On November 27, 1978 San Franciscans witnessed two historic events. One, a tragedy, was the assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to hold a major political position. The second event was one that brought some sense of peace to many that day, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus’s rendition of Mendelssohn’s hymn, “Thou, Lord, Our Refuge” sung at San Francisco’s City Hall in honor of Milk and Mayor George Moscone who was also killed in the attack. This was the firstever performance for that initial group of 115 San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus singers, which recently celebrated 30 years of performances. According to San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) Executive Director Teddy Witherington, a former lawyer in his native London, England, since SFGMC’S inception 30 years ago, over 2,000 men have sung with the group. The Chorus in its entirety and its smaller ensembles, including the Lollipop Guild, the Chamber Singers, and Men About Town, have performed at thousands of concerts and private functions including weddings, commitment ceremonies, and civil
tradition, in June 1979 the group held the First Annual Gay Pride Concert. In 2000 the group was once again the innovator when Australian-born Dr. Kathleen McGuire was appointed the Chorus’ first female Artistic Director and Conductor of The Chorus. With a Doctor of Music Arts degree from the University of Colorado and a Masters of Music from England’s University of Surrey, she had appeared in major concert halls in England, Australia, and America. Concerning the advent of Kathleen joining the group, Teddy Witherington, himself the first-ever Executive Director of the San Francisco Pride Committee, recalls, “The appointment of a female Artistic Director in 2000 was a defining moment in the growth of the chorus, exploding the myth that a gay men’s chorus had to be led by a man.” In 1981, just after receiving the Key to the City from San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, the group embarked on its first National Tour with stops in Dallas, Minneapolis, Lincoln, Detroit, Boston, New York’s Carnegie Hall, Washington
Suite “NakedMan,” portraying stories of Chorus members, and in general, living life as a gay man, was first performed in 1996. In 1997 the group first presented its high-energy extravaganza, “ExtrABBAganza,” featuring the music of the Swedish pop group, ABBA. Another event that has also become an annual institution was the first “Home for the Holidays” staged in December 1990. In addition to special performances, many honorary guests have joined SFGMC over the past 30 years including Sir Ian McKellen, Carol Channing, Florence Henderson, Nell Carter, Megan Mullally, Sharon Gless, and Cris Williamson. The Chorus has been the subject of movies, television programs, and media features including a 1988 Foreign Television special featuring the Chorus and broadcast to over six million Europeans; recognition on its tenth anniversary, both in a New York Times’ front-page feature and as the subject of special segments on numerous television stations; and being the
SAN FRANCISCO GAY MEN’S CHORUS thirty years of firsts, thirty years of song
by Susan Hart Hellman
SFGMC Executive Director, Teddy Witherington
subject of a screenplay written by a UCLA film student.
unions. Among the most prominent of those weddings was the February 2004 marriage of Rosie O’Donnell and Kelli Carpenter at San Francisco City Hall.
D.C.’s Kennedy Center, and the Seattle Opera House. Teddy says “The 1981 national tour was fun, inspirational, and it led to the formation of many new gay choruses around the country.”
The SFGMC was founded by Jon Reed Sims, who had also founded the San Francisco Lesbian/ Gay Freedom Band, and the first official concert was held on December 20, 1978. Since that time, highlights for the innovative group have included a lot of other “firsts,” beginning with that initial 1978 performance, which featured an original composition by a gay chorus, “I Understood” by SFGMC member Tad Dunlap who incorporated the words of Harvey Milk.
In 1981, the Chorus entered into the recording field with its first vinyl record, “The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Tours America 1981.” In 1991, the SFGMC released its first compact disc, “How Fair This Place,” and that same year, a compact disc was issued to commemorate the group’s original 1981 vinyl recording.
Teddy Witherington comments on the future of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. “Our repertoire will reflect our desire to reach out to new and diverse communities and it is our hope that we take our message of acceptance of differences to places at home and abroad that need it.” He adds, “The chorus is a mirror for the community it serves. As the face of the community changes, so does that of the chorus.”
Through the 30 years of travel and performances across America and as far away as Sydney, Australia for the 2002 Gay Games, and at the Gay and Lesbian Association (GALA) of Choruses Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, there have been many special programs as well. The Song
In serving as that mirror, the Chorus began its 30-year anniversary with a Harvey Milk/George Moscone Memorial Concert on November 28, 2008 with the group again singing “Thou, Lord, Our Refuge,” as it did on the night of the assassinations 30 years before.
In 1982 the SFGMC was joined by a dozen other LGBT choruses in the first West Coast Choral Festival, and in what has become an annual