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December 8, 2017

How The Gay Men's Chorus is Building Bridges This Holiday Season

Louis Rogers (second, left, at Fondren Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS) joined The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in 2015. The outgoing and effusive baritone, who works at InkHouse and lives in San Francisco’s Mission District, says the chorus introduced him to a remarkable “cross section” of the gay world.

“We range in age from 21 – 70 (roughly) and it’s been amazing to meet so many members and to hear their stories and to be a part of their lives,” he tells Queerty. “The Chorus has given me a family, a support system, friends and unforgettable experiences. It has challenged my perspectives on what it means to be gay and I’ve become a more well rounded person because of the chorus and a more impassioned member of our community.”

Fresh off a tour of the American South, where Rogers and the chorus performed at churches and concert halls, he chatted with Queerty about politics in the age of Trumpism, what makes San Francisco so welcoming, where he likes to hang out–and the chorus upcoming holiday concert season.

In an effort to build bridges, the chorus toured five southern states.

It was a truly unforgettable experience for us as well as members of the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir who performed alongside us. It opened our eyes to a region of the country that we were unfamiliar with, and in a great way. We got to engage with welcoming communities who are so eager to enact change, share their stories, and to be accepted for who they are. We connected with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters through many of our shared experiences and left knowing that we had helped make a difference.

As ridiculous as it may sound, I had some great conversations on Scruff and Grindr–as did many of my fellow chorus members. We were thanked, and many people reached out to us to let us know they were coming to our shows. In Jackson, MS, I received the message, “Thank you for being here in my hometown. Doing what we all have prayed for.” Another sent me this message after we left: “We miss all of you and the hope and inspiration you brought us.” I had another straight audience ally I had reached out to say, “My wife and I are LOVING the show. Thank you all so much for coming to Birmingham and sharing your love, warmth, compassion, and beauty with our city through your art. We are all better for it.” The men of Steel City Men’s Chorus (Birmingham’s gay chorus) also had a welcome party for us at Spikes leather bar in Birmingham, which was pretty cool.

What was the political climate you encountered?

We knew that it was going to be rough. We were warned the week before leaving about Mississippi HB 1523, the “religious liberty accommodations act” that codifies discrimination against LGBTQ people on “religious” grounds. The law went into effect while we were in Mississippi, and we were told that some businesses could potentially turn us away or refuse to serve us, etc. This did not happen, but it was something that we braced for. We have many chorus members from the south. It was a great moment of pride to bring their new chorus family home.

Personally, I did my best to set aside preconceived notions of the South ahead of the tour, to go in with an open mind and heart and was blown away by the hospitality, friendliness, and eagerness of the communities we visited. It was tremendously humbling and I’m so grateful that I got to be part of such an incredible trip.

Did you see the possibility of change?

About 50 of us sang at Fondren Presbyterian Church in Jackson, MS, which has a gay pastor. When he first came on board the church, I think maybe a little over a year ago, he had a congregant, an older woman, who told him that she was not a fan of him and his husband and didn’t want him to join the church. (He was chosen as pastor anyway.) We sang on Sunday morning in that church, took communion, and ate at lunch tables co-mingling with the church members after services. Some were quiet but most were so thankful to have us there, and were moved by our music (we did, after all, sing Amazing Grace). I chatted with some high schoolers about their driving tests, ha, typical Sunday morning conversation.

After lunch we went to the bus. Before we took off the pastor came running and got on the bus to make an announcement. He told us the story of the woman. Well, she had come up to him after services to say that she finally got it. That she was ready to accept him for who he was. It was an incredibly powerful moment for all of us on the bus and there was not a dry eye to be found.

Here in San Francisco, do we take love and acceptance for granted?

It absolutely opened my eyes to what the experience is like outside of the Bay Area bubble. We have such a vibrant LGBTQ community in San Francisco, and allies that welcome and support us, and it’s easy to forget that in other parts of the country, people can be apprehensive and less welcoming. It’s so easy to take what we have here in San Francisco for granted, and to lose sight of the struggles we continue to face. But we were met by amazing advocates and community leaders who are doing incredible work across the states we visited (Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina) and left hopeful for the progress they will soon make.

What makes San Francisco so unique in this regard?

San Francisco has a rich culture built on the history of welcoming outcasts, travelers, and those who don’t quite “fit in” elsewhere. It has long been a place out west where people come to start fresh. In fact, listen to the song San Francisco that is part of the larger work I Am Harvey Milk commissioned by the chorus and written by Andrew Lippa. There’s a beautiful lyric that goes:

San Francisco, I am broken.
But you welcome the broken to come and to heal.

It rings true for a lot of us. San Francisco is a resilient city, having experienced its share of disasters and setbacks. And while we continue to have our fair share of issues today, as any other major metropolitan city does, we’ve retained our spunk, character and steadfast San Francisco values. I love San Francisco, but I will say the city sometimes earns its reputation for being high and mighty. It’s easy to lose perspective and even easier to get swept up in the echo chamber. But when we check our ego and pride at the door, and approach situations from a more vulnerable stance with an open heart and mind, we can begin to have genuine, constructive conversations with people who might disagree.

Tell us about your “Elfstravaganza” and “Home for the Holidays” concerts

We have a lineup of great shows:

  • On Fri., Dec. 8 and Sat., Dec. 9, the curtain rises at Nourse for our first of three “Elfstravaganza” shows in San Francisco.
  • On Christmas Eve we will be at the Castro Theater, to sing our “Home for the Holidays” concerts. It’s an incredibly special show that we have been performing for over 25 years.

What can audiences expect?

Classic Christmas carols, some Broadway tunes, laughter and hilarity, and incredibly touching moments. And drag. Of course, there has to be drag. It’s a truly wonderful show that reminds us that amidst the holiday hustle and bustle, and the chaos of the world today, that we can come together in song to find peace and gratitude.

Where do take friends visiting for the holidays?

Union Square, of course, because you can’t not go there. The tree is gorgeous, the surrounding hotels are beautiful and the Macy’s across the street is lit to high heaven.

Restaurants?

Beretta is my absolute favorite restaurant. Delicious Italian food, simple but refined at a great price. The atmosphere, too, is perfect for basically any occasion. I’ve gone on dates here, had my birthday dinner here, nice weekend brunch, and after work drinks/dinner. Also, the kitchen is open until 1 a.m., and I’ve definitely walked down the street with my roommate at 10:30 at night, sat at the bar and ordered a pizza and meatballs. The wait staff is incredibly nice and the cocktail menu is delicious.

  • Picaro is great for Spanish tapas at an excellent price point. They have live flamenco on weekends as well as a late night sangria happy hour.
  • Gott’s Roadside at the Ferry Building is the perfect burger surrounded by a picturesque skyline.
  • Tosca is still a wonderful portal to old school Italian and old school San Francisco. It’s a place where movers and shakers used to hole up, and still do.
  • Taqueria Vallarta is my current favorite taqueria in the Mission. Amazing burritos and they have a special taco bar on the side with a bounty of salsas

Fave watering holes?

  • Hi Tops: It has my favorite brew, Mirror Pond pale ale by Deschutes brewery, on tap, and a delicious fried chicken sandwich.
  • Lookout: The name holds up, it’s a great view! Good drag brunch and Sunday Funday spot.
  • Beaux: 90s night on Thursday. and Big Top Sundays when they have famous drag queens come in.
  • Edge: Musical Mondays, Musical Wednesdays, Musical Sundays. :)
  • Churchill: classy cocktails.
  • Three great patio bars: LonestarMix, and Eagle.
  • Oasis: The roof is sometimes open which is great, but they host fun parties and events and it’s really great for dancing.
  • Southern Pacific: HUGE warehouse brewery. Delicious banh mi, and a really fun place to just relax and hang with friends.
  • Homestead: Feels like an old Western saloon.
  • The Napper Tandy: My FAVORITE Irish bar. Owned by a wonderful Irish woman, it has great beer and pub food. Trivia on Wednesdays and the staff couldn’t be nicer. Kitchen open late on weekends, too.
  • El Techo de Lolinda: One of the only real rooftop bars in San Francisco.
  • Shotwells: real neighborhood bar that you don’t see too many of anymore.
  • Latin American Club: Deadly margaritas.
  • Make-Out Room: Live band, sweaty fun dancing.

Shopping?

The Haight! There is absolutely no place like it anywhere else in the world and to this day it still represents such quintessential 1960s counterculture San Francisco. The overall vibe and these amazing vintage stores are unparalleled:

  • Wasteland
  • Held Over
  • Decades of Fashion

What’s the perfect night out?

It’s hard to pin down, but I’d say it definitely involves dinner/drinks with friends, entertainment (live theater, performing arts, a movie, a drag show) and then more drinking and dancing.

And, of course, The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus!

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