Since we were founded in 2008, South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus has grown significantly in ability, repertoire and ambition. We’ve been challenged – and improved – time and time again thanks to the continued efforts of our incredible musical team, and these days we regularly entertain audiences across Wales and the UK, and last year we even went to Ireland to sing at Various Voices festival in Dublin. In that time we’ve seen members come and go, and out of the ones who’ve stayed it’s fair to say that there are many different reasons for them sticking around. Some would say it’s the music, some would say it’s the company and the friends we’ve made, some would say it’s the great opportunities we get – like being invited to sing at London Pride in June 2015 (watch this space for more details!). And for some, what resonates most is the fact that we are a gay choir.
A few weeks ago you may have heard us on BBC Radio 2’s The Jeremy Vine Show. We were invited along as part of a Welsh special, recorded here in Cardiff, and during this inaugural Radio 2 appearance we were confronted with a question about who we are. Jeremy’s audience were confused (particularly on Twitter) as to why we would chose to identify as a “gay” choir, and Jeremy relayed this question to us during the interview.
Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the first time we’ve been asked “why do you need to be a ‘gay’ choir”. Despite the fact that, yes, most of us are gay, the reason we come together to sing as a “gay choir” is not because we’re afraid of standing out in a non-gay choir, nor is it because we don’t want to sing with straight men (or with women). Instead the reason many of us joined is because we share a common interest (singing) as well as a common identity and set of experiences (our sexuality), and joining a group like SWGMC was a way of combining these aspects of our lives and meeting similarly minded people. All of us have different experiences of growing up gay – in particular there is a massive difference between the experiences of older members of the choir, who grew up when homosexuality was still illegal, and those of us still in our early 20s – but being a part of this group allows us to share these experiences, and in doing so we can learn from and support each other and help to build our collective confidence. This is a great thing for any group, but especially one where mutual support and a sense of community are so important. The news is constantly peppered with stories of LGBT people around the world facing disadvantage and even hatred and abuse because of their sexuality, so providing a safe space for our members to be themselves and do something they love, and do it proudly, is something that’s very important to us.
That may be the reason we joined. As for why many of us have stayed, this is partly because we enjoy each other’s company and the sense of community we get out of singing together, but also because being part of South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus is really rather fun. When asked “Why a gay choir?” one of our members jokingly replied “… to make our straight friends jealous!” He went on to explain that so many of his friends wished they were part of a group that were as close as we are – something that’s evident from our performances that they’ve seen as well as the fun we have in our frequently brilliant after-parties and social events (check out a past blog here about the social aspect of SWGMC if you want to know more about the fun we have when we’re not performing (well, not publically anyway!))
Of course the truth is that the “gay” aspect of our identity varies in importance among our members. For some it’s a fairly minor detail, whilst for others it plays an important role in shaping who we are. When we were founded, our gay identity combined with our musical ambition helped to mark us out as an alternative way for like-minded gay men to meet each other, away from the alcohol-fuelled stereotypes that gay men often have to resort to if they want to meet and socialise with other gay men. For some members this has been a fundamental reason behind them joining in the first place. Add to this the draw of an impressive and challenging musical repertoire and an increasingly impressive performance history and it’s little surprise that the group has become as popular as it is, for both members and audiences. Thanks to our focus on great music and on providing a safe space for all, we have continued to surprise people both within and outside the gay community by helping to dispel stereotypes, highlight a different aspects of the gay ‘scene’ and help create a proudly positive and visible gay presence, all the while putting on a bloody good show.
We are greater than the sum of the words that make up our name – South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus – and if you delve beneath the surface of SWGMC you’ll find that our boys represent a diverse community of men of different ages, backgrounds, faiths, skills, career paths, opinions and of course different pitches of voice! And just as a choir wouldn’t be a choir without the different voices within it, SWGMC wouldn’t be so either without our diversity of members. It’s when our differences come together in harmony that we can truly make some beautiful music.
We are proud to be a strong and hardworking chorus who can perform proudly and confidently alongside any other choir – gay or otherwise. We have sung with other LGBT groups including London’s Pink Singers and Cardiff’s own LBT ladies’ choir, the Songbirds, and we will shortly be making our second appearance at the Cornwall International Male Voice Choral Festival to show that “gay” isn’t all that we’re about. Any prejudices that we encounter we face head on, with a smile and a non-confrontational approach. We demonstrate to society at large that the gay community is not built from stereotypes but from people, and that apart from one small detail we’re just the same as the rest of you. One thing that’s particularly great about being in SWGMC is the fact that we can be out there singing, having fun, making friends and being ourselves, and all the while we’re promoting positive images of gay men and providing role models for others in the LGBT community to look to when they are struggling – something that we know groups like Stonewall Cymru really appreciate and which helps them in the brilliant work that they do.
We’re not very evangelical or political about our gay identity (but all pride to those who are about theirs!) – instead what we do is sing great music to entertain our audiences – a positive ambition that we are proud to carry forwards! Through the challenges of learning new music together we find that we are able to make a sound that is bigger and better than any of us could make on our own, and we hope that through doing so we can show the positive power of coming together to do something you love. As well as having fun, through our music we blast old wounds out of the water and help each other exorcise common and personal demons we’ve each faced in our lives. Sometimes we’ve even seen members of the audience cry when we’ve sung and have wondered what old wounds we are helping them to heal as well. What a marvellous thing to help people feel something!
But being gay, at its core, is about little other than who you fall in love with – that’s it. Not that much of a difference when you think about it. And despite our differences, we hope to show that finding a common ground can make us strong, be it sexuality, a love of music, a favourite sport, anything. The fact is, if we were the Splott Community Choir, or the South Wales Police choir – a group who only had their neighbourhood or their job in common as opposed to their sexuality – I doubt anyone would argue that their name was exclusive or inappropriate.
Having “Gay” at the heart of “South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus” isn’t about showing what makes us different, it’s about showing what makes us the same, and using our name as a beacon of pride, community and collective strength.
The bottom line is, we are the South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus.
Loud and Proud!
Why on earth would we want to hide any aspect of that?
“Gay” is only one word out of five after all! 😉
*** written by Mark Anderson, edited and further contributions by Nick de Figueiredo – with feedback and comments from all at SWGMC