When he performs as a member of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC), Samuel Brinton’s is one of 175 voices that fill concert halls across the city and around the world. He stands shoulder to shoulder with other men who understand many of his joys and struggles. He feels part of a community.
He never thought this could happen. Because once upon a time, Brinton believed he was the only gay person in the world.
“I was told over and over that I was the only gay person in the world. That I had AIDS. That God hated me,” explains Brinton, recalling the years when he was subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” designed to “cure” him of being gay. Then living in Florida, Brinton was sent to the sessions by his parents, Baptist missionaries, who violently rejected their son’s coming out; Brinton’s father gave beatings that sent him to the emergency room more than once. The young man even attempted suicide, but eventually told his parents he was “cured”: that the “therapy” had worked. It was the only way to avoid its archaic torture, which Brinton says included electric shocks that jolted him when he was exposed to sexual images of men. To this day, he says, he can still feel phantom shocks.
As a member of Boston’s Gay Men Chorus, though, he also feels something new: pride and safety.
“Finding a family I could join, and that would be understanding, has been critical to my healing,” says Brinton. The MIT grad student is now an anti-conversion therapy activist, speaking out and galvanizing support for legislation that would ban its practice. He says the chorus offers a different but equally vital way of expressing himself.
“I wanted to find something that lets me enjoy myself but still creates a lot of change,” says Brinton. “Performing in the chorus is low stress but high impact.”
That impact is felt on both the personal and political level, says BGMC executive director Craig Coogan. Like many of the men who join the Chorus, which was founded in 1982 and is one of the region’s largest community choruses, Coogan appreciates both its artistic pedigree as a premier arts organization and its collective power to move the hearts and minds of others.
“Music is a universal language,” says Coogan, who points out that the BGMC includes a number of members who identify as straight: all are welcome here. “We all have a soundtrack to our lives. And we find that we have that in common, we discover ways to connect when other things aren’t able to get through.”
BGMC has leveraged that power, using its voice to lobby for equal marriage in Massachusetts (during the legislative debates in 2005 and 2006, CDs of “Marry Us” were delivered to state lawmakers); performing at dozens of churches, schools, and business every year through its outreach efforts; and representing the gay community globally via international performances. That’s something Coogan hopes to ramp up in the future, but until then there’s always the Internet; BGMC sent Russia’s gay community, stifled under stringent new persecutions, a video performance of “Everything Possible,” an outreach concert staple.
More often than not, though, the people you really want to reach are much closer to home. For gay men’s chorus member Steve Conner, those people included his ex-wife.
“I thought to myself, ‘this is the pinnacle of my life,’” says Conner of the day he performed in the BGMC’s holiday concert with his ex-wife, three daughters, and sister watching proudly from the audience. “It’s hard to put into words what it was like, to realize that I could be who I am, do what I love, and be appreciated for it.”
Like many members of his generation, Conner spent much of his life trying to deny his sexuality to himself and others; he came out shortly before his 60th birthday, after 26 years of marriage. Doing so, he says, was terrifying.
“I felt as though I had jumped over a cliff and was about to die,” confesses Conner. But after a lot of time and work, he and his wife were able to establish a new relationship as friends—and thanks to the BGMC, where he is now a board member, he found a community of men of all ages and backgrounds who understood his journey. He even met his new partner.
It’s a sense of belonging he never imagined he would one day experience. And every time he sings, he says, he hopes it offers inspiration to others. “I have so much gratitude for what the chorus gives me,” he says. “At the end of the day, we all want to love – and be loved.”
The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus is an active member of the Create the Vote Coalition, a collaboration of Boston arts, cultural, and creative institutions and leaders organized by the statewide advocacy group MASSCreative. Create the Vote is running a nonpartisan public education and advocacy campaign to ensure that the next mayor of Boston will be a champion of arts and cultural organizations like the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, and will support efforts to build community through art.