Nearly 20 years ago, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington had trouble finding venues that would book their performances. They were even prohibited from performing at Lisner Auditorium.
Now Lisner is one of the most frequent venues for the chorus and this August Gelman Library began archiving the chorus’ historic and culturally significant materials.
“This reflects the fact that GW, as well as other universities in the U.S., are a part of a larger community and we need to provide academic resources for all subgroups,” said Steven Madeville-Gamble, head of the Special Collections department at Gelman. “Twenty years ago it was too radical to have a recorded history of the LGBTQ movement, and now it’s unthinkable not to.”
Madeville-Gamble said he is excited about the move, which is part of his larger plan to beef up Gelman’s already growing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) literature. Gelman initiated the conversation about archiving the chorus’ records and Madeville-Gamble said his mission is to make the chorus’ archives available for the “next one to two hundred years; we can even aim for five!”
Gelman Library is home to many other LGBTQ literature and materials, including the works of Joan Biren, a local lesbian photographer, and Gay and Lesbian Education Fund Records. It also houses the records of GW Pride, a student organization dedicated to the LGBT community at GW.
“We have a great variety of LGBT literature, and this is an excellent addition,” Mandeville-Gamble said.
The items that will be archived are comprehensive of the chorus’s history, and include original lyrics, musical and business decisions, old performance programs, general correspondence, photographs, and audio and video tapes and CDs. The library has to finish collecting the records, take inventory, and then the records will be made available for research, Madeville-Gamble said.
“It’s all very serendipitous, the timing is right,” said Paul Pompeo, a member of the chorus who graduated from GW Law School in 1991 and is now a partner in Arnold & Porter, a law firm in DC.
The chorus’s mission, as stated on their Web site, is to carve their niche in the community of Washington, and share the gay experience. Some members feel that D.C. has allowed them to do after decades of struggle. Will Bellais, who graduated from GW in 1970, where he majored in theater. Bellais, a professor at Savannah State University in Georgia, has been with the chorus since their beginning, and said he remembers how his college years at the University shaped his motivation to join the chorus.
“In the late 1960’s and early 70’s, there were a lot of students protesting and going on strike, the ‘student revolution,'” he said, “and the school was then beginning to change. I remember once when I was getting out of theater rehearsal, there was noise, and gas, everywhere. Nothing felt the same until Stonewall. Then, we began to have freedom,” he said, referring to the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York, which was a milestone in creating awareness of the gay struggle.
“After it was created, the chorus allowed us to be out, to come out completely, though it took a lot of guts at first,” Bellais said. “To be in a room full of singing men is wonderful. To be in a room full of gay singing men is absolutely beautiful! Those experiences were the best part of my life.the chorus was my lifeline.”
Pompeo, who is also on the Board of Directors for the Federal City of Performing Arts Association, agrees that the Chorus’s past is fitting for everyone involved.
“Archiving at the Gelman library is a very good move. It expands us out to the greater community, which is a part of our mission,” Pompeo said. “It is a unique opportunity to reach out to people otherwise not exposed to something like this.”
Bellais said, “I’m very pleased it’s going to happen. There really needs to be archives like this around the country. We should never get lost in the general culture. We need a place like the university where it’s safe, in a city like Washington where it’s prominent.”
This Week in History
Wednesday, August 29, 2005: Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans.
Friday, August 31, 1915: Chicago Cubs player Jimmy Lavender pitches a no-hitter against the New York Giants.
Friday, August 31, 1997: Diana, Princess of Wales, is killed in a car crash.