Only a few months ago, the Portland Gay Men's Chorus (PGMC) made headlines when an organization in Grants Pass, a small town in southern Oregon, refused to accept a donation simply because of the sexual orientation of some of its members.
But members of the chorus say the whole scenario spurred much-needed discussion in a culturally conservative spot.
The youth organization, a faith-based group called Hearts With a Mission, eventually issued an apology and said it wouldn't happen again after the uproar, according to PGMC executive director Richard "Rick" Jung. This is what the group enjoys doing: outreach through music.
Three years before that, they traveled to Pendleton, and met with resistance then, too. At first the community wasn't supportive of their concerts there, and now, chorus members say, almost every business puts their concert posters in their windows.
Now, the chorus, which is a co-sponsor of the Pride Northwest Portland Pride Festival this weekend, is expanding its horizon of musical outreach and heading to China, a culturally conservative country when it comes to homosexuality, both by its government and the many families that still abide by intense traditional family values. The PGMC will be the first gay chorus to embark on a tour in China.
"So we do change the hearts and minds wherever we perform — and that's the core of what we do," Jung says.
The tour, part of its 2018 season, will find its way through four Chinese cities during August 2018: Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai and Suzhou. Suzhou is a sister city of Portland.
"We're most proud of our outreach tours," Jung says. The group has been doing the outreach tours since the chorus began in 1980. They travel to communities throughout the state and region to perform the outreach concerts, for which chorus members pay all the expenses. The venues sell the tickets, and any revenue that they generate they're able to keep, Jung says.
"That's a good part on how we actualize our mission," he says.
According to the chorus website, the group's mission is to "expand, redefine and perfect the choral art through eclectic performances that honor and uplift the gay community and affirm the worth of all people." There are between 100-140 singers per concert, according to Jung, and while it's called the Portland Gay Men's Chorus, it welcomes women and not everyone identifies as gay.
China is the first major international trip that they will make.
Despite the cultural conservatism, China does have a relatively new and growing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement, according to Jung, who has roots in China.
The Beijing Queer Chorus, which will visit Portland in March 2018 before PGMC's tour, was founded in 2008. It's the first gay chorus in China performing publicly.
In addition to the incident in Grants Pass serving as something of a spark to the idea of visiting China, the real moment when the plan was conceived was when the Beijing Queer Chorus appeared on stage wearing masks at the Gay and Lesbian Chorus Festival held in Denver in 2016.
Fourteen of their chorus members came out on the stage wearing black, masquerade-style masks — a strategy used to conceal their gay identities from family and friends. In a symbolic move, they removed the masks on stage as if to show they were no longer hiding.
"It parallels our own chorus," Jung says. "Many times in the 1980s, singers would not allow us to use their photos, and would use a pseudonym in programs, or wouldn't have a name in the program at all."
Gary Coleman, PGMC chorus president and a founding member of the nearly 40-year-old organization, recalls picketers at a concert they had over a decade ago.
He says one of the reasons they put "gay" in the name was so that people — even if they didn't attend a show — would at least have to be confronted by their existence.
"Now it's more about connecting with communities outside of our community, especially communities that might not be as supportive," he said.
Jung, whose father moved from China to the United States in the 1940s and still has family in that country, says the opportunity to travel there will afford them not only the opportunity to learn about the experiences the Chinese are undergoing — but they might even be able to give advice to the Chinese groups on how to continue moving forward.
Jung and Coleman aren't too concerned about any potential dangers or worry about major pushback. They're coordinating with an agency that has helped other gay choruses travel to nations including Turkey, South Africa and Israel, according to Coleman.
But ultimately, it's still about the music.
"We get to do what we really do well, which is sing. The common denominator is music —it's always a connector, it's always an opportunity for people to engage," Jung says.
They will offer a robust selection of music while on tour in China, from Broadway tunes to classical, and even plan to sing at least one song in Mandarin Chinese. Jung says it's an opportunity for the chorus to bring its message of acceptance to China, and for partner organizations to continue to work together and build from the ground up, "much like we were in the '80s."
"Over time, the impact of just being there and singing really resonates," Coleman says. "The music cuts through biases, it cuts through ignorance, it cuts through bad histories and unsupportive families and judgmental churches. It certainly did that in Grants Pass."
(Keep an eye out for PGMC's announcement this Saturday about its 2018 season, and catch the singers perform at the Pride Festival this Sunday).