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    To Mask or Not to Mask

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    The answers to the question, “To mask or not to mask?” are completely up in the air all over the country and world. Do we wear them? Do we not? It is still unclear and mask wearing has turned into gentle, confusing suggestion rather than a mandate in most areas. I have begun to travel and I’ve got to say that the disregard for any safety precautions in other parts of the country is still appalling. Most recently it was Atlanta and Phoenix. Good Lord, it was everything I could do to keep from running around inside the airport yelling at people!

    It’s not much better here at home, to be honest. Since the very beginning of the pandemic, singing has been flagged as one of the seven deadly COVID sins. It started early on with a choir in Washington State that rehearsed before any of us knew anything, and half of them got sick and a couple of them died—from choir rehearsal, for heaven’s sake. That was two years ago this week!

    At the beginning of the pandemic, almost every clothing designer jumped into creating gorgeous cloth masks. I bought some myself—from a bow tie company. (The demand for custom bow ties was dying a natural death long before COVID.) Regardless, you could hear these businesses pivot, it was so loud. Now, the natural demand has died off, and what’s even worse, cloth masks are no longer safe. They just hang on a hook near the door with the car keys and dog leash. Science now says we have to use only KN95 masks. In this strange new world, Mask to Mask has now replaced Masc 4 Masc as the norm.

    The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus rehearsed through the fall wearing masks of our own choosing. Of course, it became a fashion show of the most creative masks to be found—from rainbow flags to puppy dogs to fully sequined for more formal rehearsals. Our medical team developed a rigid protocol for the chorus, so every one of the 250+ singers was tested at rehearsals and performances.

    We finally took our masks off the first week of December with every singer being tested at every rehearsal and performance from there on. We got through 5 major shows until the Omicron variant showed up. We had to cancel our favorite shows at the Castro on Christmas Eve, a tradition that is 32 years old. Even masks wouldn’t allow Santa or Jesus to appear in the Castro that night. In January, we started back with a few virtual “rehearsals.” Week number 5, we began in-person rehearsals, but masked with formal black KN94s.

    This past August, we had auditions for new members. They had to wear masks during their auditions and every rehearsal from August until December. On December 6, we had our first rehearsal without masks. It’s sometimes said that “the eyes are the window to the soul.” Well, that’s nice. But when the eyes are all that you can see, the soul has a hard time showing itself.

    When the moment finally came and we removed our masks, we were completely surprised at what the bottom two-thirds of peoples’ faces looked like. I know for me, most of them did not look anything like I had imagined—having only seen eyes, ears, and hair—or no hair. I thought, “I had no idea your nose looked like that or that you even had a goatee.” I was immediately taken back to my childhood when I put facial hair via magnetic shavings on my “Wooly Willy.” I’m pretty sure Mom and Dad would not have allowed me to play with it if they had known I would only be attracted to men with facial hair from then on!

    Of course, when I began thinking about masks as a topic for an article, I began looking at the history of masks. Oh, my goodness, masks run the gamut. There are historical masks with origins in every corner of the world. The first masks to be found or recorded are 9,000 years old and since that time have been found in every region on the earth. That research, I’ll leave to you.

    It used to be fun to wear a mask from time to time for those special occasions such as Halloween or Mardi Gras. I’m not sure it is going to be that much fun for a while.

    Comics Basics says masks “are as common in the world of comic books as allergies on a spring day. They protect the identity of the heroes who wear them, strike fear into villains who oppose them, all-the-while looking, for the most part, really awesome.”They list the top mask wearers: Batman, Cyclops, Batgirl, Dick Grayson, The Flash, Wolverine, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Mask, and Spiderman.

    Of course, I went farther back to my days in front of the screen in the den as my Mother taught voice lessons in the living room when Zorro and the Lone Ranger saved the old West. As an adult, I watched as Hannibal and Scream scare the s–t out of generations. And as a Broadway queen, I was literally blown away the first time I saw Phantom of the Opera.

    Then there are oxygen masks, anesthetic masks, surgical masks, snorkel masks, steampunk masks, and the ever-popular death mask. I keep my beauty and youth with a face mask made from avocado and volcanic ash!

    There are also a host of non-physical masks. We each wear different masks to hide who we really are. We wore a very specific mask before coming out. It was a mask of “I’m not gay” when every possible indication said otherwise. It was a mask that put me in the untenable position of degrading and diminishing those who had courageously removed their masks to make sure those in my circles didn’t suspect I was actually one of “them.”

    We still wear masks of all kinds. A mask is a great metaphor for our fear of the present moment. Some people who wear hidden masks understand it is more than a metaphor. It is survival. There are many situations that, unfortunately, force us to “be someone else.” We chose to wear the mask to please others or to protect ourselves from those who would not understand or accept us the way we are—unmasked.

    I leave you with a hope that, one day soon, we will never have to wear a mask again to protect ourselves from a virus—or from one another. I hope for the day when choosing to wear a mask is just for fun. And, of course, I dream of a day when no one feels pressured to “wear a mask” in order to satisfy someone else’s ideas of whom they should be.

    I’m heading out to do some shopping; grabbing my KN95 off the hook by the door. I’ll see your eyes soon.

    I leave you with these haunting lyrics from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom:

    Paper faces on parade!
    Hide your face,
    So the world will
    Never find you!
    Every face a different shade!
    Look around—
    There’s another
    Mask behind you!
    Burning glances,
    Turning heads …
    Stop and stare
    At the sea of smiles
    Around you!
    Grinning yellows,
    Spinning reds …
    Take your fill—
    Let the spectacle
    Astound you.”

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    Published on March 24, 2022