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Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles Celebrates 30 Years


Christine Chavez, Bruce Mayhill, and Donzaleigh Abernathy

Let’s face it, anytime you get 2,000 gay men and lesbians together in one room it’s a political statement. And, Monday evening, August 25, in Disney Hall was no exception when the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA) celebrated its 30th Anniversary. It was an inspirational evening under the Artistic Direction of GMCLA’s Bruce Mayhill who provided a full-evening of strikingly beautiful music and spectacular choreography laced with an urgent political message.

The chorus, originally housed in Plummer Park in what is now the City of West Hollywood, started when a small group of men posted flyers announcing a new gay chorus and to their surprise 99 men appeared at the first rehearsal. Within three months of that rehearsal, founding director Harold Kjellberg led the group through its first major event: the LGBT March on Washington, D.C. and the first national LGBT concert at the Washington Memorial. Through the height of the AIDS crisis, the Chorus lost over 150 members. Only 12 original members remain. As a result, GMCLA has a deep history of service within the LGBT community, singing at countless memorials, making and commissioning music that helps the community to mourn, to celebrate, to dream and to prepare for victory.

During the August 25 program, GMCLA highlighted it’s part in the fight against Proposition 8, the latest assault on the LGBT community which would take away the right of same-sex couples to legally marry.

The first Special Guest of the evening was Christine Chavez, Political Director of the United Farm Workers (UFW) and granddaughter of Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the UFW. Christine, who was recently named as one of the top Latinas by Latina Magazine for her longtime involvement with civil rights issues, particularly her work on marriage equality, announced that the United Farm Workers had just voted to oppose Proposition 8. The audience gave her a standing ovation. (Many of us in Northeast Los Angeles also know of Christine when she ran for the 45th Assembly District seat to replace open lesbian Jackie Goldberg.)

In 2006, Equality California, the organization fighting to secure marriage rights for gay men and lesbians in California, was looking for support for State Assemblyman Mark Leno’s Marriage Equality legislation and knew that the UFW had not yet taken a position. Equality California and other LGBT organizations came out in support of UFW’s Gallo Boycott. (Ultimately, UFW prevailed in that struggle.) Christine then dedicated herself to organizing on behalf of Marriage Equality in the Latino community. At a June, 2008 rally in East Los Angeles, Christine said, “It is important to gather in family and grandfather labor leader Cesar Chavez was a major supporter of the gay and lesbian community. For years, the gay and lesbian community supported the boycotts and marches organized in favor of farm workers...I know that if Cesar Chavez were alive, he would be an important promoter of marriage equality.”

The next Special Guest to be introduced was Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of the co-founder of the Civil Rights Movement, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Actress and Author. Donzaleigh is actively involved in social causes as an environmentalist, a spokesperson for the Center for Disease Control AIDS Project and as a founding member of the New Visions Foundation, which created New Roads School. Donzaleigh proved to be passionate as she connected the present LGBT struggle for equality to her lifetime experience in civil rights.

The first half of the program ended with music by Aaron Copland, the recognized Dean of American Music. Copland embodied the American dream when at the turn of the 20th Century his immigrant Jewish family was making it’s way in a new country. He reached national prominence in the 1940s & 50s and became a target for the infamous right-wing Senator Joseph McCarthy and the communist witch-hunting antics of his Committee on Un-American Activities. If Copland had been open about being a homosexual, something hidden and not mentioned in those years, I am sure McCarthy would have gone ballistic.

The road to the 30th anniversary has not always been easy. GMCLA has more than doubled in size to 226 singers, adding professional and artistic staff, touring nationally and internationally and releasing thirteen compact discs. In addition, the Chorus has commissioned more than 300 new works and has appeared frequently on national television. Individually, Chorus members donate over 60,000 volunteer hours annually to make GMCLA’s mission of musical excellence and community partnership a reality.

While public understanding of gay life has evolved since the GMCLA was founded, there is still fierce resistance to lasting change by opponents of LGBT equality.This year, it is the hateful, discriminatory and religiously-fueled Prop 8. Join with the chorus now in fighting Prop 8 and keep same-sex marriage legal in California.

Of special interest...

Barack Obama spent two years at Northeast LA’s Occidental college. Oxy’s website now features a page entitled “Occidental, Obama, and the Road to Public Service.”

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There is also a 3-minute video produced by the Boston Globe entitled “Small College Awakened Future Senator to Service.”

On August 27, the LGBT community lost an iconic leader and a beloved friend. Del Martin, 87, passed away in San Francisco with Phyllis Lyon, her lifelong partner and spouse, by her side. Del was one of the nation's f

irst and most visible lesbian rights activists who dedicated her life to combating homophobia, sexism, violence and racism. Del's many contributions to the LGBT movement will resonate for decades to come.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon were the first gay or lesbian couple to be legally married in Northern California, on June 16, 2008 after 55 years together.

carl matthes

As was her wish, in lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to honor Del's life and commitment by defeating the California mar

riage ban. To donate in Del’s honor, click here.

by Carl Matthes

Carl Matthes is a native of Los Angeles and has lived in Eagle Rock for over 40 years. He is a former president and a current Board member of Uptown Gay and Lesbian Alliance. He is a former

columnist and a current advisor to the Lesbian News, the oldest lesbian publication in America. He was editor of the GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) newsletter and a former GLAAD National Board member. He has also been a Board member of AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

Photo: Bruce Mayhill, Artistic Director Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (center)
Christine Chavez, Political Director of the United Farm Workers and Granddaughter of Cesar Chavez (left)
Donzaleigh Abernathy, daughter of the co-founder of the Civil Rights Movement, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Actress and Author (right)

Other articles by Carl Matthes

LA Progressive