“Keepers of the Light”: A Musical History of the Boston Gay Men’s ChorusHistorians in the News
tags: gay history, musical history, LGBTQIA history, Boston Gay Mens Chorus
Bridget Keown is a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Her dissertation focuses on the experience and treatment of war trauma among British and Irish women during the First World World. Her research interests focus around issues of gender, violence, imperialism, and the history of medicine during the First World War and Irish War of Independence.
Music forms a critical part of every documented human culture, providing a functional and emotional form of communication. Studies show that individuals who make or listen to music experience heightened levels of oxytocin and endorphins, resulting in decreased pain perception and relief from symptoms of depression. Within groups, creating music can sync heartbeats, leading to psychological group bonding and improved feelings of self-esteem.1 In short, music accomplishes deep psychological, emotional, and physical work, and tells the kinds of stories that words alone cannot do. I’d like to tell you one of those stories today. It’s a story about singing as activism, mourning, memory, and hope, as well as one historically significant concert, specifically.
The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus was not the first gay chorus in America. That distinction belongs to the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the world’s first openly gay chorus, which held its first rehearsal in 1978. After seeing the SFGMC perform at the Boston Opera House on June 16, 1981, Josef Bevins and several of his friends placed ads in the Gay Community News, inviting volunteers to form a similar chorus in Boston. The group, known as the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, began rehearsals in February 1982, and their debut took place at the Arlington Street Church as part of the Boston Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival on June 20.2
For many, simply stepping on stage was, in itself, a remarkable feat. As one member recalled later, “The idea of going out on stage as an openly gay person was unheard of, at that point. It felt almost forbidden.” Indeed, there were a number of members for whom the professional and/or personal risks of being associated with a gay chorus were too great. In order to protect each member’s safety, the organization’s first director, Lee Ridgeway, permitted the use of pseudonyms in concert programs, and allowed members to step away before publicity photos were taken.3 For many others, however, performing with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus was liberatory. According to another founding member, “Certainly, it was intimidating to be up there [on stage], as gay men singing out in public, in Boston, for the first time… that was the way I came out. So it was… a very radical thing for me to do personally.”