The members of the Knoxville Gay Men's Chorus laugh, like when artistic director Christopher Hamblin calls out singer Roger Myers' name the exact same way RuPaul announces "I-vy Winters" on season five of Drag Race.
And they cry, when the closeness inspired by two to four hours of rehearsal each week inevitably leads them into discussions about hatred and torment and self-doubt.
But mostly, they sing, with talent and joy and unashamed enthusiasm. And that act expresses the chorus' entire purpose, says Hamblin, who chooses his phrases carefully and delivers them in a mild Southern drawl with an undercurrent of merriment. "Just the presence of people standing on the stage as out people is one of the most powerful things we can see," he says. "To quote my friend J.D. Whitty, ‘To manifest joy in an audience is subversive. To create happiness and leave people grinning from ear to ear when they leave the theater is sort of the most rebellious thing you can do nowadays.'"
The group is the brainchild of its president, the activist Bleu Copas, who met Hamblin at the Equality on the Hill demonstration in Nashville last year. Hamblin and Copas, with two or three other singers, had their first public performance at the Night of Noise that breaks the Day of Silence in Knoxville about a year ago; the group has grown to 30 performers since. Performances at last year's Pridefest and Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church's Hope for the Holiday concert put Knoxville audiences on notice: These gay men are here to sing, and sing well.
"I think people knew they were coming to that to support friends, family, and perhaps even the cause, but didn't know what to expect," says Hamblin, referring to the TVUUC show. "By all accounts, they came away moved and touched and had an experience and maybe understood more about our lives—I think people were struck by the courage it still takes to be as out as one is as a member of a gay men's chorus in Knoxville."
Hamblin studied both music education and musical theater at the University of Tennessee, and this chorus is a bullseye for Hamblin's skills and life experience.
"The way I'm doing it, we ain't fooling," he says. "We're taking it really seriously about how much we're changing the culture. So far, it's been an overwhelmingly good response—and that takes a moment to process."
Hamblin is known for his occasional Night of 1,000 Dollies, featuring himself and others as Dolly Parton drag queens, and his 2011 production of John Cameron Mitchell's rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He's reached a point where being out onstage is something he can take in stride. "I've done much crazier things than this that did not get me killed," he says. "Dressing as Dolly Parton at the Longbranch didn't get me killed, and this is way less crazy than that."
The group that will perform with the Metropolitan Community Church choir and Nashville in Harmony on May 5 is at once a throwback—the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus first performed in 1978—and an evolving political entity. "There is a feeling amongst us and the other choruses that this is a movement, not simply another entertainment option—this is a way to effect change in the world through the arts," says Hamblin.
Hamblin won't give away the whole lineup, but he promises that the show will be include a song by the Eagles, Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," and an arrangement of "Over the Rainbow." "We're a gay men's chorus," he says. "We have to do ‘Over the Rainbow.'"
The show will also have its get-out-your tissues moments, like the piece by Steven Schwartz called "Testimony." The first half of the piece is based on submissions from teenagers and young people to Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project—statements like "I'm going to hang myself" and "It's an abomination."
That song has meant a lot to group members; even as being gay in this area becomes more accepted, there are scars, and fears, that have touched each singer. "Several people have shared stories about thoughts with suicidal tendencies, and there have been some serious tears shed for each other and for our brothers and sisters who have already killed themselves, or for those who are still thinking about it because the world has told them they should not exist," Hamblin says.
Hamblin recently attended a conference with other chorus leaders, and received overwhelming support for Knoxville's fledgling chorus. "Those choruses in Miami, L.A., Seattle, it's a very different fight they have," he says. "They can reasonably talk about marriage equality; we have to talk about whether we can teach in the schools or not."
While such thoughts may be the underlying theme of the concert, the music will be joyous, emotional, and fun, Hamblin promises—not pedantic or cloying.
"It doesn't have to be all ‘We Shall Overcome,'" he says. "Sometimes it's more like, ‘Rolling in the Deep.'"