'Twelve', from Sesame Street'; Avril Lavigne's 'Keep holding on'. Music was led by the conductor, who also played the piano, and discussion by the social work leader, both working as a team. All songs were from our past show 'Accentuate the Positive', from Summer 2011.

Topics from our wide-ranging and personal discussions included: self control in sexual situations; cynicism about men after past bad experiences; stigma and coming out to family and friends, as gay or as HIV positive; statistics about who was most at risk in 2013, focusing on MSM and bisexual men of color; guilt and learning not to blame yourself; and living a positive life as someone living with HIV through finding a community lie a gay men's chorus. We finished with a song chosen by the women, 'Amazing Grace', which they were encouraged to sing with us if they liked. Many did, though some simply sat and listened attentively. There were tears on both sides and, as we had hoped, deep feelings of connection emerged.

Afterward, several chorus members said it was one of the most rewarding things they had done as singers in the group. Meanwhile, in our follow up meeting the non-profit reported that the session had significant impact - the music had strong emotional power, reached them in new ways, and facilitated group members who had previous sat silently to speak up in the group, while others attended group sessions for the first time, having previously only come to one-to-one activities. The women also had a definite tendency to sing in subsequent group sessions when they felt like it, and in subsequent sessions we hope the women will gradually do more singing and less talking, though there will still be some of each. We could even end up with a choir, or at least a singing workshop. It was definite win-win for both sides, we have been invited back this month and we are actively discussing turning the workshop into an on-going activity next year that occurs as a regular part of the work of both organizations.

- Charles Beale, Artistic Director, NYCGMC

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