Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass. Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Craig Coogan: We have experienced where music changes hearts, changes minds, and changes lives.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass. Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Craig Coogan. He is Executive Director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, so welcome to our program.
Craig Coogan: Well, thank you, Anita. It is so exciting to be here with you.
Anita Walker: I think everybody has heard the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus sing locally, but what is absolutely amazing to me is the work you’re doing not just outside of Boston but outside of the country. Tell us about that, and tell us about why you decided to get on airplanes and fly around the world with the chorus.
Craig Coogan: Thanks. Yeah, the chorus was founded in 1982, and pretty much from its inception, going out into the community has been part and parcel of the organization’s ethos and its mission. So back in the late ‘80s, the chorus would tour New England and would go to Vermont and would go to Maine, and there would be demonstrations, because at that juncture in the world the acceptance of LGBT issues and people was not what it is today. Then over the years this fear started to expand, and the chorus would do a New England tour and then an East Coast tour, going to Washington and New York and then all the way to Denver and Minneapolis, and then in 2005 the chorus undertook its first international tour to Poland and Germany singing at the Germany Gay Pride Parade in front of 700,000 people, and in Poland there were protests. People laid down in front of the concert hall trying to prevent people from going in, and there’s a wonderful story of two older women holding hands and literally stepping over the protesters to come into the hall to hear the performance. The singers were escorted into the hall by militia for their safety, and a year later in Poland the first out politician was elected. So while we don’t think that there’s a direct correlation, there’s certainly an indirect correlation when after that particular concert, every piece of news media said music triumphs injustice.
Anita Walker: That’s such an amazing story, and I know you have a couple others, but I just want to pause to really dig into the intentionality of the power of culture and transformative change. What was it that you think was really the catalyst for the chorus to see itself as obviously a great place for gay men to come together and share an experience and make music together, which would be plenty for most people, but to see the transformational change and possibilities in society and in communities. I mean, where did that come from?
Craig Coogan: Well, I think that you’re right and that the power of music is almost unique in art forms, where music transcends culture. Music brings people together. You don’t necessarily have to speak English in order to be impacted by powerful music, and telling our stories, telling the experience of what it is to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender through music has a way of disarming people, of embracing people that other art forms don’t necessarily have, and an example of that is 15 years ago. Massachusetts made history by becoming the first state in the nation to have marriage equality, and lots of people played very important roles in that, and the chorus had its portion of it, where, on the day of the final vote the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus went down to the legislature and for years, of course, had been singing this song called “Marry Us,” and they had recorded it on a CD and got all the various permissions and distributed it to every legislator before the vote, and the guys then waited in the halls, and you could hear the music resonating throughout the legislature on that day as that decision was made. So, we have experienced where music changes hearts, changes minds, and changes lives.
Anita Walker: It has to take a certain amount of courage. It’s one thing to go to Vermont, although back in the day going a lot of places in America was a step of courage. But going to countries that not only have not embraced the LGBTQ movement but are assertively against it– is it hard to get all the members of your chorus to participate?
Craig Coogan: It is always a concern, and we are an organization that are member-driven, so where we choose to go is certainly informed by membership, because they bear a significant portion of the actual financial burden of participation. We have support of great organizations like Massachusetts Cultural Council, foundations, and individual giving, but members are looked to to raise some money on their own. So we need to go to places where members are interested in going, and the nature of doing an international tour requires many years of planning. So in 2015 we said we’re going to be the first gay chorus to go to the Middle East, and in all of our planning we thought, well, Israel is– it’s a place where some things happen. So we spent a lot of time planning what could happen, lots of dialogue with us, our tour company, and local officials and all that, anticipating all the various what-ifs and communicating it, and it turns out that Israel was actually the most welcoming and opening area, and Istanbul, where we had thought was going to be sort of, okay, that’s the holiday part of our trip, had undergone a change in President Erdogan. When he learned that the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus was to perform, withdrew the permission for us to perform, because in Turkey you have to have a government permit in order to perform even inside a hall, and we couldn’t book another hall anywhere in the country, and a private university, Bosphorus University, which was founded by somebody in New England 100-some-odd years ago, said, “Come out to our parking lot,” and we went to the parking lot. We got the stage that Elton John used 2 weeks before, and 5,000 people showed up..
Anita Walker: Oh, my word.
Craig Coogan: … and there were families. There were young people. There were old people, and it was a transformative moment and a transformative experience.
Anita Walker: I’m just trying to think through from the lens of first the members of your chorus, after having been told in no uncertain terms, no, you’re not performing in any of our halls, and then still having the chorus members say, “I’m going to stand outside in an open parking lot and perform against the wishes of the head of this country,” but also the audience members coming. I mean, how did you interpret all that?
Craig Coogan: We believe in the power of music. We believe in the power of telling stories and a positive impact in the world, and there is nothing better than sharing who we are, and if the president of that country wasn’t ready for us to perform inside their beautiful hall, we were not going to be stopped, and so it’s wonderful for us to then juxtapose that experience in 2015 with a president who was very opposed to us telling our stories to June of 2018 of going to South Africa and on Youth Day, which celebrates the start of Apartheid in the 1970s, President Cyril Ramaphosa, who’s the president of South Africa, when he learned that the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus was in town, asked us to come and march with him on that famous three-mile march to the stadium, and so we marched with him. We danced with him. We sang with him, and for us to have an experience of one president of one country having one experience, another president being welcoming, we then look at our own experience as Americans and our own political experiences, and that’s what the value of culture is. That’s the value of music, and that’s where we are so appreciative of Mayor Walsh, who has recorded and certified us as a cultural ambassador for the city on each of our trips and for Governor Baker, who had said on both of our trips, “This is what makes Massachusetts great,” and so we’re really proud of being able to cross a lot of party boundaries here at home to tell our stories.
Anita Walker: Are there any particular stories from any of the individual chorus members that it just has sat with you ever since a trip that was really transformative for some of your own members?
Craig Coogan: Our members have had one-on-one experiences with so many people, and I think one of the stories that resonates the most is how accessible we work to have our music be, and so we always travel with our American Sign Language interpreter, Lewana Clark, who is just absolutely fantastic. She has been with the chorus for going on 30, 31 years now, and in Johannesburg, I heard very excited noises. Amidst all of the stuff that was going on, there was just some noises just sort of popped up, and I turned around, and I saw this 8-year-old, maybe 10-year-old girl in very excited communication with Lewana, and noises were coming, and I was like, “Well, that’s sort of cool,” only to learn that once the young girl had seen Lewana signing our performance did we then learn that it had been six months since she had had somebody to communicate with, and while there’s a difference between the South African sign language and the American sign language, they made a bond. They built a community in that moment, and it’s a microcosm of what the hundreds of guys who traveled did on an individual basis and what we did on a collective basis.
Anita Walker: That is an amazing and fantastic story, and also thank you for mentioning your commitment to accessibility through always having a sign-language interpreter as part of your performances. One of the things that I can’t help but think about is that it’s been a very short stretch of time in history since the pre-marriage-equality days and the sense of being safe to be out in the communities, and it’s not true for everyone. We already know that. That’s for sure. But is there something sort of that comes through in your performances, in your music that shows that there’s this lived empathetic experience when you’re in countries where people may be oppressed or to this day experiencing the kind of prejudice or oppression that has been experienced in this country?
Craig Coogan: The repertoire that Reuben Reynolds, our music director, chooses is a wide variety from, of course, pop music to Broadway to original commissions that we create, and if there’s a through-line in all the music that he chooses, it’s one of hope. It’s one of optimism, and over and over again after a concert we hear people telling us that we’ve lifted them up. We’ve given them the opportunity to see life in a way that they couldn’t otherwise see. In Johannesburg, after the concert there was a young man who was crying, and he said, “You have lifted six months of depression in one night.” So there’s just an amazing sense of community that gets created in the concert that’s all framed around hope.
Anita Walker: Craig Coogan, Executive Director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus, another one of our creative minds out loud.
Craig Coogan: Thank you so much for letting us tell our story here.
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