Last night I had the pleasure of seeing my college men’s chorus, the Virginia Glee Club, perform in Manhattan as part of their spring break Tour of the Northeast. It was a great concert, and I got to meet a couple of other alumni and chat with both my old conductor John Liepold, who was in the audience, and the current conductor, Frank Albinder, whom I met the last time the group was in NYC.
The thing that really struck me — which I learned from talking with Frank — is how much gayer the group is now than it was when I was a member in the ’90s.
When I joined the group in 1993, I was very closeted. I didn’t even self-identify as gay, and I wasn’t sexually active; I knew I liked guys, but I chose to put off dealing with it until some undefined future moment. Joining the Glee Club was, in part, a way to seek refuge from these issues.
It might seem odd to have escaped my sexuality by joining a group of men who sing. Years later, when I would tell my gay friends about this group, they would say something like, “A bunch of guys who sang and they called themselves a glee club and they weren’t gay? Yeah right, LOL.” But it was true. There had apparently been a time in the ’70s and ’80s when there was a larger gay presence in the group, but when I joined, there was only one gay guy whom I knew of. Club was pretty masculine — at heart, it was a brotherhood of song, a throwback to nineteenth-century male fellowship. We had a house and threw parties and got drunk and people farted on the tour bus and talked about hooking up with girls. Being in Club was one of the first times I felt truly accepted by a group of straight guys, and it was the closest thing to a fraternity I’ve ever experienced. I’ve often thought that I must have needed to go through that kind of male bonding experience, to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance from other guys, before I could begin to deal with being gay.
I continued to sing with Club during law school, and by the time I graduated in 1999, I had come out, and there were four other gay guys in the group besides me, two of whom were out, and two of whom were closeted. I knew things had begun to change in the fall of 1998, when we were riding the tour bus back to Virginia from a trip to New York. The ride home was always “story time,” when anyone who had gotten lucky with a girl during the trip was supposed to talk about it. One of the gay guys and I had gone to a gay club the night before, and he had gotten a little bit lucky there with another guy. And the group encouraged him to tell his story. He was too embarrassed to tell it, so I told it for him, and most of the guys cheered. It was such a weird, different, heartening moment.
And then last night, Frank, the current conductor, told me that gay guys are now a substantial minority of the group. He said that out of about 45 to 50 guys, about 10 to 15 of them are gay. And several of the last few presidents of the group have been gay. So we’re talking about a much more gay-friendly Glee Club than the one I was in — not that Club was hostile to gays when I was in it; it’s just that everyone was assumed to be straight, and a gay guy would naturally feel uncomfortable coming out in such a hetero environment.
So things have apparently changed in Club. It’s tempting to see this as a result of growing societal acceptance of gay people in the last decade. But I bet it’s also due to the random evolution that occurs in any group with a changing membership. I imagine that as Club has come to contain more gay people — particularly in some key leadership roles — other gay people have felt more comfortable joining. I don’t think it’s an issue of more people in the group being out, because I don’t really know anyone who was in Club with me who has come out since graduating, except for a couple of guys (it’s possible that there are more, of course — I don’t keep in touch with very many alums); I think it’s simply that more gay guys join Club today. Gay guys are still a minority, but, again, a much more sizable one than when I was in the group.
I can’t help but compare this with the issue of race. I think there was only one black student in the group in all my time in Club. (He was also the one out gay guy in the group when I joined; coincidence, or not?) I often wondered whether the reason virtually no black students tried out for Club was because they didn’t see any other black guys in the group, or because the music we sang was too “white.” Most black students who sing at UVa are in a chorus called Black Voices, in which virtually all of the members are black, and in which the repertoire is largely gospel and spiritual music. Meanwhile, the Glee Club has always included a few gospel numbers in its repertoire, but I often felt that these numbers shone an awkward spotlight on our near-uniform whiteness. (Most of the non-white members have been Asian. And this is also true of the gay men’s chorus in which I sing today.)
Anyway — Frank and I were discussing the gay issue after the concert last night, and I said, “Wow, I was in Club in the wrong decade.” He said, “Well, it’s not like the gay guys are all having sex with each other.” But that’s not quite what I meant. What I was thinking was, would I have come out sooner had there been more gay guys in my Glee Club?
I’ll never know. But it’s great to see how much things have changed.