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Emily Welker, Published November 24 2013

Gay men’s chorus forms in Fargo-Moorhead, joins national movement

FARGO - For a lot of people here, Sunday mornings mean church.

For a group of about 15 area men, Sunday evenings mean going back to church – to First Congregational United Church of Christ in Fargo for weekly rehearsals of the new Fargo-Moorhead Gay Men’s Chorus.

“Gay men have been singing forever,” chuckles Jon Landre, the director of the chorus. “Consider this. If all gay men were immediately visible, if we pulled out of all the choral programs in the churches, do you know how dead those programs would be?”

The chorus started just a few months ago and hasn’t performed in public yet. So it’s in the same state as the first gay men’s chorus was when it got its start in 1978 in San Francisco.

On Nov. 27, 1978, a rehearsal scheduled for a new chorus in the famously gay-friendly city became its public debut. That was the day the city’s first openly gay elected official, Harvey Milk, was fatally shot. In response, the San Francisco chorus assembled at the steps of City Hall to sing in memory of Milk – a key figure in the gay rights movement who was the subject of a 2008 film.

A musical movement was born that night, and in the 35 years since, gay men’s choruses have burst into existence, and into song, across the country.

Gay choruses formed in some large cities quickly. The Twin Cities group, whose director is mentoring Landre, is in its 33rd year. But according to the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses, or GALA, only a handful of smaller cities have gay men’s choruses. Among them are Las Cruces, N.M., which has a metro population of 214,700, and Iowa City, Iowa, with a metro population of 152,586.

Landre said one of the challenges for his chorus is its accompanist, who has arthritis which tends to kick in after an hour of steady piano-playing. Plus, his singers have occasional artistic differences.

“Everybody has an opinion,” he said.

But one of the fledging group’s biggest hurdles is geography. Fargo and the surrounding region are far more conservative than cities like San Francisco or Minneapolis. One member from Valley City, for instance, isn’t out in his home community, Landre said.

“He’ll have to deal with that,” Landre said. “We all decide on our level of comfort.”

Some gay choruses have opened their ranks to both women and straight men, something Landre said the Fargo-Moorhead troupe is considering. But as chorus member Seth Meyer points out: If a man sings in a gay men’s chorus, people are going to assume he’s gay.

That’s fine with Meyer, a 19-year-old senior in mathematics at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He came out last year after a five-year struggle and an eventual break from his Mormon upbringing. He thinks the experience of performing in the chorus could be valuable for closeted members.

Growing up Mormon made him think being gay meant three things, he said: “Being diseased, being alone and being unhappy.”

“Even coming through the doors to rehearsal, you’re acknowledging to yourself, ‘I’m gay.’ And that’s huge,” he said.

Meyer also hopes joining the chorus will fill a gap left behind after a lifetime of spending two hours every Sunday singing at church.

“I missed that. After I left the church and moved out on my own, I wanted to be part of that,” Meyer said.

Every four years, GALA holds an international singing festival, and the Fargo-Moorhead chorus is aiming to sing at the next one, set for Denver in 2016.

In the meantime, members are trying to figure out if they can pull off a holiday concert here. They’re open to performing just about anywhere, at any church that will welcome them.

The group is aware some people will be surprised it even exists, but that is part of the members’ mission.

“I see gay people as wanting to belong, wanting to be part of their communities,” Landre said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541