“Sing for a better world.”
That was the slogan that adorned the backs of the red, yellow, and orange sweatshirts worn by the members of the Beijing Queer Chorus as they rehearsed at East Shore Unitarian Church in Factoria last week.
The chorus performed in Bellevue on Saturday, and then traveled on to Portland, to spend ten days singing with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus.
The Beijing Queer Chorus was first established in 2008. At first, it was more an interest group than anything else, where music lovers and singers who identified as queer could come together to share music, make harmony and melody in a safe space open to their various sexual orientations and identities.
Now in its tenth year, the chorus has grown from twelve members to forty, who practice weekly and perform onstage. Some of the members wear masks while performing on stage to safeguard their jobs and families from the social stigma that comes from being queer.
Claire Wang, publicity director for the chorus, says that while there aren’t any specifically anti-LGBTQ political or religious groups in China, there is a culture of wariness around the queer community.
Venessa Zhang leads the soprano section of the chorus. “I think there are quite a number of people in China who are very conservative. They will still think that [being] gay is something unnatural,” she said.
Those attitudes can affect where the chorus performs in their own city, often limiting them to small “salon” style performances rather than large concert hall appearances in Beijing. Some members fear that they’ll lose their jobs if their employers come to know they identify as LGBTQ.
But it was when they went to Seoul, Korea, for a choral festival that the group dealt with vocal anti-LGBTQ protestors during a Pride Parade. Wang said this was a new experience for many members, and it was scary, even though they knew they had the support of their group members and other groups in the parade.
“We know we were safe but it’s also very nervous, we were facing the people who really don’t like us,” she said.
While members say they don’t exactly have to “hide” their identities, they do have to be cautious, watching their every step and censoring themselves in public.
Art director Yuan Ye puts it this way: “We are not hiding, but we are also not celebrating.”
Paving the Way Forward
Yuan says that many of the songs the chorus performs are not political, though the group is starting to incorporate stories and messages about LGBTQ rights into their work.
Their goal is to write and perform original pieces that can educate the public and empower LGBTQ individuals. Recent trips to the U.S. and collaborations with American choirs have helped inspire the chorus to be a pioneer in expanding choral music in China, but also creating open dialogue about LGBTQ concerns.
In 2016, the group performed at the GALA festival in Denver Colorado, the largest LGBTQ choral festival in the world. They graced a massive concert stage for the first time in front of 2,000 audience members. This had been their largest audience yet, and it left an impression.
“The first time when I stepped onto the stage of more than 2,000 people in the auditorium there, I was so shocked, overwhelmed by everyone so warmly welcoming us. The only thing I can remember is that everyone was applauding for us, to say that ‘You are really good,’” Zhang said.
Performing in the U.S. alongside other choruses, many with members identifying as LGBTQ, left the members with a burning fire. They wanted to bring back what they had learned about the future for LGBTQ individuals.
Wang said that the United States is 30 to 40 years ahead of China when it comes to LGBTQ rights.
“It is our duty, our responsibility to bring what we saw there to China and tell people queer life could be that way, so I think that is exactly what we did after we went back from America,” Wang said.
The group last year produced a short documentary on LGBTQ individuals in China who spoke about their lives and experiences with their parents. Wang said the documentary was received well, and inspired audience members to begin the difficult conversation needed to come out to their parents.
Music is strength
When Roy Wang, the executive director of Beijing Queer Choir visited Seattle a few years ago, he was captivated by a performance by Captain Smartypants, a gay vocal comedy group from The Seattle Men’s Chorus. They performed a piece called “Dad” about a son coming out to his father.
After seeing the piece, Wang was determined to connect with his parents. As soon as he returned home, he came out to his father.
He hopes that Beijing Queer Chorus can create performances and works that instill the same kind of courage in audience members, breaking down fear and barriers to speaking out.
For many of the members, the group has been much more than a venue to perform. It has become a family, a means to gain strength and inspiration that spreads to other parts of their lives.
Cao Fang is a tenor and is also the chorus’ accompanist. He doesn’t plan on coming out to his family because of the social stigma around being queer.
“Some of my friends and my family don’t know I’m gay and I couldn’t say anything to them. But in BQC I find myself and have all these good friends as my good family. So I think we can encourage each other to be ourselves,” he said.
Venessa Zhang said the chorus serves as her anchor in Beijing. Rehearsals are a time to relax, unwind, and to spend time with people who are accepting and likeminded.
“If I’m not in this chorus maybe I would have already left Beijing going to another city, for another job. But because I have this chorus, it took a lot of time for me. It brings a lot of happiness to me, so I would rather stay here and sing with the chorus,” Zhang said.
The members said they hope they can keep singing together for years to come, creating a lifelong family and friendship while advocating for LGBTQ rights. They are striving to bring the future they glimpsed in the U.S. to China, inspiring dialogue and a celebration of LGBTQ life and culture.
The camaraderie between members was palpable in the air as the group rushed about the church, clustering around a grand piano for a quick rehearsal. They formed an arch of brightness with their colorful sweatshirts, Yuan Ye up front conducting the ensemble with graceful hand gestures.
When asked to sum up what the being part of the chorus means to them, Cao said it all in one word.