‘BASTA!’ Heartland Men’s Chorus’ world premiere marks 50th anniversary of gay-rights milestone
There’s only so much oppression that you can withstand before you finally burst out and shout: Enough! That’s pretty much what happened at the Stonewall Inn on June 28th, 1969, when one of the habitual police raids on the Greenwich Village tavern turned violent. The ensuing series of protests in and around the bar, which catered to New York City’s gay, lesbian and transgender communities (and which in 2016 was named a National Monument), drew nationwide press and sparked new worldwide awareness.
This year marks the half-century anniversary of the curious series of incidents that is now recognized as the beginning of America’s gay-rights movement. In Kansas City one of the first events of 2019 to mark the occasion is Heartland Men’s Chorus’ Stonewall 50: All of Us, March 23rd and 24th at the Folly Theater. Featured is a multimedia “cantata” called Quiet No More: A Choral Celebration of Stonewall 50, a co-commission by HMC, the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and some 20 other choruses nationwide. The “roving world premiere” will culminate in a grand Carnegie Hall performance on June 27th (in which several HMC members will be among the 400 voices onstage).
But because it is first out of the docket, Heartland Men’s Chorus claims bragging rights to the actual world premiere, which it intends to do up full-throttle. “We’ll tell the story of Stonewall in a way that that celebrates that historic moment,” said Dustin Cates, HMC artistic director since 2014, “with theatrical design, costuming and staging, and lighting design.” Quiet No More includes songs by six composers (Michael Shaieb, Our Lady J, Julian Hornik, Ann Hampton Callaway, Michael McElroy, and Jane Ramseyer Miller), stitched together with a narrative by New York activist and historian Jason Cannon.
“We specifically selected composers who were active in the … LGBTQ choral movement,” said Joseph Nadeau, former artistic director of the LA chorus (and before that, of HMC), who together with NYC-GMC Artistic Director Charles Beale mapped out the co-commission. “They include gay men, people of color, trans composers, lesbian composers, young people, and veteran composers. So it is a widely diverse collective … representing all kinds of experiences, angles, and interpretations of the Stonewall riots.”
The HMC program also features performances by Kansas City Women’s Chorus’ “Heartsong” ensemble and by Choral Spectrum, a new mixed-voice choir that aims to serve all segments of the LGBTQ community. Stuart Hinds, assistant dean for special collections at UMKC, will discuss Kansas City’s involvement in the movement, in pre-concert talks. “After Stonewall,” Stuart said, “you start to see, nationwide, almost immediately … the rise of what becomes then the gay liberation movement.”
Kansas City now has three choirs that function to serve and welcome people of the LGBTQ community: a reflection of just how dramatically North America (which now claims more than 200 gay and lesbian choirs) has changed. The first choruses, in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, were formed in 1978 and 1979, initially as a reaction to the assassination of Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay elected official. Many more were formed in the 1980s: Heartland Men’s Chorus, founded in 1986 and now including some 150 singers, remains among the most firmly established.
An essential step for Dustin has been educating people about Stonewall and its long-term impact for society. “This is something that resonates for everyone, which is why we’ve titled the concert All Of Us. Because rights are rights. And at the moment when we’re all involved with advocating for the rights of all people, that’s when we’re unified. … And that’s not ignoring our differences, it’s celebrating them.” Dustin, who has taught courses at UMKC as part of his doctoral program, said he is still amazed how little people today know about the gay past. “A lot of my LGBTQ kids have no idea that Stonewall ever took place. They have no idea that that’s why Pride happens in June.”
Partly for this reason, he said, All of Us has educational elements built into it: to show that “here’s what happened … but also here are some specifics of the Stonewall uprising that are not always discussed.” For example, many people even in the LGBTQ community are unaware of “that the trans and drag communities were pioneers” in the movement. People on the gender spectrum have always been among the most abused in our society, and this remains the case even today. “They were first to speak out and say, no! … We owe it to them. Sometimes they are people who are on the fringes but they were central to bringing this movement to fruition.”
Many might not remember that until the 1970s, homosexuality in America was considered a psychological disorder. “We knew in our hearts that it wasn’t wrong and it wasn’t shameful,” Joseph said, “but the rest of society taught everybody that was the case. … What happened was, when you just keep being told over and over again that you’re a freak and you’re queer and you’re sick and you’re perverted, suddenly there comes a time when you say, No, enough is enough. And for me and a lot of people, Stonewall Inn was that moment.”
One of the compositions on HMC’s program, by Jane Ramseyer Miller, summarizes this sentiment: “Start at home. Speak out. Change what you can! Never again be silent! Never again be alone!” Including this in the program was important, Joseph said, because it talks directly to each of us. “What will you do when your ‘Stonewall moment’ comes,” he said, “and you are faced with, Okay, I have to take a stand and step forward?”
Has progress been made? Of course. “It’s important for us to say that this was the start of a liberation movement that paved a way for things like my husband and I to be able to adopt a child,” Dustin said. “So yes, some of the significant things that have happened in the lifetime of someone who was even born even 15 or 20 years ago, have happened because of the things that have occurred at Stonewall.”
Yet despite substantial victories, hearts and minds have yet to be won over. Moreover, the 1964 Civil Rights Act has never been amended to include sexual orientation or gender identity under Title VII: In more than half of the 50 U.S. states, including Missouri and Kansas, LGBTQ people are not protected from discrimination in housing or employment. “People will say, That’s discrimination, they can’t do that!” Dustin said. “Absolutely they can do that, they can fire me for being gay!”
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