Thomas Kennard is among the handful of transgender singers in the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus -- and proud to be one of its lowest basses.
"People say, 'I thought you would be a tenor,'" Kennard says, demonstrating the guttural depths of his range.
Kennard is concerned about the anti-transgender ideologies of some regions the choir is visiting on its upcoming tour of the southern United States. Last year, the chorus decided to forego its scheduled 40th anniversary international tour to visit the South not long after the 2016 presidential elections.
Kennard is especially worried about states that have tried to implement restrictive policies around whether a trans person can use the bathroom of his or her choice, like North Carolina. (One trans chorus member, Kasey Dunton, decided not to join the tour because he's worried about being arrested for using the men's bathroom.)
Kennard is hoping to use the tour as an opportunity to spark conversations. "I am going to bring a T-shirt that says, 'You Can Pee Next To Me,'" Kennard says. "So hopefully that will make a statement. People will ask me about it."
Around 200 members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, 50 singers from the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and around 50 additional supporters are set to board their buses and head out on the road this weekend. But the tour is already sparking political conversations in the South.
In Tennessee, one such conversation began in earnest a few months ago when the Gay Men’s Chorus approached Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville about performing there. Knoxville’s own gay men’s choir rehearses in the building. The church has openly gay members of the congregation. And senior pastor Chuck Starks talks up his organization’s sense of inclusivity. "We speak of ourselves as having open doors, hearts and minds," Starks says.
But the church turned the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus down.
Starks blames a scheduling conflict. "As a variety of things were looked at on the calendar, this just was not the right time for the hosting of the event," Starks says.
But lay leader Patricia Bellingrath, one of the representatives of the church who met with delegates from the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, has a different take.
"I think it boils down to fear of the unknown," Bellingrath says. "There are many many of us who would have been glad to welcome this chorus. But we also on the other side have several who would have been furious."
Bellingrath says that the United Methodist Church is currently in turmoil over how inclusive it can really be when it comes to matters of sexuality.
"There are people that want to change our book of discipline which says homosexuality is incompatible with the teachings of Christ," Bellingrath says. "And there are many who say it's just written in stone and there's no way that we will ever change it."
Bellingrath is part of a group -- "The Church Street Reconcilers" -- that started trying to have open conversations about the topic around a year ago. Discussions were sporadic and slow. That is, until the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus came along.
It was the disagreement surrounding the decision not to allow the ensemble to perform at the church that spurred Bellingrath and her group into action. They created a Facebook group, which currently has around 120 members, to discuss issues of diversity in the congregation. And there’s a potluck planned for mid-October with the aim of making the church more inclusive.
"When this happened with the Gay Men's Chorus, it really did prompt us to move quicker to go ahead and do something," Bellingrath says.
Bellingrath views the church’s decision to pass on the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus as a missed opportunity.
"I think it would have been a wonderful opportunity to hear some beautiful, beautiful music, and a chance to visit with some folks in the chorus," she says. "I think relationships are what changes people's minds and hearts. And I think it could have been an excellent opportunity for people at Church Street."
Change may be slow to come. But for now, around 40 members of her congregation will be attending at the choir’s Oct. 11 concert -- at Knoxville Civic Auditorium, not at their church like they would have hoped.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus “Lavender Pen Tour” visits various locations in Mississipi, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina Oct. 8 - 14. More information here.