Chinese LGBT chorus finds inspiration in Seattle’s gay scene

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Roy (left) represents Shining Jazzy Chorus in last year's Hong Kong Pride Parade. (Photo courtesy Landy Van Roy)

A gay men’s chorus in China is breaking down social barriers, with a little help from The Seattle Men’s Chorus.

Imagine you had a secret that if your family found out, they might disown you. And if your coworkers found out, you would end up unemployed, or even find your personal safety at risk.

The situation for LGBTQ individuals in the U.S. is still far from perfect. But one gay man in Beijing sees the gay community in Seattle in particular as role models for the activism and progress he’d like to see in China.

Landy Van Roy is the coordinator of the Beijing Shining Jazzy Chorus, a gay men’s chorus founded in 2008. He is extremely proud of his group, which has about 30 members.

But says he’s saddened by how many members come to rehearsals to follow their passion for singing, but don’t participate in public performances due to pressure from their families.

Shining Jazzy Chorus rehearsing in Beijing. (Photo courtesy Landy Van Roy)

Shining Jazzy Chorus rehearsing in Beijing. (Photo courtesy Landy Van Roy)

“Very few stars come out of the closet, lest it affect their career,” Roy said. “Take Seattle for instance, compared to Beijing, it would be easier to maintain an LGBT choir, because there are institutions and various supporters.”

The LGBT rights situation in China is certainly not as dire as in some Middle Eastern countries — the legal ban on homosexuality there was lifted in 1997. But there’s still no civil-rights law prohibiting discrimination and harrassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and social pressure to stay closeted is strong.

But help — or at least inspiration — is on the way. Right now Roy and the Shining Jazzy Chorus are even eagerly awaiting the arrival of Seattleite Eric Lane Barnes in Beijing for a singing workshop and silent auction fundraiser this weekend.

Roy was on a trip in the U.S. when he attended a performance of the Seattle Men’s Chorus (SMC), the largest community chorus in the country, where Barnes is the Assistant Artistic Director.

“The whole performance is amazing, and I was greatly moved by one song ‘Dear Dad’, which is a gay son’s letter to his father,” he explained. “So after the show, I wrote a letter to Barnes, the composer and writer of this song, and also artistic director of [SMC's vocal comedy spinoff] Captain Smartypants, to express my thanks for touching me deeply.”

Roy recently came out to his father, and is overjoyed that he was accepted by him. While he had been planning to come out for some time, he was very inspired to finally do so by Barnes’ song.

“When Roy contacted the SMC office in regards to one of the songs Captain Smartypants sang, I was pretty amazed,” Barnes said via email. “I was amazed that there was an LGBT chorus in China at all.

The Seattle Men’s Chorus Assistant Artistic Director Eric Lane Barnes (left).

The Seattle Men’s Chorus Assistant Artistic Director Eric Lane Barnes (left).

In their emails back and forth, Barnes and Roy shared a lot with each other about music, songs, and some of the differences between the social climate in the U.S. and China.

“I do feel that Captain Smartypants, and SMC, have a responsibility to share what we have learned with others who ask.,” said Barnes of his upcoming trip to China. “It is a great feeling to be looked up to in the way we are — to many choruses we are the successful Big Brother… that can help our younger siblings succeed.”

Roy says a lot of the chorus’ progress in the last year, and his own ambition to continue his work in Beijing, is inspired by Barnes. Since the two have been in contact, Shining Jazzy Chorus has been approved as the first member Asian member of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses.

Eric taught me the history of the LGBT right movements ever since the Stonewall riots over 40 years ago, and how the choir survived the HIV attack,” Roy said. “Although I’m not sure after 40 years whether the situation of Chinese LGBT choirs will be as good as that of US choirs is now, I’m sure we’ll make big progress. There is hope as long as we can see progress.”

“Rainbow Over Seattle and Beijing”, Shining Jazzy Chorus’ Silent Auction will be held on the evening of June 30 at Chill Bar in Beijing. The event will include a choral workshop led by Eric Lane Barnes and a performance of modern a cappella music. Proceeds will be used to support future English and Chinese bilingual events.

Eva Cohen is a Canadian-American journalist. Currently located in New York, she has spent a considerable amount of time working and traveling in Asia. She loves covering human interest and features from China and enjoys sharing with you the stories of the people and places she encounters. Eva received her Masters in International Journalism from the University of Leeds, England. Her bylines have appeared in newspaper, magazine and online publications, including the Myanmar Times, Vancouver Sun, Jerusalem Post, and Beijing City Weekend, and she is very happy to contribute to The Seattle Globalist. Check out more of Eva's work.

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