If you happened to be on the Great Wall of China this past September 3, you might have watched 60 or so Americans huddle together on the ancient flagstones and break into song. “Never will there be a moment, ever / when we all will be together,” the lyrics rang out. “Take each moment as a gift.”
This is the life-affirming sound of the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, the fourth-oldest group of its kind in America and the first-ever LGBTQ choir to tour China—an event that marked one of many high notes in a 38-year run of advocacy through song.
The four-city tour came just months after the choir hosted the Beijing Queer Chorus, which sang its first public US concert at Reed College in March. In Beijing, the Portland group sang its chosen anthem, Robert Seeley’s AIDS memorial composition “Never Ever” to an audience of 750. Two days later, mothers from PFLAG China flew in from all over the country for their show in the ancient capital of Xi’an. Chorus member Damon Motz-Storey remembers a mother coming backstage with a picture of her son. “We understood, though we didn’t know Mandarin. What she was saying was: ‘He’s why I do this, and you are why I do this,’” he says. “She burst into tears and hugged every one of us.”
International tours, sold-out shows, inaugural celebrations (Governors Roberts and Kitzhaber), national anthems (hat tip, Trail Blazers), eight professional recordings, and several local awards: the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus has come a long way since Portlander Mark Richards went to see the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in 1980, just over a year after the death of Harvey Milk, and came home convinced Stumptown needed its own singers. At the first rehearsal, 26 people showed up. A year later membership had swelled to 109 men, belting out the hit movie theme song “Fame” with choreographed jazz hands. As it still does, the group’s harmonious pairing of high-level musical chops and serious showmanship would elicit tears, laughter, and goosebumps in equal measure.
And then, the AIDS epidemic hit: “1983 was our first death,” recalls founding member and current PGMC president Gary Coleman. Over the years, the chorus lost some 150 members to the virus. At one point they were singing at more funerals than concerts.
But the chorus kept going, serving as an emotional anchor and rallying point for a community decimated by loss—a function it has held for decades now. “When [a chorus member] sits there and holds your hand while you make the decision to withdraw medical assistance and let your husband die, that’s very real,” says Gwynn Goodner, who sang with a gay men’s chorus in San Diego for more than eight years before joining PGMC in 2017. “These choruses show up.”
Often, a song is more than just a song. When the chorus performs, from Medford to Montreal, it doubles as a musical advocate for LGBTQ rights—though not always to welcoming audiences. Coleman recalls a trip to Coos Bay in the ’90s where the chorus was met with anti-gay picketers outside the venue. “We invited them in,” he says. “They were all in the bleachers, and they had their protest signs with them.” Then the chorus started to sing “America the Beautiful.” “The signs went down one by one. The music can do that. It just resonates.”
It’s clear the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus serves a social purpose, but always in its own melodious way. “We’re not hammering home a social message,” says Rick Jung, PGMC’s current executive director. “We’re just singing.”
Jung says the chorus’s shows outside of Portland reveal how much has changed for LGBTQ people, even in rural Oregon: “When we went to Pendleton 10 years ago, no one would even put our posters up. Now it’s a totally sold-out event every time.”
Today, the chorus numbers some 140 members, with 33 new singers joining this year alone. This season promises three major shows, including the popular holiday event “The Most Wonderful Season,” which returns to the Newmark this month with its unmissable blend of seasonal sass and emotional uplift. (“Pink Christmas,” anyone?)
As times have changed, so have the identities of PGMC’s membership. “We have trans and nonbinaries and women and lesbians and straight men and bisexuals and asexuals and demisexuals,” says Coleman. “And what was ‘gay rights’ has now expanded—it’s really a lot larger picture for us.” The only rule: you’ve got to be able to sing in the tenor or bass range.
For the members, too, a new perspective: When the choir was first formed, many of its members stepped out of group photographs or declined to have their names printed in concert programs. But in a changed world, members like 24-year-old Motz-Storey, who came out to a supportive family, had never given much thought to a gay men’s chorus. Then, in 2017, he went to his first rehearsal. “The feeling of being in a room with so many people who have the same experience as me of being the only queer person in another singing group or another part of your life—I teared up,” he says. “I was crying in the middle of singing.”
8 p.m. Fri–Sat, 3 p.m. Sun, Dec 7–9, Newmark Theatre, $18–50