On Dec. 15 and 16, for the 40th year in a row, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles will take the stage to perform its annual holiday concert. GMCLA’s “Holiday Spectacular” (called “supremely magical” by the Los Angeles Times), brings audiences heartwarming, traditional songs alongside unexpected surprises. From raunchy reindeers to sexy Santas, each year the chorus “sleighs” the stage in every way. This year’s “Holiday Spectacular,” taking place at the Alex Theatre (216 N Brand Blvd., Glendale) is themed “Calling All Angels” and promises to be as heavenly as ever.
But GMCLA is so much more than an organization that provides one of Los Angeles’ most beloved holiday traditions. GMCLA sings for a world free from homophobia and all other forms of discrimination, and all of these aspects of what it does—brotherhood and community, concerts and performances, arts education programs—have at least one thing in common: they carry the message that all people should be able to live their lives as their authentic selves, free from discrimination and persecution.
Conductor and Artistic Director Joe Nadeau, said, “GMCLA is part of an international association of LGBTQ Choruses called GALA Choruses. GMCLA’s work with young people has inspired many other GALA choruses to create their own youth programs, which is making a huge impact across the country. Former Conductor of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, Gary Miller once said, ‘If you want to sing, join a chorus. If you want to change the world, join a gay chorus.’ Over the past 40 years, GMCLA has lived up to this statement and helped make the world a better place for not just our members, but for everyone who is able to experience our voices.”
Members collectively spend thousands of hours volunteering each year. Executive Director Jonathan Weedman said, “The one thing about GMCLA that strikes me the most is the incredible dedication and commitment that the Membership has not only for performing, but equally to give back to their Community, to making our world a better place to live. They are true Citizen Artists.”
Through youth music education programs, the Chorus has also reached more than 55,000 at-risk teenagers in underserved areas of Los Angeles County with a message of acceptance, understanding and inclusion. To help carry out its mission of education, GMCLA launched the Alive Music Project (AMP) in 2007, introducing its outstanding music to high school and middle school students.
Today, GMCLA also offers 12-week choral music education programs for youth in juvenile detention centers (in partnership with the Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network) and in public schools (in collaboration with the Partnership for LA Schools). With these programs, GMCLA brings a safe space for communication, an artistic outlet and an open forum for free expression to young people who would otherwise have none.
One member of the Chorus who has seen firsthand GMCLA’s growth and recalls various times when GMCLA has been by his side, is 24-year member and retired pastor and therapist Steve Pieters. Steve first reflected upon the height of the AIDS crisis, during which members were dying almost weekly and GMCLA became a light of hope and support system. “Two or three times a month we would have memorial services at the end of rehearsal for the fellow who died that week,” Pieters said.
While HIV/AIDS treatments improved and the steady march lessened, Pieters continued fighting his own battles, including AIDS and bouts of what was deemed terminal cancer, during which his GMCLA family always remained by his side, as in 2012. “They visited me in the hospital and then at home as I was recovering. They were so encouraging to me. Everything from bringing me groceries to just keeping me company watching TV…I knew I had all these wonderful men at my back,” he said.
In 1979, the original 99 members of GMCLA gathered at West Hollywood’s Plummer Park, marking the birth of this Chorus family. A few months later, founding director Harold Kjellberg led GMCLA through its first major event, the March on Washington, D.C. This helped lay the foundation for GMCLA’s mission that we still see today, most recently with Dos Coros, Una Voz, in which the Chorus sang with Coro Gay Ciudad de México, battling hurdles such as homeland security to put on a concert that promoted unity and love during divisive times.
GMCLA has become synonymous with artistry and advocacy. GMCLA singer, Chair of GMCLA Board of Directors, and Mayor of West Hollywood John Duran explained: “Art advocates for a point of view. Art can accomplish things more subtly…and can appeal to people’s hearts rather than their heads. GMCLA has been very involved in moving the cause of equality for LGBT people forward over the decades. It continues to do so now in schools, in juvenile detention facilities, in community concerts around the county.”
Jerwin Monje is one member who appreciates the advocacy work he is able to do as a GMCLA member. Speaking about the Alive Music Project (AMP), in which chorus members sing and share stories about coming out with students during an anti-bullying assembly, Monje said, “It was so powerful being able to say that to kids and have kids come up to me after saying that my story resonated with them or that they could relate to it, and that they were proud I had the courage to be able to tell my parents that I was gay.”
Monje also teaches for GMCLA in juvenile detention centers. “No other chorus is doing this. We’re really spearheading and piloting this movement to bring acceptance, to bring music to these kids who really need it, who need an outlet.”
The program is having a significant impact on teenagers who participate. One said, “I felt like I belonged somewhere for once in my life.” Another said, “We learned to collaborate with each other,” and yet another: “It inspired me to not be afraid of being heard.”
Men come to GMCLA to sing, to find their tribe, to inspire the next generation—or some combination thereof. Anthony Archibold, a preschool teacher, said that upon joining GMCLA not only did he find a family, he found himself. “They built me up. They made me more confident. They allowed me to wake up and say, ‘You’re gay, you’re black, and it’s okay.’ It gave me a family….it changed my life tremendously. I’ve never had so many gay friends who cared. It changed my life because it showed me that who I am is ok. Who I am is beautiful. What I am is love” Archibold said.
One favorite moment Archibold has had with the Chorus, he described in detail. “It was the holiday concert. The lights were dim and they were blue…and the song was ‘We are a family.’ We’re all on the stage and we’re swaying and tears welled up in my eyes because I thought about how I’m so far from home, literally on the other side of the country. ‘We are family, like a branching tree reaching out toward the sky.’ We’re holding each other, we’re swaying, and we’re singing, and I think that’s my favorite memory because at that point, I felt like I’m exactly where I need to be.”
Experience the holiday concert on Dec. 15 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and on Dec. 16 at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$90. Visit gmcla.org to purchase tickets and for more information.