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    Finding Home and Safety in a Gay Men’s Chorus

    Chris Verdugo

    On a May evening in 1989 at my final high school chorus concert—a night filled with music, dancing, and the anticipation of our senior trip—I came out, or rather, I was forced out. I was not ready, even though I was quietly seeing a boy in another school. Being LatinX in a religious family while living in a Hispanic suburb of Miami didn’t foster openness or safety. At seventeen, I was unsure how I could or would control the narrative, so I made the decision to wait until college; it was only a few months away.  Life had other plans.

    When I think back on that night, it always happens in slow motion. I can see the crowded auditorium lobby, my mother tearing away the chain around his neck. I can hear her muted screams telling him to “stay away from her son, you fag.” I can feel her rage, see her tears, feel her pain. It’s only now that I recognize the latter. In that moment, all I felt was betrayal.

    Not only had she betrayed me, but she had also spoiled the space where I felt most safe—chorus. Days later I left on my high school senior trip, but I don’t remember much of it. I was in my head and my heart was broken.

    Soon after high school graduation, I moved out to downtown Miami, started college, and this naïve, brown, gay youngster from Hialeah began the journey to discover himself. In the first year, I found bars and clubs in South Beach, renowned book fairs where I would meet Armistead Maupin and Anne Rice, and found solace in a dance studio where I would meet my dance partners and dearest friends Emma and Christina. These two women embraced me for the man I was becoming and celebrated me.

    Something was still missing.

    I recall someone telling me about a chorus I might be interested in. Weeks later I found myself in a room of people singing—a familiar place, though it looked and sounded quite different than it had in high school or college or anything I’d even known existed. It was the Gay Men’s Chorus of South Florida. I was home. I was safe. I was with my tribe.

    That was 30 years ago this fall. Little did I know then how that time would shape me. How years later I would find myself on the board of directors of the Miami Beach Gay Men’s Chorus and then move to LA and join the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, eventually becoming the executive director.  Or how, after the Pulse massacre, I would move to San Francisco and helm the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus four years ago.  

    My personal journey and my life’s work entangled themselves at an early age. I experienced the power of music, of a tribe, to help heal a young heart and create a logical family. I discovered that a group of gay men who loved to make music could use their voices for more than just singing—they could protest, they could march in the streets, they could and would change the world—and, in due time, they could change a mother’s heart.  

    Chris Verdugo joined the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus as Executive Director in the fall of 2016. Previously, Verdugo served as the Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA). Before working with GMCLA, Verdugo founded his own production company, creating and producing major fundraising events and galas in Los Angeles for leading LGBT organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), GMCLA, and Beinestar.

    Published on September 10, 2020