Volume 76, Number 9 | July 19 - 25, 2006

Members of the Youth Pride Chorus in performance

In a chorus of their own, gay youth find their voice

By Lawrence Lerner

When music enthusiasts think of gay vocal groups, the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus likely comes to mind. The 250-member outfit celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, moving regularly between Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and other world-class New York City venues, while sharing the stage with a who’s who of vocal and musical luminaries, including Liza Minnelli, Stephen Sondheim and Carol Channing.

But few people know that, just three years ago, New York City Gay Men’s Chorus gave birth to an equally important project: Youth Pride Chorus, a collaboration between N.Y.C.G.M.C. and the New York City L.G.B.T. Center’s Youth Enrichment Services Program, which began in 2003 as part of Y.E.S.’s ongoing effort to expand its arts programming for L.G.B.T. and allied youth, ages 13 to 21.

“Many of our youth have felt isolated and alienated in arts and music programs in their schools and not safe to fully express their identities,” said Judy Yu, Y.E.S.’s associate director of youth services. “It felt important to build a collaboration with the N.Y.C.G.M.C. and create a space for young people to sing, learn music and learn about performance in an L.G.BT. context.”

Y.P.C. is the first L.G.B.T. youth chorus in New York City, and the first nationally to be sponsored by an established adult chorus. As such, its importance is hard to overestimate for those involved.

“Growing up in the 1980s in a small town in North Dakota, I only had a vague notion of what it meant to be queer, so I could not have begun to imagine a chorus of this kind,” says Wes Webb, Y.P.C. music director. “We’ve come a long way in a short period of time. Y.P.C.’s existence is a testament to this.”

That Y.P.C. members also grasp this historical progress is a measure of their maturity. They are keenly aware of the larger picture as well as the chorus’s impact on their daily lives.

“We represent a lot of voices that are not being heard. We make queer youths visible, and we do it through music,” said Nickkita Ramnine, 19, of Brooklyn. “Singing in a chorus is not what gives me the chills and sense of accomplishment. It is singing in a queer chorus, showing pride and sending out our message with songs. It is a form of activism.”

This political consciousness derives from their diversity as well. Coming from a variety of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, Y.P.C. members not only vary widely in their musical experience but also embrace a range of sexual orientations and gender identities, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, genderqueer and nongender-conforming.

“It’s really extraordinary having a chorus with such a diverse group of youth, and providing them with a space where they can bring in all their multiple identities — a chorus where the section they sing in is not determined by their sex or gender identity or [gender] expression,” said Anisha Narasimhan, Y.E.S. arts and media specialist, who oversees logistics and provides social services for chorus members. “We’ve had transgender youth sing in all the sections over the years, and the fluidity for vocal and gender expression that Y.P.C. provides them with is rare.”

Cris Benjamin, a recent New School University graduate and founding member of Y.P.C., can attest to how members benefit from the freedom of expression the chorus encourages. Biologically female and identifying as genderqueer — or outside the binary norms of gender and/or sexual orientation — Benjamin, 21, can sing soprano, alto and tenor and goes wherever the chorus needs.

“The range of gender identities in chorus sparked conversation in a safe way and made some people feel more comfortable about opening up. Chorus helped us get comfortable being ourselves,” says Benjamin.

Such openness and trust are integral to Y.P.C.’s demanding season, which is divided into two concert cycles — from September to December and February until June. After joining at the start of the first cycle, youth have their vocal range evaluated, then attend a daylong retreat at which they work on music literacy skills, rehearsal and performance analysis.

“We look at video clips of musical performances, with the sound off and then on, and ask, What does it take to give a good performance?” said Webb. “Asking L.G.B.T. young people to take on a persona can be tricky business. Most of them have been asked to be something they’re not all of their lives. But I encourage them to use their face, their hands, their whole body. Once they get past their initial discomfort, engaging their bodies in performance is hugely empowering for them.”

During each cycle, chorus members attend a three-hour rehearsal per week to prepare for major winter and spring concerts, plus several smaller shows that are scattered throughout the year. This comes on top of school and work demands for many of them, as well as myriad personal issues they contend with.

“Queer youth all too often face some severe challenges that put them at risk and make it hard for them to continue with a group like Y.P.C., but what’s thrilling to me is the number of them who come each week against some very difficult odds,” said Webb.

Y.P.C.’s supportive environment seems to encourage such die-hard commitment. For instance, Ramnine was an alto and soprano who had no musical training before becoming a member in 2003. She joined the chorus because it was offered by the Y.E.S program, which had made her feel safe and allowed her to explore new parts of herself.

“I have always loved music and singing but was always self-conscious and would never sing in front of anyone. But here, I felt safe to take the chance,” she said.

A junior at Brooklyn College who works full time at Chelsea Piers, Ramnine still manages to fit in chorus, rollerblading at top speed from work to arrive at rehearsals on time.

“Many times I have been to practice dead tired,” she said. “But then I get there, and we sing, and I see my friends and the amazing staff. I know I have so much support and people that care, and being in their company helps me grow as a person.”

Integral to this personal growth are Narasimhan and Y.E.S. prevention social worker Carla Silva, who check in with members at weekly rehearsals to promote community and offer support and guidance.

“We’ll stop to play games during stressful times leading up to performances, and we deal with life stressors that might get in the way of youth successfully participating in the chorus,” explained Silva. “We deal with crises and provide referrals when they need so they don’t need to let go of things that make them feel good, even if their life may not feel right at a particular moment.”

The formula seems to be paying off. During the last three years, Youth Pride Chorus has performed at Carnegie Hall and the Time Warner Center, at annual Pride Celebrations in New York and Boston and at various venues in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Y.P.C. held its most recent concert on June 7 at New World Stages in front of more than 300 people, performing a program called “Queer Voices Through the Ages” that included works by medieval European composer Hildegard von Bingen, poet W.H. Auden, Stephen Sondheim, Chinese poet Ruan Ji and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.

“This time, our show was more theatrical then ever before. There were elements of dance and spoken word, and we were more engaging with the audience. It really pushed our comfort zones,” says 19-year-old Michaela Davis, who joined Y.P.C. this year. “But it’s also the biggest thrill, after months of rehearsal when we have a show, and we are backstage about to go on and the announcer says our name and our ‘groupies’ scream,” she added giddily. “It’s a crazy rush.”

Benjamin also knows the transformative power of Y.P.C. and, of course, live performance. “For as long as I can remember, I have been onstage, whether it was for singing, acting or dancing. Y.P.C. has helped me to stay true to my performance-art roots and helped me to be proud of myself,” she said. “I may not be some mainstream star, but the chorus makes me feel like a star.”

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