Nancy Vanderburgh was a founding member of the Portland Lesbian Choir, leaving the group in 1997 to pursue transition, becoming Reid Vanderburgh. Reid sang with Confluence: Willamette Valley LGBT Chorus, from 2001-2007, and has sung with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus since 2008. This transcript of Reid’s recollections has been edited for clarity and length; Reid’s former name has been used with his permission.
This transcript of No on 9 Remembered’s conversation with Reid has been edited for clarity and length.
To set a little context, when we formed the Portland Lesbian Choir (PLC) in 1986, the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus (PGMC) was at that time six years old. They performed at a national choral event in Minneapolis where there was a women’s chorus, Calliope. PGMC heard this chorus, and they thought, We want one of those in our city! They came back totally jazzed at the idea that maybe they could help out with forming a women’s chorus here. One of the members of PGMC knew a woman named Cathryn Heron and planted the seed. She’d already had the idea, so it was kind of synergistic.
The lesbian community being what it is, we (I’m using a “royal we” here, I wasn’t involved yet) said to PGMC, “Thank you for the idea. Now we’re going to go off and do it. Don’t try to take over the way that men always take over women’s things!” That was sort of the ethos that we were coming from.
Cathryn put up a little 3 x 5 postcard on the bulletin board of A Woman’s Place bookstore in downtown Portland saying, let’s form a chorus! There were just four who showed up to the very first couple of meetings, and they thought, well, this is not enough advertising.
The Lesbian Community Project held its first ever Lesbian Conference at Portland State University in October of that year and one of the people who’d been among those first four went and announced it at several workshops. The next time they met, there were maybe 20 people there, and I was one of those. So that was the beginning of the Choir.
There wasn’t any such thing as the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) in 1986, that we were aware of. So the Choir was very much a community focused organization. That was a time when, if you were a lesbian, you probably lived between southeast Hawthorne and Belmont, and 20th and 30th. That was why we called it the lesbian ghetto – which we wouldn’t call it today – but at that time, that’s what it was.
Around 1986 people were starting to branch out a little bit, but not that much. At that time there was still a whole lot of separation between the gay men’s and lesbian communities. Most of the lesbians I knew were aware about AIDS, but it was like it was happening to those people over there. There were exceptions to that; there were a few people in the Choir who were social workers and folks like that, heavily involved in helping out with people who had AIDS. They lost a lot of friends and clients. For them it was more personal, but that was a small subset of those who were part of PLC at that time.
Now, having sung with Portland Gay Men’s Chorus since 2008, I have a bit better perspective of what it must have been like during that time for them. They were constantly singing at memorial services for their own members; they sang at more memorial services during the ‘80s and ‘90s than they did concerts, by far. I realized a few years ago – it was a happy surprise – that in the time I’d been in PGMC, no one has died of an AIDS-related cause. People have died, but of things like Alzheimer’s or a heart attack.
One member said to me once, “You know, we never quite developed any systems to deal with people getting too old to perform and sing, because before this, they just always died.” What you do with someone who’s getting in their late 70s, and they really can’t do it anymore, but they still want to be part of the Chorus? That was never an issue in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
With the Portland Lesbian Choir initially, it was very inwardly focused. My experience as a trans person transitioning in the ‘90s, I wasn’t on anybody’s radar. There’s a freedom in that because it meant that I could just go down my own path. Nobody was objecting. Nobody was holding up signs, saying, “No trans people in the bathroom” or anything like that. We were not on anyone’s radar to fuss about and in the ‘80s, I think it was a similar feeling in the lesbian community.
I wouldn’t have characterized it that way then, but we could be inwardly focused because no one was targeting us. We weren’t yet on the radar to be targeted until 1988. And that’s when the governor’s executive order [banning discrimination against gay and lesbian people in executive branch employment] put us on the radar with the OCA. And that really did change everything.
For PLC, the first time we ever performed outside Portland, was to go on road trips in protest of the ballot measures.
I still remember on the first one we did we did with PGMC during one of the measures. We were on buses on that particular tour. We were given instructions that I imagine matched what the Freedom Riders were told back in the ‘60s: Don’t walk around by yourself. Don’t go out after dark. Don’t do anything in groups smaller than about four. Be really careful, be really vigilant; pay attention to your surroundings and who’s around you. We were given that instruction very explicitly.Reid Vanderburgh
I have a feeling that it was a similar instruction that would be given to the Freedom Riders, because the danger is from similar kinds of people, people who have these ideas of what certain kinds of people are like. They want nothing to do with those people; they want to restrict those people. In this case, it was the gay community that was targeted.
Were there Choir members who opted out of the tour because of personal safety concerns?
I don’t recall any one saying I’m not going to go because of safety reasons. It was probably other logistics, like with kids that they would have to leave behind, something like that. The group cohesiveness in the Choir and also in PGMC at that time was so powerful that people weren’t afraid for their individual safety, because we were a powerful group.
Yeah, we had those people picketing in Coos Bay, but we way outnumbered them. We weren’t afraid of them.
We were mad that they were there. They were trying to disrupt the concert by holding up their signs in the back of the auditorium, so that we could see the signs from the stage. The audience couldn’t see them, but we could. They were trying to disrupt us and disrupt our cohesion as a chorus, but it didn’t work.
And the music itself changed some of them. They put their signs down and didn’t pick them back up. That really struck me at the time. I thought maybe we changed some votes with the people that were holding up the signs.Reid Vanderburgh
We were scheduled to perform in Medford, but finally gave up. Initially we had a space lined up. Then the folks associated with that space wanted to look at the lyrics of the songs we were going to perform; they took exception to the lyrics of “Everything Possible” –
"You can be anybody that you want to be, you can love whomever you will. You can travel any country where your heart leads and know I will love you still. You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around, you can choose one special one. And the only measure of your words and your deeds is the love you leave behind when you're done."
Basically it’s reassuring a small child you can be whoever you are. They thought that was a terrible message to send to a child, so they didn’t want us to sing that song.
There was another performance where the concert was going to be in a theater, and somebody objected to the idea of saying Portland Gay Men’s Chorus and Portland Lesbian Choir on the marquee.
They wanted the words Gay and Lesbian removed from the names of the choruses. You can imagine what the reaction was to that! Here we are in a campaign against Measure 9, and they want us to censor the name of the choruses!
Well, that kind of proves the point of why the choruses were necessary.
Was this the first time that the men’s and women’s choruses sang together?
No, not at all. David York was the director of PGMC during the ‘80s – and talk about a bridge builder! He founded Concord Choirs, which was a family of choruses. There was a women’s chorus, Aurora. There was a men’s chorus named Satori that was non-auditioned. There was an auditioned mixed-chorus Concord Choir, and there may have been even other choirs within there. We had a children’s chorus. So he was trying to build bridges between all kinds of communities.
When the PLC formed, the ties between the two choruses [with PGMC] were incredible. When PGMC had its tenth anniversary concert, they invited PLC for basically a joint concert. This was before PLC had a whole lot of administrative infrastructure and couldn’t really produce a joint concert. They really did all the work but gave us half the proceeds of the concert.
The PLC went to its first gala choral festival in Seattle in 1989, in a big performance hall at the University of Washington. When the curtain went up for the PLC, the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus had staked out the first three rows, and threw roses at us on the stage.
Being part of the PLC was incredibly powerful. Incredibly powerful. I found a journal entry of mine from 1986, in early October, where I was just beside myself, having found PLC. I thought, this day I did something extremely important for myself. That group gave me a reason to exist for the next 9 years, until I finally realized I was trans. The center of my life was that organization.
It was the center of a lot of our lives. It was just the most important thing – because there’s something about choral singing. There’s a reason why it originated in churches in spiritual traditions, because there’s a huge power in converging on a single note in unison. It makes really overt, the interconnection between people. It’s so powerful. So to do that within a gay or a lesbian context, it just creates this huge sense of community that I’ve never found equaled in any other aspect of gay and lesbian community that I’ve participated in. And it spills over into the audience experience. So it brings the audience a glimpse of that same interconnection.
I still remember on one of the tours, I sat down on the bus next to someone who was a new member. I got to chatting with her. She had left her husband and moved to Portland. They were a Mormon family. They were trying to track her down to bring her back into the fold because she’d gone astray, and I just thought, Oh, my God! That’s the importance the choir had for its members.
With the OCA attack on our community, the choir members drew us even closer together, if that’s possible. In 1986 the focus was on developing a community thing so that we could be there for our community. In fact, the first tagline that the choir used was: We sing for you. I felt that with the audience, not just the people I was singing with.Reid Vanderburgh
I did not understand that I was trans at that time. I didn’t know that about myself. I just knew there was something fundamentally wrong, is how I put it. As I got older, it got harder and harder to cope with.
I’m not the only person who was in the PLC who has transitioned, but I’m the only one that ended up joining PGMC. I was the first open transman to join the Chorus in 2008; there was at least one transman who sang in the chorus before that but he didn’t tell the director he was trans when he auditioned. In the mid ‘90s that would have been the way to do it.
What we’re going through now [with the attacks on trans people and the LGBTQ community] – the same people have the same objections, and maybe their kids do, too, because they passed it on. So it’s never over, it just changes. There will always be people who are going to be marginalized to some degree or other. So don’t take anything for granted in terms of civil rights or social safety.
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.