Most people who live in LA – especially those in the LGBTQ community – are familiar with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.
The group, more fondly known as GMCLA, has been a local institution for nearly four decades, a mainstay of the annual arts calendar in the city and a treasured source of entertainment among all their devoted followers. Their annual holiday concert is a must-attend event for thousands of queer Angelenos and their families, every December.
Though it’s now a firmly established arts organization, with non-profit status and a list of prominent donors and patrons that reads like a who’s who of local civic leadership, it didn’t start out with such a lofty pedigree.
GMCLA grew out of a grassroots movement that started in San Francisco, when a group of men gathered on the steps of City Hall to sing after the 1979 assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Those men formed the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the first such group in the country. Two months later, 99 other men came together to sing at Plummer Park Auditorium in Los Angeles, and GMCLA was born as well.
“It was really the start of the next chapter in the LGBT civil rights movement,” says Jonathan Weedman, who serves as GMCLA’s executive director.
“What people didn’t realize then was that in three years our lives would be turned upside down by the AIDS epidemic. The gay chorus movement suddenly had more urgency and more profundity, because they were singing for their lives.”
In those dark years, the GMCLA became the voice of the LGBT community in Los Angeles, turning up to sing at memorial services, celebrations and activist events. Its members would even volunteer on Christmas to sing carols to the men languishing in the AIDS wards at hospitals – a tradition that continues to this day, though such wards are, thankfully, a thing of the past and the holiday cheer is now directed toward all patients.
“They took on a central role throughout that crisis,” Weedman says, “and they’ve continued to play it ever since. Through the fight for marriage equality, the fight to be included in military service – the chorus has always been there, for 40 years.”
More recently, though GMCLA has continued to stand at the forefront of issues affecting the community, hard-won progress in the fight for equality has allowed for an atmosphere in which their status as an activist organization may have faded a bit from public memory.
Now, as they launch their 40th anniversary season, the group is returning to the spirit of activism, which marked its beginnings with “Dos Coros Una Voz!” It will be an extravagant joint concert presentation in collaboration with Mexico City’s own Gay Men’s Chorus – Coro Gay Ciudad de México – on October 13.
A massive, logistically challenging undertaking, this event is the culmination of nearly two years of planning.
Weedman explains, “Five days after the 2016 presidential election, I was hired as executive director of GMCLA, and I realized that our work suddenly had become 10 times more important than it was before. The challenges presented to us by this new administration would require a return to our activist roots. We would have to be a voice for resistance, for change, for social justice – all the things that our community has always stood for.”
A few months later, Weedman and his husband were planning a trip to Mexico City.
“I thought, ‘Gee, I wonder if there’s they have a Gay Men’s Chorus there?’ It turns out there was, of course. We met their founder and their leadership, we went to a rehearsal, and I decided I would invite them to come up a year later. When I came back to LA, we got to work on the programming – we arranged for the venue, we made plans for the content and the messaging of the show. One year later, we went back down there, took them all out to dinner – the entire chorus, 65 guys – and I told them, ‘One year ago I said you were all coming to LA – and you are.’”
“For me, it’s probably the most important and proud thing I’ve done in my life,” Weedman says. “Ever.”
The concert will take place at Glendale’s Alex Theatre, the performance space that GMCLA has called home for the past few years. It’s a collaboration that will commemorate and celebrate the rich traditions and history shared by both the United States and Mexico.
During the concert, the two choruses will also be joined onstage by Mariachi Arcoiris de Los Angeles, the world’s first LGBTQ Mariachi Band. Together, GMCLA and Coro Gay Ciudad de México will perform a wide array of beloved Mexican and Mexican-American music, paying tribute to artists such as Juan Gabriel, Gloria Trevi, Selena and Los Lobos.
There will also be other cultural components and celebrations throughout the week of this exchange, including a concert on Oct. 12 at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, where together the two choruses will sing for students in appreciation of the city’s diverse communities.
“At a time in this country when we are facing so much negativity surrounding our relationship with our southern neighbors,” says Weedman, “we wanted to make a powerful statement by reaching across the border and saying, ‘We’re you’re brothers, we love you, we share a common history and tradition, heritage and humanity, and we want you to come up here and sing with us.”
“It sounds so corny, but we really do want to build bridges and not walls.”
Dr. Joe Nadeau, GMCLA’s Artistic Director and Conductor, echoes these sentiments. “Over the past year our connection to Coro Gay Ciudad de México has grown. In looking at our 40th anniversary season, we wanted to create a way to kick it off with a bang, and we thought that an international collaboration between our choruses would be a fantastic way to go.”
He continues, “Personally, I’ve felt frustrated with the recent political developments between the U.S. and Mexico. I want to offer a completely different view on how our two choruses, our two cities, and our two countries can work together. We, of course, can do this through the universal language of music.”
For their part, the Mexico City group – which has been reaching out internationally to other gay choral organizations, as well — is excited and eager to join GMCLA for this show of solidarity between nations.
Oscar Urtusástegui, Board President and founding member of Coro Gay Ciudad de México, says that it’s really a dream come true.
“As we started we watched lots of videos of gay choruses,” he says, “and the one we most wanted to be like was GMCLA. For a 5-year-old organization such as ours, sharing the stage with such a prestigious organization is an honor, and at the same time makes the friendship much stronger between us.”
Like Weedman, Urtusástegui believes that the collaboration between their two groups is an opportunity “to show that building bridges – between two choruses, two cities and two countries – only makes us stronger and more powerful.”
Weedman says GMCLA took pains to make sure everything would go smoothly when it came time for the Mexican chorus to make the trip.
“These guys are excited,” he says. “For many of these men, it’s the first time they’ve left the country. They are coming up here for 8 days, so we’ve raised money for their hotels, their food, their transportation. Southwest Airlines is generously flying all of them up here for nothing. We even went so far as to meet with then U.S. Ambassador Barbara Jacobs, an Obama appointee, to make sure they would all get visas. We wanted to make sure they could get up here.”
He adds, somewhat proudly, “There are very few arts organizations who would invite a group of more than 60 gay Mexican artists to come into the country three weeks before the midterm elections, or that would assemble as distinguished a group of supporters as we have for this event.”
He’s not exaggerating, either. GMCLA has gathered a Distinguished Host Committee for the visiting chorus that includes such names as Eric Garcetti, Dianne Feinstein, Richard Bloom, Howard Bregman, Stephen Schwartz, and a list of luminaries too long to mention here. Even actor William Shatner is among them.
It’s this kind of overwhelming community support which makes Weedman confident that not only is GMCLA doing the right thing in staging such a bold show of cooperation and mutual respect with its Mexican counterpart, but that it has both the will and the ability behind it to keep aspiring toward positive change.
“I believe that GMCLA is one of the foremost leaders among the gay men’s chorus groups in the country,” he says. “This concert is a culmination, an event in itself, but it’s also a first step towards a new vision for GMCLA. As we turn the page on 40 years, we have to ask ourselves, ‘what do we want to do, what do we want to become?’”
For Weedman, the answer to that question is tied to his vision of diversity. “One of the things that’s come out of this collaboration,” he says, “is the need to embrace diversity and inclusion, and to have that inform everything that GMCLA does. There’s an entire diverse LGBT community that we need to wrap our arms around as never before – with outreach and recruitment, with programming and messaging. I want to imbue the entire organization in that ethic.”
To help achieve that end, Weedman has plans to form a diversity committee of the chorus, whose task will be to advise and consent on all the group’s activities, and which will have a strong role in GMCLA’s work going forward.
“This effort needs to be intentional, deliberate, and specific,” he says. we will go out into diverse communities, reach out to other geographies. We’ve got nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of – but we need to keep doing more.”
As for the collaboration with Coro Gay Ciudad de México, that won’t end with the concert. There are plans in the works for annual exchanges, in which group members will travel to each other’s cities to perform in an educational and outreach setting. “It’s a partnership that we don’t want to be a one-time thing,” says Weedman. “We want it to be an ongoing relationship.”
“Dos Coros Una Voz!” will be presented at the Alex Theatre, 216 N Brand Blvd, Glendale, at 8pm on Saturday, October 13. An ofrenda, or “Day of the Dead” Altar will be built in the courtyard entrance to the Alex Theatre where concertgoers can pay tribute to the memory of their loved ones who have died in honor of Dia de los Muertos, and where GMCLA will also remember the over 150 Chorus Members lost to the AIDS crisis.