by Ed Madden
On Saturday, I will have the extraordinary privilege of reading aloud the brave and moving stories of local gay men as part of the Midlands Men’s Chorus spring concert, When I Knew: A Concert About Loving Who You Are.
The Midlands Men’s Chorus formed almost a year ago, in May 2016, and their first public performance was singing the national anthem at a Fireflies game last summer. There are about 20 men in the group, all from the Midlands.
For this concert, members of the chorus wrote their own stories about coming into awareness and coming out—stories that range from the heartbreaking to the hilarious. We hear about shirts-and-skins basketball, mothers who are horrified and wives who remain friends, and a boy who discovered his desire watching CHiPs (Ponch and Jon!) on television.
The theme of the evening echoes that inevitable question: “When did you know?” In those questionnaires you can find online designed to get straight people to think about sexuality, the inevitable question is, “When did you realize you were straight?” In part it’s because it’s the question gay and lesbian people get asked, and the question we sometimes ask ourselves. When did I know? How did I know? The stories and songs of the performance circle around that theme, when I knew.
In my first rehearsal with the chorus last week, many of the men were moved to tears, hearing each other’s stories for the first time. And their performance moved me as well, especially “What We Need Is Here,” a beautiful song based on a poem by Wendell Berry. For me, though other songs might be more stirring or more directly connected to the theme (or in one case, more entertaining #costumechange), this song is the emotional heart of the set. “What we need / is here,” they sang, “and we pray, not/ for a new earth or heaven, but to be / quiet in heart, and in eye / clear. What we need is here.” This song crushed me. To be quiet in heart, and in eye clear.
Another song sets to music Armistead Maupin’s “Letter to Mama,” an oft-anthologized chapter from the first novel in his Tales of the City series. “Dear Mama,” he writes, “I'm sorry it's taken me so long to write. Every time I try to write to you and Papa I realize I'm not saying the things that are in my heart. That would be O.K., if I loved you any less than I do, but you are still my parents and I am still your child. I have friends who think I'm foolish to write this letter. I hope they're wrong.” I remember writing a letter very much like that.
One of the stories that most moved me was by a man writing about his conversation with his wife when, after years of marriage, she confronted him about what she knew to be true.
Here’s an excerpt:
She confronted me about being gay. The defenses came up, the familiar defenses, the practiced responses, the time–tested reliable denials. But she gave me her reasons and she told me how she knew. She was right. After some tense discussion, I remember lying on that bed and staring at the ceiling and saying for the first time in 45 years the words I had spent so much time suppressing; “You’re right. I am gay.”
I couldn’t believe what I said. “I am gay.”
I am not exaggerating when I say that it felt like I could breathe for the first time in my entire life. The first thing I can recall is the sense of pressure being released from my chest and my lungs expanding, as if I had just come up for air after being underwater from 1970 until 2010. I had always known, but I had suppressed this part of myself so hard that I had convinced myself that the lie was true.
. . . .When I came out to her, I really was coming out to me.
And I breathed for the first time in my life.
That story, like so many others, will be vibrating in the air of the church this weekend.
I am delighted and honored to be part of this performance, and deeply grateful to Brian Smith, Gerald Gurss, and Lester Franzen for the invitation.
The concert is at 7pm Saturday at Reformation Lutheran Church (1118 Union Street), with guests invited to join the men for refreshments in the fellowship hall at 6. Tickets are $20 and available at http://www.midlandsmenschorus.com/.
This going to be a beautiful evening.