Eight years ago, Marty Kiefer created the West Michigan Gay Men’s Chorus, the first and only openly gay men’s choir in Grand Rapids.
The first official concert was held in the spring of 2009 at Wealthy Theatre, where the group sold out the entire venue. There were about 20 members at the time, and most were inexperienced.
“It was something new for Grand Rapids to have an openly gay chorus,” said member Jim Molloy, who’s been a part of the chorus since its inception. “It’s hard to believe not even 10 years ago the difference in the mindset everywhere, particularly Grand Rapids being more conservative, so people worried. We had people drop out because they found out we’re actually going to perform.”
Now, there are four sections in the chorus: Tenor 1, Tenor 2, Baritone and Bass. The men that make up the choir are all different ages, the youngest member being 22 and the oldest being 75.
“I’ve had several guys say to me this is the one night of the week they don’t have to pretend,” said Director RT Williams. “They can just be here and just be who they are.”
The chorus board president, Kevin Debri, echoed that sentiment.
“Our whole mission is to create change, one voice at a time,” Debri said. “It’s us standing in front of a group of people — which could be, in some cases, a gay audience like (Pride), or a relatively straight audience — and just letting people know that, gee, there are gay men. We all look different, we have different abilities, but we like to come together and we can sing.”
Williams said the music the chorus sings encompasses a broad range of styles. The upcoming concert is a winter theme, with a program ranging from classical choir songs to a Beach Boy rendition of Little Saint Nick. The spring concert, Williams said, will be all medleys from Broadway.
As the group approaches 10 years, the leaders said their main goal is to continue growing.
“We’ve had fluctuations in the amount of chorus members we’ve had over the years, and we’d love to have 50 or 60 members in our chorus,” Debri said.
The chorus also is planning to attend a gala, where gay choirs from all over the country meet and perform for a week.
“That has been a transformative event for a lot of people, when all of a sudden they’re truly surrounded by a thousand gay people singing songs,” Debri said. “It changes a lot of people’s lives. We haven’t done that in a while, so we’re very much looking forward to raising enough money to allow us to do this again.”
The chorus sends out fundraising letters and accepts donations at concerts as a part of its fundraising efforts, sharing some of the earnings with the Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s Our LGBT Fund. Debri said last year there was a focus on HQ in Grand Rapids, a drop-in center for homeless teenagers.
“It’s still shocking these days that 40 percent of those young homeless kids are kids that have been thrown out of their house by parents because they found out they were gay,” Debri said.
HQ provides a place to shower, a hot meal, laundry services, as well as community resources and education and employment training.
“Gay life is all kinds of different things,” Debri said. “A lot of us, especially those who are older, went through our high school years being mocked and having people pick on us … so we understand.”
Debri said he’s glad that society is more accepting of gay culture now and there are more resources available to young people.
“My nieces and nephews have all kinds of gay friends and they go to a gay wedding and it’s no big deal. Well, it wasn’t that way back in the ’70s when I was in high school.”
Molloy, 66, said that as a member, the choir has been a comfort for him each week.
“I think it’s important for people to have a comfort zone, have a place where they can come and be themselves without worrying,” Molloy said. “For me, I’ve been with my partner 42 years. We’re now married. I’ve more or less come out of the closet long ago, but it still is a comfort zone. It’s just nice to be able to come and relax and be who you are and not have to think about it.
“You watch things change and for a while there I thought maybe our mission was closer to being accomplished but then things happen politically that you go, ‘Oh my god, we’re nowhere near where we need to be,’ and we need to make sure people understand that it’s not right to be mean or cruel to minorities of any kind.”
Fountain Street Church
24 Fountain St. NE, Grand Rapids
Dec. 10, 2 p.m., free