Choeur gai d’Ottawa Gay Men’s Chorus is a local, independent, charitable organization, the mission of which is to perform quality choral music and to contribute to the LGBTQ community. The chorus achieves its mission by:
- providing an opportunity for gay men to affirm their identity
- providing mutual support for members
- promoting LGBTQ artists and their works
- broadening musical tastes
- developing musical skills
- building a bilingual repertoire
- co-operating with other elements of the LGBTQ community to foster a positive image
Prepared by John Foster with the collaboration of Claude Dufresne and (trans.) Marcel Milot.
TAKING THE INITIATIVE
In the summer of 1986 Gordon Johnston, inspired by the example of the Vancouver Men’s Chorus, conceived of a gay men’s choral group for Ottawa. An article on the Vancouver Chorus in GO Info was the spur. Through contacts in the gay community, including the Metropolitan Community Church, active at the time, he brought together a small organising group in late August, including Barry Deeprose, Tom Gallagher, Mark Krayenhoff, Glen Lewis and Ralph Wushke. This group was determined to recruit by word-of-mouth for rehearsals beginning that autumn. The Ottawa Men’s Chorus (OMC) was thus formed and held its first rehearsal September 9, 1986.
Johnston was already an experienced choral conductor and organist, having had the opportunity to play as guest for concerts organized in the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Gordon credits his original strong Mormon identity with shaping his approach to being gay. “Being gay and being rejected by my own system was my salvation. It gave me a very good perspective on the misogyny and bigotry that surround us.” With his mother, he worked with the Parents of Lesbians and Gays in Salt Lake City, commenting “You know, that’s like founding the Orange Lodge at the Vatican.”
The Chorus found quick uptake, with a dozen members from the start and rapid growth. OMC began rehearsals at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, and presented its first public performance on December 13, 1986 at St. George’s Anglican Church, Ottawa and has since then performed regular concert seasons.
Director Johnston recalls, “People, in the federal government particularly, were ’closety’. There was a small group of older men in significant positions that were out, but for others it was very scary. Ottawa was pretty quiet, socially conservative. Coming out was scary.” And indeed, the social and political context of the 1980’s was very different.
GAY OTTAWA, IN THE CANADA OF THE 1980s
Although Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau declared that the state was getting out of the bedrooms of the nation with reforms to the criminal code in 1969, it did not “legalize” homosexuality, and life for homosexuals was hardly simple in the 1970s and 1980s. Continuing efforts by governments at various levels to “regulate desire” made organizing advocacy to change bawdy house laws, obscenity provisions and other aspects of the criminal code essential. Establishing social space for a variety of services and activities was often challenging. Keep in mind the atmosphere created by arbitrary and repressive police actions followed by the onslaught of AIDS as well as often derogatory and destructive responses to attempts to achieve full legal human rights recognition and protection.
The inter-play of repression, protest and advance is vibrantly illustrated by events like the raid of the Montreal bar TRUXX in 1977, with the arrest 146 patrons, which led to massive protests and ultimately provoked the Levesque provincial government to add sexual orientation to the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was eleven years before another province would take similar action.
The February 5, 1981 raid of four Toronto bath houses, as part of what police called “Operation Soap”, arresting 289 men, led to rapid and radical response in public protest against the police and the provincial government. Nevertheless Ontario police continued what historian Gary Kinsman terms a “war on gays” across southern Ontario bars, washrooms and parks. Raids were accompanied by media publication of men’s names, injury to reputation, employment and relationships and at least one suicide. Protest and advocacy by gay men and women continued, public support for human rights protection amplified, and in 1986 the Peterson minority provincial government passed Bill 7, which included adding sexual orientation to the Ontario Human Rights Code.
Ottawa was not exempt from these events. The Club Baths were raided by police in 1976 with more than twenty arrests. Given the negativity experienced by many, the important of positive initiatives to assert pride and the creation of safe spaces for social and creative activities was urgent. Thus, gay identity and public recognition was pushed forward in the 1970s and 1980s by diverse efforts, often led by Ottawa-based activists. Gays of Ottawa (GO) began meeting at St. George’s Anglican Church (Metcalfe St.) in 1971, establishing its own meeting place at several locations and expanding to include a library and drop-in centre. It began, publishing Go Info (from 1972), and was the base for the Canadian Gay Rights Coalition in the late 1970s. GO established a centre at Gladstone and Elgin, which was lost to fire in February, 1979 and re-established in several other locations over the years. Les McAfee and others organized the first iteration of Egale (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere), instrumental in advancing gay and lesbian public policy objectives for more than two decades. In 1989 GO became the Association of Gays and Lesbians of Ottawa (ALGO). By the early 1980s a responsive Gayline was providing an information and advice service to callers. In 1986 GO organized Ottawa’s first Pride celebration attracting more than 300 to the first pride parade and picnic.
The threat of HIV/AIDS was increasingly constant in the gay community in the mid-1980s. The formation of the AIDS Committee of Ottawa in 1985 was a key element in community response, at a time when broader social understanding, acceptance and support was still a challenge. AIDS was no abstract issue, as it directly affected Chorus members, partners and friends.
Providing space for gay social life – dances and a licensed bar – became part of GO’s mission, as well as a source of funding. Social life blossomed. The chorus first president, Ralph Wushke recalls “there was a very dynamic bar scene”, in the mid-1980s. “Shades was for a while the most popular gay bar in town…It is also important to mention the absolutely HOT night life on the Quebec side, so on snowy winter nights after everything shut down at Shades and the Centretown Pub a line-up of cabs would be waiting to ferry us all across to the two-story Le Club on Eddy Street, it was fantastic.”
Also important for the formation of the OMC was the formation of the Metropolitan Community Church in Ottawa, with Pastor Ron Bergeron, meeting at the Jack Purcell Community Centre near Elgin St. Also contributing to the growing community was the “After Stonewall” bookstore in the Glebe.
THE EARLY YEARS OF THE GAY CHOIR MOVEMENT
When the Men’s Chorus was organized it’s name omitted the word “Gay”, even though many outside the chorus as well within it knew that it was composed of gay men. As Gordon Johnston commented, “if we’d had the “g” word in there it would have been the Ottawa gay men’s duet.” But “we were who we were and we did it well, ourselves! It was also loads of fun. The Chorus romances were always a series of delight, lasting various times from overnight to several years.”
Nevertheless, the “out” identity of the chorus was an issue for chorus members virtually from the beginning, given that many faced a similar issue at an individual level. In March 1987 members were invited to share “position papers” on the gay identity of the chorus and a chorus “Summit” was held at the Wakefield United Church for this and other discussions. Chorus retreats continued for a number of years. A nuanced approach was established, for example, using the membership of the Chorus in the international gay and lesbian choral association (GALA) only on certain chorus announcements, noting the possibility that “Chorus members who object to the use of the announcement in specific circumstances might absent themselves from that performance without prejudice.”
Repertoire was never a problem, as Johnston had access to a great deal of male voice music. The first performance included the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tanhauser. His training was classical, but the membership included both what might be termed “good time girls” as well as the “serious music queens.” Further, some of those who wished to join did not read music with an effect on the level of challenge the chorus could attempt. The only approach was to keep going, and, luckily, keep growing. Initially, the concert programs were rather short and were supplemented by invited instrumental and vocal performers. As the membership and talent grew, however, so did the programs and level of challenge. Some highlights in the early history include performances of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, the Canadian premiere of Samuel Alder’s Praise Thy Saving Power, and the commissioning and premiere of Robin Grabell’s A Christmas Elegy. The Chorus has commissioned and presented the world premiere of two works: Robin Grabell’s Romance du printemps and a trilogy of gay country songs entitled Homo on the Range by Andy T. Williams. Both composers were active in the musical life of the Ottawa region.
As for the audience, there was not really a target, Johnston points out. People had to come, hear us and see what we were doing. Early in 1988 the Chorus reported that attendance at performances was 582 people. Publications like GO Info helped give the chorus some profile in the community.
The chorus developed it mission statement (1988) aiming “to perform quality men’s choral music and to contribute to the gay community by:
- providing an opportunity for gay men to affirm their identity
- providing an atmosphere of mutual support for members
- promoting gay artists and their works
- enlarging musical taste
- developing musical skills
- building bilingual repertoire
- cooperating with other elements of the gay community to foster a positive gay image.”
Support from outside Ottawa was important, particularly the encouragement received from the Vancouver Gay Men’s Chorus and its director, Willy Zwozdesky, who visited Ottawa for a pan-Canadian gay choir festival in 1991. Another important force behind the creation of the Vancouver and Ottawa Men’s Choruses was the GALA Choruses organisation, created in 1982, which provided support and repertoire for a musical web comprising 173 choruses in 2011.
Having been inspired by the Vancouver example, the OMC undertook a concert at the Maison de la Culture Frontenac in eastern Montreal in December, 1989 “to encourage the formation of a gay community chorus” in that city. Experience singing outside Ottawa was also important in building the confidence and excitement of the members, as the chorus undertook joint concerts with groups in Montreal, Syracuse and Toronto and took part in national Unison Choruses festivals in Toronto, Edmonton, and Winnipeg and international GALA Choruses festivals in Denver, Tampa, San Jose and Montreal (see CHORUS FIRSTS below).
Building the choral community in Ottawa continued with the founding of the Ottawa Women’s Chorus, which Gordon Johnston also directed for the first six months, providing time to secure a suitable woman conductor.
The OMC, virtually from its inception, sought broader financial support from bodies like the Ontario Arts Council and the Ottawa City Cultural Assistance Program. In 1989 it began the process of seeking Federal Charitable Status, which was confirmed in March, 1991.
While the Ottawa Men’s Chorus was the first such group in Eastern Canada, it was the second in Canada, following on the model of the Vancouver Men’s Chorus.
- First joint concert with Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus, Toronto and Ottawa, April 15, April 22, 1989.
- First concert at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, December 9, 1989.
- First performance in Montreal, Maison de la Culture Frontenac, December 16, 1989.
- First performance at the Auditorium of the National Gallery of Canada. June 16, 1990.
- Sing: a Celebration. Summer Gala, First joint Lesbian and Gay Choruses event, with Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus, Vancouver Gay Men’s Chorus and the Ottawa Women’s Chorus, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, June 29, 1991 and Centrepointe Theatre, June 30, 1991.
- “A Day without Art” Benefit for AIDS: Concert with Maureen Forester and In Harmony: A Women’s Chorus, National Gallery of Canada Auditorium. December 1, 1991.
- First in memorium concert, April 15, 1992.
- First participation in an international GALA IV, Denver, Colorado, July, 1992.
- First joint concerts with Le Choeur Découvert de Montréal, December 18-19, 1992 . Ottawa, Église Sainte-Brigide, Montreal
- First joint concerts with L’Ensemble vocal Ganymède, December 10-11, 1993.
- First joint concert with The Lesbian and Gay Chorus of Toronto, June 11, 1994.
- First joint concert with “The Tone Clusters”, December 9-10, 1994.
- First decade celebrated 1996!
- First cabaret show: “Another Side of Us” Glebe Community Centre, April 4-5, 1997.
- First ORCA concert (Ottawa Rainbow Choral Alliance) with In Harmony, Tone Cluster and Vox Femina. June 21, 1997.
- First joint concert with the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Police Chorus, June 20, 1998, including the first noted performance of the Kazoo Concerto.
- First joint concerts with the Syracuse Gay & Lesbian Choir, Syracuse, N.Y. June12, Ottawa, June 18-19, 1999.
- First “The Stage for AIDS: Pop Si-Cool”, with Gavin Crawford, Mary Jane Lamond, Quartetto Gelato and many more. National Arts Centre, June 2, 2000.
- First fifteen years celebrated, 2001.
- First concert at the Fourth Stage, National Arts Centre. July 4-5, 2003.