The NYC Gay Men’s Chorus is celebrating 40 years of musical activism



As the New York City Gay Men’s chorus (NYCGMC) is celebrating its 40th Anniversary season the first new artistic director in 12 years, Gavin Thrasher, has begun his work. These events have allowed the group to reflect on its growth, the continuing sense of unity, as well as look ahead at the next 40 years with the same mission of, what Thrasher described as, “changing the world through music.”        

The 40th anniversary will be infused into all of the performances in this coming season. It will give the NYCGMC an opportunity to consider how far its come, the battles it has fought, the ones left to fight and the constants that have allowed it to remain relevant and unique. Thrasher hopes to continue the artistic excellence, activism and inclusion that the group has embraced from the start. The group’s “unique combination of community, creativity and advocacy,” as Thrasher captured it, has been its guide these past 40 years and is what will remain at its core going into the next 40.           

The NYCGMC is a 501c3 nonprofit based on 40th Street and 7th Avenue. The chorus started with 80 men gathering at Washington Square United Methodist Church, which provided space for LGBTQ groups, and had an openly gay Reverend from 1973-1984. Now, NYCGMC has almost 300 members and has performed in Carnegie Hall and all around the world. In a tour through London and Ireland the group raised nearly €35,000 for Marriage Equality Ireland.         

New York’s highly competitive, artistic environment means the chorus works hard to stand out. According to Lisa Reilly, Executive Director, the chorus achieves its musical excellence with a demanding and selective audition process where only 30 to 40 percent are asked to join. She also noted that it is able to draw a diverse selection of singers because of the wide range of musical genres it performs, from Broadway to jazz to high choral.        

The NYCGMC is varied in the range of performances it exhibits. The chorus does sing-alongs to break down the 4th wall, singing renditions of songs such as “It’s Raining Men” written by Paul Jabara and Paul Shaffer and performed by The Weather Girls, as well as “Do-Re-Mi” composed by Richard Rodgers and performed in the Sound of Music.          

Along with performing these jovial events, the group commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the uprising against a police raid by the LGBTQ community, in Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall on June 26.           

Activism and campaigning for the LGBTQ community is integral to the group and has been a vital element in its 40 year run. Charlie Beale, former artistic director, articulated how part of their mission has always been campaigning for LGBTQ equality, going beyond tolerance to a celebration of difference and uniqueness. The activism within group was especially prevalent during the AIDS and HIV epidemic during which, from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s, 150 members died.         

Reilly discussed how, as the group moves forward, the need for activism is as important as ever in this current political climate. She drew on the examples of the controversy of transgender people serving in the military, and the possibility that LGBTQ people will not be given the opportunity to be counted in the 2020 census. 

The activism and musical ability that has been central to the group since its conception spawned similar choruses throughout the country. Thea Kano, the artistic director of the Washington Gay Men’s Chorus, said the choruses look up to the NYCGMC, “not just musically, but by its very nature of being in New York City, where the LGBTQ+ movement was sparked during the Stonewall riots 50 years ago. NYCGMC is respected as a leader in the movement, for both their musicianship and creative and pioneering programming.”     

For the members and staff of the chorus the group’s most essential aspect is the inclusivity it champions and the community it creates. “The respect of gender, the inclusion of gender, making sure that people of color, that trans people, wherever you are, whatever your age, whatever your size, whether you’re disabled, that we’re meeting your needs, and also that we welcome you into the space, help you to feel engaged in what’s going on and hopefully to make you feel that you belong, that this is your tribe, that these are your people.” Said Beale.       

In the group there are people who identify across the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation. Reilly claimed that the chorus does not discriminate based on any of those factors, only on the ability to sing within the Tenor 1, Tenor 2, Bass 1 and Bass 2 vocal range. 

The expansive age range of members is a visible illustration of the inclusiveness, history and future of the group. Within the chorus there are members who started in September and members who have been there since its creation.  Beale described how the group acts like family, sometimes spending Thanksgiving and Christmas together. 

“The chorus is pretty excited about 40 years, even our new members, in a good way, feel the weight and anchor of the legacy,” Said Reilly.

The new season will culminate with a performance at David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center called Proud! According to the NYCGMC website, this will be an exhibition of the chorus’s core values, with classic hits from their four decades of performance and LGBTQ activism.