Gary Coleman is a founding member and continuing leader with Portland Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC). Longtime PGMC member Greg Friesen recently was honored with a “Legacy” award for participating in a record number of performances. Formed in 1980, PGMC was one of the first gay men’s choruses in the nation. While the Chorus shrank to fewer than 30 members during the heights of the AIDS crisis, today PGMC is a thriving arts organization comprised of over 125+ singers. With outreach an important part of their mission, PGMC became the first western gay performing group to tour China in the fall of 2018.
This transcript of No on 9 Remembered’s conversation with Gary and Greg has been edited for clarity and length.
Starting the Chorus, Finding the Chorus
I’m a founding member of the Chorus. I was music coordinator at Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) in 1980, and a member of my choir came to me. and said, I just saw the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and we need one here. I said, sure, you find me a director and we’ll do one. So he found a man named Mark Jones, and the three of us went out on a Sunday afternoon had several pictures of beer. We talked about what having a chorus would be like. I put an ad in the local newspaper and we had 12 people show up in the MCC basement. One of those people was Steve Fulmer, who became our first general manager and extraordinary leader of the Chorus for many, many years.
The Chorus had our first performance at MCC on June 19, 1980. We had 20 people on stage, and then it grew from there. At the point when we became a legal organization, a nonprofit, we had to decide what to call ourselves, which was a question. We decided to follow the San Francisco model and put Gay in our name, which had some initial members leave, because of fear of discrimination or outing.
We wanted to respect people’s journeys, so members were given options; up to a third of the Chorus were listed under an alias name or “Name Withheld” in the programs, including Greg.
So that’s a good place to pass it off to Greg, but I’ll say one other thing – we had no idea that it would last this long, and be what it’s become.
I moved up to the Portland area in 1980. I was an elementary school teacher, so I had to be very closeted. You could still be dismissed for being gay, even though the Tigard-Tualatin school district where I taught was actually one of the more progressive districts. It was kind of like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell type of situation.
I was living in town and I don’t know how I missed that first advertisement that Gary printed, because I would have been there from their first time, because I love, love singing. I would have been scared shitless, though, because of the fact that it was gay.
It wasn’t so much the school district – they would have turned a blind eye. But it was the parents. There were many parents who were okay with it, even in that day. But most everybody was pretty much against gay people.
But I just happened to go to a concert, I think it was the “Brothers Sing On” concert that I went to. I looked at that, thinking, Oh, my God, that’s fabulous! That is so fabulous! Should I? Should I?
I was in all of the little choruses through grade school and middle school, and then in high school I was in the big Medford Senior High chorus. I love singing but I kind of got out of it, because that wasn’t my major in college and so you just didn’t do a lot of stuff that wasn’t connected directly to your major. But I missed it so much.
And so I started singing and just thoroughly enjoyed it. But still, you know, terrified. Somebody was going to see me on stage. I kept telling myself, if they’re here at the concert they’re okay. I kept telling myself that, but it was still kind of a hard road for a while.
When I stopped doing my name with an alias, it was basically through a printing mistake, but then I thought, Oh, my God, it’s 1990! whatever year it was. And it’s been my name listed in the program ever since. By that time my school district already had domestic partnership provisions. I wasn’t worried about being fired. But there still could be parents that could get real belligerent – real nasty about it.
So I still remained closeted for a while at work but a little bit later I was rehearsing at MCC and there was a newspaper person there who was taking some pictures. I didn’t think too much about it, because I said, Oh, I’m in the background. Nobody will see me, I will just blend in. And then the next day – this was when newspapers were still out there, and they had society sections – they said Portland Gay Men’s Chorus rehearsed, and there was that picture like about 6 x 6 inches of three people, me included. And I thought, Well I guess if they don’t know, they know now!
I walked into school, and one of the parents of one of students came up and said, Why didn’t you tell me you were in the Chorus? I’ve been wanting to see you guys for years! I said, Well, I’ll tell you when it’s our next concert and you can buy some tickets!
I would I so look forward to Monday nights [when the Chorus met] when I could just go and drop all of my little defenses and shields. It was so different than going out on Saturday night to a gay bar, and all of that sort of stuff, because that was always, you know, a little drinking, a little sniffing, all of that sort of stuff – party, party, party! This was just a normal, everyday, walk in, see your friends, say hi – nothing fabricated about anything going around. It was just friends getting together to sing.
The singing was so cathartic. I just enjoyed going so much. There was never anything that could really pull me away. It was my way to let myself be me – I was raised in an evangelical Christian home, so I could never be myself when I was home. I had nobody to relate to. But with the Chorus, it was just there. I could always count on friends being there on Monday night. You could let your hair down.Greg Friesen
Life & Death in the 1980s
We had grown to 105 members in our first two years. We sang at the first Gay Games in San Francisco in 1982 and at the West Coast Choral Festival with 13 other gay choruses. We were reading about this new “gay cancer” – and then we had our first death in 1983, Jim Schelot.
And then we started singing memorial services. We sang The Rose, service after service after service after service. I cry every time I sang it, even today, I still do.
Two other things happened at the same time. We started seeing our friends die in front of us in ways that I will never forget. We were at Benson High School and Richard Roth came in. We hadn’t seen him in a few months and he was just shriveled away, and I barely recognized him. At the same time there were protesters at the front door, bible thumping and telling us we were going to hell. And we were confronting that.
As our friends continued to die, we got bomb threats. We were picketed at many locations. All of that was going on. The thing that kept me sane during that time was the Chorus. It was the place I could rejuvenate for the work that we had ahead of us. It was just a place that just kept us going.
The other thing we were doing at the same time, especially in leadership positions, is figuring out how to balance our nonprofit status of not being “political” with needing to be political, needing to be out there. So we started doing outreach. We started reaching out and being more places, just so that we were more visible. It was one of the reasons we chose putting Gay in our name – whether they came to our concert or not, they were going to see the word.
They knew who we were!
And as Steve Fulmer used to say: Who could be afraid of a bunch of singers? The Chorus was a place that just kept us going through all of those years.
The Impact of PGMC Performances
I guess I just wanted to let everybody know that I was just a normal human being, that I didn’t have horns, that I didn’t chase all the boys – you know all those perceptions. I’m just a normal man who loves to sing in a chorus. I’m just normal, like the way I have to act around my family; they’re still rightwing conservative. But they look at me and see a normal man doing normal things like singing in a choir.
I also do some square dancing. As a teacher, I got awards – all of that sort of stuff. And I think that’s really primary for me, that humanizing function that the chorus helps with at a time when there was all that talk that we’re all demon pedophiles. It’s my job to say I’m a normal human being.
I think of several things about the impact to our audience. Many of our members come from being in our audiences. They saw us they went: Oh, that’s me. I want to be there. It was an alternative to the bars
I remember we were in the [southern Oregon] Rogue Valley. They had a new chorus there, and we were going to go support it. There was somebody with flyers, passing them out to people about us burning in hell and all that sort of stuff. We invited them to come in, and they came in, and they sat at the back. We were in a community college and as we listened to the other chorus sing, we saw this person moved to tears. And at the end they left their stack of pamphlets there, and did not distribute them any further.
We sang at Portland Community College for several years. We would have protesters out front, and often we would invite them in. As long as they didn’t make a stir, come in and listen! We didn’t shy away from that, or make them wrong per se, even though we might disagree with their position.Gary Coleman
Believe it or not, we were last picketed in 2019 in Grants Pass. We had gone there in 2017. We never raise money for ourselves when we go on outreach. It’s always for a local community agency of their choosing. They chose a local organization called Hearts with a Mission that worked with street kids. It was a wonderful crowd – they loved us, and we raised $2,000. But the Hearts with a Mission board wouldn’t take the money because we’re gay. However, they went to the City Council a month or two later and asked for money! And somebody who was in our audience at that concert said, Hey, you just turned down money! They got rid of part of their board and their executive director, and they changed their mission.
So back to 2019, they were once again the organization that got the money we raised, and they were sitting on the front row with their kids. A huge change! Then we went outside, with our host, and greeted the dozen or so protesters. So it doesn’t go away.
But I think it is representative of our courage to be authentic. It’s just – this is who I am. Here we are. We’re singing. I’m sorry that’s a threat to you. We’re just doing it, in the face of their desire to legislate exclusion.
1992: The We Sing Out!
As soon as I saw that this stuff [from the OCA] was coming out, all of a sudden, I got this wrenching feeling in my stomach. I’ve been used to prejudice, but this was the first time that I had ever experienced a highly organized absolute hate campaign against me.
Again, it just helped going to the Chorus. Because it was there, I was with my species, you know, my kind. We could commiserate together, and oh, not laugh about it, but make our jokes, and do whatever it took to make us feel like we were not spit on the bottom of somebody’s shoe.
To put some historical context into the timeframe around the We Sing Out! tour, which was really our action that we took together with Portland Lesbian Choir….
In January of ‘92 we were given the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission award for our work in diversity throughout the state. Then in March of ‘92 we did a mid-Valley tour to Corvallis and Eugene, then we sang at Artquake, and then we sang at the National Community Policing Convention in Portland. And then, right after we came back from the Sing Out tour, we sang at the Anne Frank World Exhibit, and then we sang in the Meier & Frank parade.
What that says is that no matter where we sing, we are who we are. The impact is that simple. It’s much like Harvey Milk said: Come out, come out, come out so they know who you are. If they don’t know who you are, you’re this thing they’ll make up.
I wanted to establish that context, because it is part of what we continue to do.
But at that time, when we’re being attacked and called pedophiles, and sadomasochists, and all the other stuff they attached to us at the time – it really required courage to continue to do that.Gary Coleman
An example from the school I worked at: I would wear a No on 9 button. And we had parents livid in the office saying, Why are they wearing those buttons that blah blah blah blah? The district stood up for us and said it’s free speech, as long as we weren’t expounding on anything. But we can wear buttons. And there were people who were really angry about that.
I brought a whole shitload of buttons in. Everybody got them, and most everybody wore them. I respect the people who didn’t for various reasons; it didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t support it. Everybody has an opinion, but I’m going to express mine.
To expound a little bit on the We Sing Out! Tour, We went to Klamath Falls and Coos Bay via bus. We did have threats along the way, and had police follow us several places and escort us around. What I remember the most is Coos Bay.
We came into this college campus on the bus, and there were probably a dozen or so picketers.
They come in that size of group! They were waving their signs, and, you know, chanting whatever they were chanting. We just drove in, came in, and as usual, invited them in. A few did come in, and they held their signs up. It was a fairly full smaller auditorium. They were in the back, with their signs in the back, and once again – the same kind of thing happened. I saw people put down their signs during the concert. I saw some people leave during the concert, I saw some people stay, and some who were in tears, and actually thanked us for the concert.
You can’t expect everyone to be instantly transformed. It’s not about that, but it’s about that visibility that’s consistent, and the message of love – which is what we always sing about – that cuts through. The power of music in itself cuts through. It resonates in here [the heart], not even just the words, but the impact of the music, of the sound.
Then we went to Springfield on a separate excursion the following weekend. We were at the downtown theater. There were bomb threats; the police dealt with that behind the scenes, so we didn’t really have to deal with it. But most of us had driven down in our own cars and when we came out from the venue, someone had put gay porno with little things, like “Fags go home” or whatever other messages on them, on the windshields of the cars all around the theater. I looked at it and thought: Well, this kind of hot! [laughs]
It was just: Go home! But look at this on your way! It was funny, ironic, weird, strange, and it was a sign of the times. People were confused. I laugh at it now. But it was kind of hateful at the time.
My hardest moment of the No on 9 campaign was when I was home in Medford, where I grew up, at my mom’s house. She wasn’t too technical with her computer. She wanted me to go through and check her emails and make sure that everything was okay. My heart just broke seeing there was an email message back from Lon Mabon, thanking her for her $10 donation. It just broke my heart. I never said anything to her but it just that was a lot of feeling during that time, anyway. Thank you. I will tear up if I talk anymore about it. Because I loved my mother dearly.
Working with the Portland Lesbian Choir
We did an initial fundraiser for them to get started. And we invited them on stage. We’ve shared many concerts on our stage, and on their stage. And of course the We Sing Out! Tour was really our first joint foray into what I would call activism.
The women’s movement at the time, in my opinion, was much more of a separatist movement than it is now and working together initially was challenging on both sides.
With PLC, it’s been a growing partnership over the years. We have shared office space occasionally. We’ve shared volunteers at the back of the Hall, and still do today. So there’s a lot of overlap but we really want to support the autonomy of their organization.
At some points we’ve discussed forming an umbrella organization, which many choruses have done, and that may even come up in the future.
In the early 90s around the time of Measure 9 we did adopt a mailing name called the Rose City Performing Arts so that people wouldn’t get “Gay” in their mail, and get found out. So in that time we did discuss it [the organizational umbrella idea].
The last two years at the Pride festival we have had an Arts Pavilion coordinated by our executive director, so all of the local arts groups – some of them performed on the stage, but they all had booths. PGMC and PLC shared the same booth, because we really serve similar audience. Our partnership is very strong.
Visibility & Activism
I’m going to attribute our political activism to Steve Fulmer, who was a political activist long before he came to us as a singer – a brilliant activist, a really great leader. So he really took that on, but toeing the line [of nonprofit status] we did not support candidates. But issues were fine, and so we tried to define that as we went along. We tried not to offend donors, and all the balancing acts of the different players.
Sometimes people would say, Are we really going do this? And other people say No, we have to. So there’s always been a little bit of dissent when it comes to that sort of thing. But you know, we do what we gotta do.
Yeah, I think at the time [of Measure 9] I remember that I really felt a call to action. I don’t think we talked about it as political activity at all. We didn’t really look at it like that. We thought, this is a threat, and we can sing to this, especially in places that are outside of Portland, where we really need to support.
It’s carried on, in lots of ways. For instance, when the domestic partnership law was signed at the Capitol, we went down and sang at that ceremony. When Multnomah County recognized rights for LGBT people, similar thing, and we sang there. We sang at the opening of Pioneer Courthouse Square. We sang at the opening of the Convention Center.
Just visibility, visibility, visibility!
But one of the biggest things I think I would call activism was that we wanted to go places that needed our voice. An example is Pendleton. We went to Pendleton, probably in the late ‘90s.
Initially, the entire city did not support it; we wanted to put up posters and nobody would do it. The mayor didn’t support it but we got a school. We went there and we had a great audience. They loved us.
Several years later we came back. Most buildings now wanted us in their building, and advertised for us, and we had a bigger audience, and that just built and built.
With that same issue of going to where we’re needed, we met the Beijing queer chorus in 2016 at the GALA Choruses network in Denver. There are 200 choruses in America in the GALA network. We have a festival – it’s not it’s not a competition, “officially” [laughs] – about 7 to 9,000 singers from around the country. Beijing was there and when they perform [this is pre-COVID] they wear masks. But in Denver, they took off their masks, all except one. In their country they mask themselves mainly so their families didn’t find out. The Beijing chorus had never actually had a public concert. They would never announce it in public. It was on a WeChat Channel, and they would tell the time and place at the last minute, because the government could shut them down at any time.
So we went to Beijing. We went to China for 10 days, and sang in four cities, Beijing, Xi’An, Suzhou, and Shanghai with full appreciative halls, almost all under age 30. They were surprised to see all ages and genders in our Chorus. They thanked us for being their role models, for showing that people could be gay and old and married.
There was just an Asian musical festival held, with Hong Kong, Japan, and China. It was a Zoom event, and the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus was the only American chorus who appeared in that festival, singing in Chinese.
So it is that level of impact that we consistently carry on. And I can’t wait to see what we do in the future!
It’s the personal moments that make this journey so worthwhile, and I have many, many personal moments that I could share. To pick one that I think is representative – we did a commission called Brave Souls and Dreamers, an anti-war cantata written from the words of everyone from Gandhi to Jimmy Carter to a mother’s perspective about the cost of war. We were asked by the city of Portland to represent them at the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in New York City at St. John the Divine Cathedral. KGW was there, and showed it back here. It was a moment where national pride and the healing power of music conspired together. I just thought it was a brilliant example of the potential of coming together across lines of division.
PGMC Changing with the Times
I think it’s exciting! I love to see fresh blood coming in, because it just shows you what the future is going to be like. And it’s exciting to see the evolution of things. Both Gary and I have been in for quite a while. I look out over the Chorus now, Gary, and I just see so many differences with the way it was before. It’s so different. But yet it’s so the same.Greg Friesen
Certainly there are generational differences in how we perceive things, and certainly we Boomers are not always acknowledged for the history that we bring in and the openings that we’ve created. However, the openings that we’ve created are the openings we’ve created, whether it’s acknowledged or not right now or not.
Many of the founding members of other GALA choruses have left because they didn’t like the direction the new chorus membership is going, or something like that. I think Portland is a rare place in that we allow people to bring their differences, and then work with those differences.
I know when PGMC first started taking members who were women, we lost several members because of it. However, we’ve had trans people as members from early on and people didn’t even know. I think our overarching thing was something Bob Mensel, our conductor of 26 years, said: Who are we, to discriminate? So all are welcome.
I firmly believe in that; the only caveat was you had to believe in and work for our mission.
To speak to the differences between the old and the new generations of Chorus members, we took a survey a couple of years ago, and we’re in the process of getting the results of a new survey. We just did it to kind of take the pulse of the Chorus. The older generation places a lot more value on the community part of it, for the socialness of it, for the brotherhood of it in a larger sense.
For the younger generation, because there are just so many other things they’re involved in, a so much wider breadth of options, it’s less about the social part and more about social justice.
For them, it’s about, where are we standing up? For instance, we now have a land acknowledgment at the at the beginning of every single concert, and it’s on our website. We came out with a statement about our position on Black Lives. We have a new Diversity and Equity policy that was spurred by a Native American stereotype that was used. That turned into a whole rethinking of how we deal with differences in the Chorus. That’s an ongoing, never-ending process. But it’s integral to who we are, and to our commitment to harmony.
There’s an ongoing question about isn’t it time for us to change the name of the Chorus? There are some language issues. Certainly pronouns, the use of pronouns, out of the respect, and giving space to people who use different pronouns, and also letting people know what your pronouns are so that we don’t end up having to make assumptions about each other. That’s been an adjustment between the two generations; we give them options to put on their name tag and it’s now a field in our membership directory.
And dealing with transitions has been interesting. A tenor can end up as a bass or vice versa, whichever way they’re going. And there are new rules about touching – there’s a lot less slapping each other on the ass than there was in the ‘80s – because personal boundaries are more respected, or at least there’s more conscious about them, with the younger generation.
I think we’ll continue to see more difference, as we go along.
Ultimately, we love to sing and we believe in the power of music to “uplift, honor & affirm all people.”Gary Coleman
Read our summary story, “Singing for Our Lives,” drawn from this conversation with Gary and Greg, and from Reid Vanderburgh’s memories as a founding member of the Portland Lesbian Choir who has sung with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus since 2008.
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.