Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

A Chorus of Approval

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

A Chorus of Approval

Article excerpt

When the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles took their music and message to Eastern Europe, they wound up joining a post-Communist revolution of gay visibility. One participant recounts their remarkable trip

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE--that was on the back of the T-shirts worn by most of the 137 members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles and their entourage as they arrived in Moscow, beginning a tour of Russia and Eastern Europe. I was lucky enough to be along for the ride as the cameraman for a tour documentary.

Thursday, October 7, 1999

My adventure began immediately, when a humorless customs agent decided he wouldn't let me into the country with all the video and sound equipment I had. Time for a bribe. The chorus's Moscow concert was to include Russian superdiva Alla Pugacheva, and I'd heard that the tickets were going for $400 a pop on the black market. After a hushed conversation, four tickets changed hands, then I grabbed my equipment and ran for my bus. I was Sean Connery.

After dinner in the Hotel Rossiya dining room, we walked across the street to Red Square and stood dumbstruck by the sights: the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb, St. Basil's Cathedral, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier--all right there. I was overwhelmed by the history that had taken place on these cobblestones: Moscow had just celebrated its 850th birthday, and standing there was humbling.

Friday, October 8

This afternoon a group of around 20 chorus members headed to an AIDS ward at a branch of Moscow Municipal Hospital to perform for the patients. An AIDS charity in each tour city was designated to receive concert proceeds, and this was the Moscow recipient. The doctors and nurses were very caring, but the floors were filthy, orderlies were smoking in the hallways--it seemed very primitive. And depressing.

The short concert took place in an auditorium downstairs. The few patients who made it down from the ward and some additional young people (out-patients, I assumed) all sat respectfully and listened but seemed a little confused. During the Q&A that followed, someone finally asked why we were there. It was explained that AIDS has had a tremendous toll on the chorus during its 20-year tenure--over 140 members have died from AIDS complications. At that point an older man, very sick, raised his hand and asked, "Do any of you have HIV?" When he and the rest in the audience saw how many hands shot up, they were shocked. A bridge had been built; it all made sense. He sat back in his chair and simply said, "Spasibo": Thank you.

That evening the entire group went out to the Chance Club, Moscow's largest gay club. The crowd was mixed, male and female, gay and straight, and predominantly young--the age of consent in Russia is 14. The Russians love a good show, and the clubs all have a drag show, strip show, or some sort of entertainment. It was a festive night out.

Saturday, October 9

As Maura Reynolds, the Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, had explained to me the night before, "No one in Russia commands an audience like Alla Pugacheva. Not even Yeltsin. She's like Streisand and Bette Midler combined." Maura was right. Tonight's show was broadcast live on Russian TV, and we were on the front page of most of the Moscow papers the next day.

The show included Broadway, classical, and American folk pieces, and Alla joined the chorus for their trademark finale, "We Shall Overcome." The chorus came back for two encores because of the clamorous standing ovations. I was surprised by the quantity of gay men and lesbians in the audience and at the reception afterward in the theater's lobby. The day before the concert, Alla had given an interview to Moscow's most popular paper, publicly proclaiming her love for her gay friends. One young man I spoke with went so far as to say that this concert "made being gay OK in Russia." It seemed like the first Moscow Gay Pride, their Stonewall. …

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