Why Pride?

On the night before Pride Cymru 2017, SWGMC Chairman Nick de Figueiredo muses on why marching is still relevant today.

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This weekend Pride Cymru is being celebrated in Cardiff. Tomorrow I March through the city with my friends in South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus, alongside other members of the LGBT+ community and our allies, in a display of pride, visibility and and community. I’m sure it will be a sight to behold, and there may even be a song or two if you catch us at the right time.

But that’s tomorrow. I’m writing this the night before, after a long week and a glass (read: half a bottle) of wine, and the weekend ahead has me thinking.

Because Pride as a concept is a tricky one, isn’t it. On the one hand, the LGBT+ community say that sexuality and gender identity are things we don’t choose – it’s just how we are made, and it’s only a small part of our personalities anyway, and actually there’s a lot more to us, and how about you just stop trying to label us okay! – yet at the same time we will happily parade through the streets together claiming to be proud of ourselves. But if we don’t have any control over these aspects of ourselves, how – and why – are we proud of them?

I’ve taken to the internet for a spot of light googling, and one prominent definition of Pride that I’ve found goes like this:

“A feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of one’s close associates, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.”

To unpick it a little, this definition is two parts achievement and one part admiration. Seems a little smug, doesn’t it? Does this mean Pride is a just big festival of back-slapping and mutual adoration before we all take our shirts off and dance to Kylie? Looking at it in this way, it sort of resembles another definition of Pride I found online: “the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance.”

Why then, in 2017, are Gay Pride celebrations still a thing? Are they relevant, or are they just an excuse for a big, gay, self-congratulatory love-in?

I think the answer lies in the context. If you know your gay history then you’ll know about the Stonewall Riots, arguably the birthplace of the gay liberation movement. The Riots happened at the Stonewall Inn in New York City, an establishment known to be popular among the poorest and most marginalised people in the gay community including drag queens, trans people, effeminate young men and butch lesbians. When police violently raided the Stonewall Inn in the early hours of 28 June 1969, the riots that followed – and the organised activism that came shortly afterwards – paved the way for the first gay pride marches. These took place in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago on 28 June 1970, marking the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. One of my favourite gay rights quotes ever is about the Stonewall riots. Sadly I can’t find it now (I have just searched through my entire twitter feed looking) but I think it was something like: “You don’t have gay rights because of what straight-acting white guys did. You have gay rights because of a sissy with a brick.”

So Pride as a movement is a direct response to oppression and marginalisation. But fast-forward to 2017 – by now well reported as being 50 years after the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales – and some people claim that Pride’s work is now done. Sure, there was the infamous Section 28 in the UK which prohibited the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools between 1988 and 2003, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell which effectively banned LGBT+ people from serving in the US military between 1994 and 2011, but those are now off the statute books and resigned to history, aren’t they? We’ve got equal treatment under the law now – heck, we can even get married – so why do we still need Pride?

I am aware of Stonewall but some of the dates and details above I had to look up to educate myself. I have set out below a list of homophobic and transphobic things that I am aware of – without having to even google ‘homophobia’ – which are happening in the world right now. Although some of the details may be off (as I say, I have not researched these and all of the information below is off the top of my head), the fact that I can call these things to mind so easily – and particularly the homophobic and transphobic rhetoric that I am aware of which surrounds each of them – genuinely worries me.

  • Chechnya, Russia, 2016/2017. Journalists report that gay men are rounded up and put in concentration camps, beaten, and potentially murdered. We don’t know the full details because the media coverage in Russia isn’t what you’d call gay-friendly. What we do know is that, when questioned, the government official in charge of the area in Chechnya where this is happening – the (ostensibly) democratically elected government official – commented that there couldn’t be a problem because there were no gay people in Chechnya. In saying this he failed to acknowledge that certain people living under his jurisdiction even exist, much less that they are being persecuted by the state.
  • Donald Trump’s America, Summer 2017. In (apparently) the “land of the free”, their Commander in Chief attempts to bar trans people from serving their country with a tweet. This was apparently to do with costs, however on closer inspection many have reported that the actual costs of supporting trans soldiers are essentially no problem at all for the US military and even Trump’s generals don’t want to support his trans military ban. Some have claimed that his tweets about the ban were a smokescreen to distract from other things, possibly building on the pre-existing anti-trans rhetoric around the “trans bathroom bills” that keep being pushed in southern states (in response to no documented threats or incidents whatsoever). Either way, a President promoting and reinforcing this sort of anti-trans rhetoric in 2017 is very worrying.
  • Donald Trump’s America, still 2017. White nationalists march through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia (I think), apparently protesting the removal of confederate statues while most definitely carrying swastika flags (yes, actual Nazi flags), chanting racist and anti-semitic chants and fighting, resulting in injuries and at least one death.
  • UK, 2017. After losing an election she didn’t need to call in the first place, Prime Minister Teresa May’s government unashamedly bribes the DUP – a Northern Ireland party with staunchly homophobic, misogynistic and anti-feminist views and policies – with £1.5 billion of public money in return for propping up her now majority-less government.

So from a logical point of view it may not make sense to be “proud” of sexuality, gender identity or any of our other inherent characteristics. But we don’t need Pride because of what it is, we need Pride because of what it fights against. Context and circumstances make Pride – as an event but also as an LGBT+ concept – absolutely vital, because the alternative is toxic and deadly. I am 28 years old, and I don’t recall a time in my memory when Pride has been more necessary.

Pride is the antithesis, the cure, the rallying cry. Pride says: “I am here. I am this. I demand acknowledgement. I demand respect”. And yes, some aspects of Pride events can be light-hearted or silly or overtly sexual or camp, but it doesn’t matter whether we’re at Pride to march or to dance – what matters is that we’re there at all. What matters is that Pride – and gay bars, and gay social groups, and gay choirs – exist as a space which is our own, and within which we can express ourselves, be who we are, and be visible. Because Pride isn’t shame. Pride isn’t being alone. Pride isn’t being rejected or murdered just because of who you are or who you love. Pride literally saves people’s lives.

But Pride’s work is not yet over. Disrespect, intolerance and violence are all alive and well. They manifest themselves in homophobia, transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, classism, and many other outlets that we don’t even have names for. They are happy to create misery, even take lives, whether through violence or through shame. Only pride – big, brash, loud, unashamed pride – can fight back.

So I will march tomorrow because I need Pride, as we all do. We need to be proud of our sexuality, and our LGBT+ community, because the alternative is shame, and shame can kill us.

I hope that one day we do not need Pride. Sadly, I don’t think tomorrow is that day.

 

 

Wales and London, a glorious Brotherhood

11425219_786979201417093_4758403475791285004_oSo after months of preparation, another concert date is proudly ticked off on the SWGMC calendar. This time it was a particularly manly affair (although isn’t it always!?) as the boys of South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus took to a stage bedecked with power tools and sports gear for ‘Brotherhood – a Celebration of Masculinity’.

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If you came to see us we hope you enjoyed yourselves as much as we did, and I’m sure you’ll agree that a huge level of credit is due to all involved, especially Andy Bulleyment and the SWGMC music team for their amazing work once again in putting together a fun, engaging and enjoyable concert.

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But enough about us. We were also thrilled to welcome to the Gate our guest choir for the evening, the amazing Barberfellas, for their debut performance in Wales. Affectionately known as the Barbies, they are an off-shoot of our London-based friends the Pink Singers (who, if you’ve ever seen them in concert, you’ll know are utterly fabulous!). As well as their stellar performances both the Pink Singers and the Barberfellas run a few websites and blogs of their own, and so – not content with just hearing them sing – we’ve also persuaded them to do a guest blog for us giving their experience of last weekend, as well as a brief history of the Barberfellas and their place in the barbershop tradition. Enjoy!

“The Glory of Wales – London’s Barberfellas join SWGMC for “a Celebration of Masculinity”
By Mark Winter

Barbershop singing with a twist! – that’s what we gave the good folk of Cardiff at the Gate Arts and Community Centre on 6 June 2015. We’d braved the M4 in our canary-yellow minibus as guests of our friends at the South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus for a celebration of all things manly.

Performing in both halves of the show, we shared our unique take on traditional barbershop singing with some classic a capella, close harmony pieces – Under the Boardwalk, The Glory of Love and Over the Rainbow.

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Barbershop singing is one of the oldest macho singing pursuits and sprung up in last half of the 19th century where American barbershops often served as community centres, where most men would gather; they would harmonise while waiting their turn, vocalising in spirituals, folk songs and popular songs.

Things have moved on since then and female as well as mixed barbershop singing is gaining popularity, although in national and international competitions male, female and mixed groups don’t compete against each other.

The Barberfellas are here to challenge those stereotypes by presenting the barbershop sound and look, but with a twist. We are probably the only LGBT mixed group that exists anywhere in the world. And we’re certainly the only one in heels!

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Our second set of the evening brought a touch of masculine glamour to the proceedings as we donned our stilettos and popped our corks to the sassy strip-tease sounds of Big Spender, U2’s pensive lullaby MLK (written to honour Martin Luther King) and an exclusive arrangement, written just for the Barberfellas, as a homage to every boy’s favourite – the diminutive Miss Minogue.

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Thank you to everyone who came to the show and enjoyed our performance and we hope to be singing again for you soon!

Barberfellas: making heels manly again.

So, SWGMC say a huge thank you to Mark for his lovely contribution to our blog, and thank you again to all of the Barberfellas for joining us on stage! It was a pleasure to sing with you and we’re already looking forward to the next time we can share a stage – even though most of us will never be able to pull off heels as well as you did!

A ‘Gay’ Chorus – To be, or not to be?

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.

11075135_10153174743058622_5071767908282377816_oA 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.

pic5That 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.

The countdown to the start of the night was a mass of ghastly preparations and lashings of fake cobweb and we were very excited by all the tweeting and support, especially from Stonewall Cymru, our charity for the year who we were raising funds for on the night.

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! 😉

RWCMD Dora Stoutzker - 5th Anniversary Concert
Oct 5th 2013 – RWCMD – SWGMC 5th Anniversary

*** written by Mark Anderson, edited and further contributions by Nick de Figueiredo – with feedback and comments from all at SWGMC