Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ukraine Day 5 – From Odessa with Love

The experience on Monday, the fifth day of our tour, actually started the evening of the fourth day. On Sunday, we spent most of the day on a bus from Lviv to Kyiv. After arriving in the capital of Ukraine, we got right to work.

Sunday night, we were invited to the home of the Consular General to meet local LGBTQ activists, Embassy staff, and the Qwerty Queer Chorus from Odessa. We were to workshop and perform with Qwerty the next day, and this was a chance to connect more socially. Cocktails turned into a friendly “sing off,” and it was love at first song. What was most remarkable about Qwerty was the guttural strength and power that emerged from the small ensemble. Only six of the sixteen singers were able to travel to Kyiv this week, and I heard more life experience in their voices than I was prepared for. Knowing nothing about the singers themselves, and nearly nothing about Odessa, I was hearing their life stories measure by measure.

The next morning was scheduled and coveted free time. Some of the group took a walking tour of Kyiv with one of our new friends we had met the night prior. For me, this much needed re-energizing time as I took my own walkabout. I spent a great deal of my childhood walking through old churches with my parents, and apparently it’s a hard habit to quit. St. Sophia is one of the more famous churches in Kyiv, dating back to the 11th century. But since this isn’t a travel blog, suffice it to say you should see it if you’re in Kyiv.

We spent the rest of the day at Queer Home Kyiv, the local LGBT center. I don’t know if it’s for safety or due to lack of funds, but the center is located in a hard-to-find back alley partial basement. Once you enter, the space is remarkably big, with unmatched donated furniture, protest posters on the wall, and an oft-used coffee maker. Here we ate lunch with Qwerty. The romance was timid at first, but both choruses quickly fell hard when we began sharing our history, warm up techniques, and repertoire with each other.

In the weeks leading up to this tour, the Embassy had suggested that we check out the song Chervona Ruta. It’s an anthem of Ukraine, and it’s beautiful. We added our own spin to it with vocal percussion – a technique that immediately caught the ear of Qwerty. Workshopping this anthem with Qwerty was powerful, and there was a feeling of long lost kinship the entire afternoon. Performing it together later that evening at a celebration of International Day Against Homophobia at the Dutch Embassy solidified the deal. GMCW will always have a bond with the Qwerty Queer Chorus of Odessa. You can read more about Qwerty here.

Chervona Ruta - GMCW + Qwerty Queer Chorus
Dutch Embassy in Kyiv

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Redefining Dignity in Ukraine

The Orthodox Catholic Church seems to be pretty influential in Ukraine on the social and political front. So, it is all the more impressive that an Orthodox Bishop was present for the first part of our concert at the Philharmonic on Friday. I’m speculating a bit, but I would guess that the weight of the US Embassy letterhead provided encouragement. We’ve encountered many ways this week in which the US Embassy is using its influence for good when it comes to LGBTQ issues in Ukraine.

Case in point - on the Saturday of our tour, we were invited to a BBQ on the campus of the Catholic University outside of Lviv in honor of Memorial Day. By inviting a gay chorus to an event with US, Ukrainian and Catholic leadership present, the Embassy isn’t afraid to push a few unconventional conversations forward. While governments can be risk averse when it comes to foreign policy, we have experienced an Embassy in Ukraine that is nimble and unafraid to dream.

Our original invitation to the BBQ was to sing a few songs including the US National Anthem. We later learned there was misunderstanding by the church surrounding our identity as a gay group. We saw the frustrated Embassy staff scramble to honor the relationship they have with the church as well as with GMCW – an impossible situation because Orthodox Catholic doctrine is in direct opposition to GMCW’s mission. The church, un-shockingly, didn’t want to acknowledge our gay identity.

You might think there was an impulse to grab our bags and leave, angered and hurt. Most people at the BBQ already knew our story, so accepting the altered invitation would just allow the church continue its head in the sand tradition. This begged a natural question: were we more likely to reverse centuries of dogma that day, or chip away at the armor…maybe influence one person? It was a split second decision we made collectively, and I couldn’t be more proud of Potomac Fever for realizing that we can’t change hearts if we’re not in the room. Even if our hosts didn’t have the capacity to move as much as we wanted, the needle always moves through person-to-person interaction.

Our partnership with the US Embassy has already caused a stir. Like many parts of this tour, we won’t know the aftereffect of this particular experience with the Catholic University for some time. But we do know that a gay chorus (known, if not acknowledged) performed twice for Orthodox Church leadership in as many days. In Ukraine that is a leap forward. I won’t ever defend or make excuses for an institution whose doctrine and actions are discriminatory. Instead, I lift up a group of singers whose true colors of compassion, cultural understanding, and dignity were ablaze.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Ukraine Day 3 – The G is Silent

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s small ensemble Potomac Fever had a public performance on the outdoor main stage of the America Days Festival today. In addition to us, there were jazz instrumentalists and vocalists featured at the festival in Lviv’s Opera House square.

After a lazy morning of sleeping in, we arrived at the stage to meet our new security detail. The square was filled with vendors selling food, coffee, honey-flavored vodka (a new favorite of mine), and traditional clothes. There were fully costumed animal characters à la New York’s Times Square, and an impressive presentation of US Army troops showing off one of their hummers. Gen. Hodges came right up to us for a photo opp. He is as personable as he is decorated. The Army is currently training Ukrainian troops in Yavoriv, just outside of Lviv. This is one of the many factors contributing to the positive reception of Americans in Ukraine. For as much as we may have to go back in the closet for a bit in the more public performances in Ukraine, our American identity makes us welcome almost anywhere we go.

While we were meeting by the stage pre-show, we were awkwardly asked by our security to move over to a holding tent. There were lots of people in uniform around the stage, and I later learned that some of them weren’t actual soldiers, but rather right wing paramilitary extremists. The kind that wouldn’t like a gay chorus being there if they knew who we were. I’m glad there were more of our uniforms than theirs.

Today’s performance at the America Days festival was very public, which means it was one of the performances where we used the title Potomac Fever, and made no mention of gay. There were surely people who knew the full story if they bothered to Google search the group. Leading up to the tour, many allies have been informed through liberal social channels. The US Embassy has worked hard to get the word out to the right people and keep it from the wrong people. So far so good. On the tail end of the tour, there will be a lot of local media to get the word out that a gay chorus toured Ukraine. Those TV and radio spots are already lined up, and we’ll be safely en route home.

The performance today had a bit of a rock concert element to it. We chose some of our more popular songs (Teenage Dream anyone?) and had the audience dancing and singing along. Afterwards, a bunch of teen girls wanted pictures with the group.

Another fun thing happened at the festival. The America House in Ukraine organized an effort to break the Guinness World Record for the largest English Lesson (currently held by Germany). Hundreds of people in the square participated, and there were about 100 other locations doing the same thing simultaneously around the country. We don’t know yet it the record was broken, but the goal was 6,000 people participating.

After the festival, we all boarded a bus to go to the Ukrainian Catholic University Campus for a performance hosted by the US Embassy in honor of Memorial Day. You heard that right – we sang at the Catholic University of an orthodox country. That experience deserves its own post, so I’ll cover that another time.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ukraine day 2- “I know courage when I see it”

After a security briefing last night, which not only covered the state of LGBTQ affairs in Ukraine but also our own personal safety, we awoke this morning to take a walking tour of Lviv with at least seven security personnel in tow. I say “at least” because we were told that we won’t see all the security that is in place for us. Violence against LGBTQ people, while technically against the law in Ukraine, is still common.

On the one hand, there’s a bit of a rock star feeling having your own security detail. On the other hand, having someone watch your every move makes you begin to watch your own actions and behaviors. Should I have worn a more masculine shade of blue? Should I avoid certain movements? Should I lower my voice (sorry tenors)?  Should I say the word gay in public? Questioning this kind of thing, to many of us, is like questioning if we should breathe. And it makes us all the more aware that it is our role to use any privileges we have to help those who have fewer.

The backdrop of security was only eclipsed by the backdrop of renaissance, baroque and classicism that is preserved in the architecture of a city. With its roots in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Polish rule, and that of the USSR, Lviv is a perplexingly western European city, lying somewhere in the visual landscape between Prague and Vienna. As the Mayor of Lviv said in his address before our concert tonight, everyone leaves a bit of their heart in Lviv – and I can see why.

Now about that concert. Our first official performance was the opening of the America Days weekend festival in Lviv. Taking place at the Lviv Philharmonic, an acoustically and visually rich concert hall, this concert was a 75-minute set combining our music and stories about the LGBTQ experiences our singers have had back home. If Lviv didn’t know we were gay (and to be fair, some of them didn’t), it became unmistakable tonight.

It was a notable concert for many reasons. To borrow a phrase from the hit musical Hamilton – it was about who was in the room where it happened. This impressive list included the Mayor of Lviv, the Governor of the Lviv region, most of the US Embassy staff including Ambassador Pyatt, and several US military personnel including Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, Commanding General of the US Army in Europe.

Notably, one of the Catholic Bishops from the Lviv diocese was present. Even after we started, he stayed for four songs. Leaving early may seem like an insult from the US perspective. True, an American rebuffing the performance of a diplomatic guest may be insulting. But for a Ukrainian, it’s a different matter. It wasn’t until the stories in between songs began to explicitly discuss same sex marriage that the Bishop decided to leave. Overall, it's a huge sign that the people who make policy and influence opinions in Ukraine showed up publicly to our concert. As we understand it, nothing like this has ever happened. And as one Ukrainian on social media said, “the sky didn’t fall.”

After our concert, Gen. Hodges approached us and remarked of the performance, “I know courage when I see it.” Think about that. In a post Don’t Ask Don’t Tell world, hearing the head of NATO land command in Europe tell a group of gay guys that they are courageous is pretty incredible. Maybe he knows just how much security we have while we’re here. Potomac Fever and the GMCW family supporting us back home are, indeed, courageous.

However, I would respectfully amend what Gen. Hodges said. He made this very kind and supportive statement to us backstage, under the cloak of security, and in good company. The courage, in my mind, is also in all the people who attended the concert; all the people who are already tweeting about the concert; the people Gen. Hodges oversees to make sure we are safe all over Europe; and all the people who worked through government red tape (on the US and Ukraine side) to make the concert and tour happen.

In Washington, we are lucky. We can go to any concert, any museum, any meeting, and our lives are relatively safe (the metrorail notwithstanding). The people who came to our first concert tonight, and who will come visit us on the rest of the tour, are the truly courageous ones. While we can go home safely after this tour, our audiences may risk personal safety, political scandal, employment, and familial relationships if they show support in a country where 72% of people have a negative view on LGBTQ rights.

So to those who show up, who advocate for what is right, who use their power and influence in Ukraine and abroad to save more lives, we say to you: we know courage when we see it.