"A Message From the Gay Community," performed by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) and posted to YouTube last week, starts out defiantly: "You think we're sinful, you fight against our rights, you say we all lead lives you can't respect…"
Then it gets downright satirical: "We'll convert your children," teases one of the soloists, parodying an age-old anti-gay narrative, before adding, "We'll make them tolerant and fair."
But not everyone got the joke. The video, which was posted just before the July 4 holiday weekend, went viral and was then lambasted by conservative media for its child-focused theme, even prompting death threats against the vocalists, according to the director of the chorus, Chris Verdugo. In response, the chorus removed the video, by setting it to private-only mode.
"It was a difficult decision, because we are an organization whose mission really is both artistic but also activist," Verdugo tells Yahoo Life. "We are the first gay men’s chorus on the planet. … We are a social justice organization … so it's very difficult for us to decide to take down that video. But the soloists — who are not in the chorus but, in their own right, rising Broadway stars, have received death threats."
Critics have used various Twitter accounts to take screenshots of the chorus, numbered the individuals and created spreadsheets, harassing them, even at their places of work. "All over a satirical piece of music," says Verdugo, noting that the chorus has been working with both the local police and FBI on the threats.
The controversial song was commissioned several years ago by the Oakland Symphony ("a heterosexual organization," notes Verdugo), picked up as part of the SFGMC's program after the artistic director heard it performed and loved it. The chorus had performed it in public several times before the pandemic, and it was always well-received; releasing the video recently, as part of a series, was just a way of keeping up engagement in the absence of live performances.
Listening to the words of the song, it's clear that teaching tolerance and fairness is the true message being delivered by the popular chorus, which was founded in 1978 and the first of its kind — for openly gay men. It eventually inspired a worldwide LGBTQ choral movement with an eye on visibility and equality.
The first performance the chorus gave was delivered impromptu at the candlelight vigil held after the assassination of first openly gay city San Francisco supervisor, Harvey Milk. Over the decades since, it has toured nationally and dedicated itself to community outreach — and it has been known for pushing the envelope.
This time, some think the chorus went too far with its send-up: "We’ll convert your children, We’ll make them tolerant and fair. … Learn to love,/Learn to love,/Face your fate./We’ll convert your children, someone’s gotta teach them not to hate."
The performance pokes fun at age-old anti-gay myths: that gay men are child molesters and that that they are out to "recruit" — a narrative kicked off over 40 years ago by the anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant, the born-again beauty queen and spokeswoman for Florida orange juice who pushed the damaging propaganda with her Save Our Children group.
Those narratives — including the myth of the "gay agenda," which originated with the Religious Right — have had staying power, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The activist group contests the myth that homosexuals recruit the young, and many others, "ranging from the extremely doubtful claim that sexual orientation is a choice, to unalloyed lies like the claims that gay men molest children far more than heterosexuals or that hate crime laws will lead to the legalization of bestiality and necrophilia." It notes that "these fairy tales are important to the anti-gay right, because they form the basis of its claim that homosexuality is a social evil that must be suppressed — an opinion rejected by virtually all relevant medical and scientific authorities."
The SFGMC is not the first to parody these claims: Milk reportedly used it as a voter rallying cry in his famous line about recruiting voters — “I am here to recruit you!" — and it was used in the 1990s by the Lesbian Avengers, a protest group known for its cheeky slogan, "We recruit," and its follow-up chant, alluding to Alfred Kinsey's claim that homosexuals make up 10 percent of the total population, "Ten percent is not enough! Recruit, recruit, recruit!" Now the "gay agenda" is so often turned on its head by LGBTQ people that there's even a dedicated page on Etsy filled with rainbow-festooned shirts and mugs satirically bearing the phrase.
"It's a trope that just keeps getting peddled around, and this country is more divided than it ever has been," says Verdugo. "But if you're a rational person, you realize, 'Oh this is a satirical song that’s being turned on its ear.'"
There was no shortage of people trolling the chorus's Facebook page, though, with comments on a July 6 post that the chorus was returning to in-person rehearsals that included, "You have revealed yourselves as evil. Now everyone will know what we are really up against"; "You're [sic] video is absolutely disturbing, disgusting and flat out horrifying"; "From 'We just want to get married' to singing about grooming children"; and “Disgraceful, disgusting, and of course degenerate."
Depicting gay men as a threat to children, notes the Southern Poverty Law Center, "may be the single most potent weapon for stoking public fears about homosexuality. … Discredited psychologist Paul Cameron, the most ubiquitous purveyor of anti-gay junk science, has been a major promoter of this myth. Despite having been debunked repeatedly and very publicly, Cameron's work is still widely relied upon by anti-gay organizations, although many no longer quote him by name." But according to the American Psychological Association, and the extensive research of Gregory Herek, a professor at the University of California, Davis, children are not more likely to be molested by LGBTQ people than by heterosexuals.
Verdugo admits that he did not expect the chorus would be unleashing such a storm with its post. "It's a lightning rod," he acknowledged, of the risks of referencing anything gay and child-related in the same breath. But, he says, the performance "came from a very innocent place. We weren’t trying to antagonize anyone … we never thought it would — and perhaps that’s on us."
The chorus's true message, though, was embraced by at least one child — Desmond is Amazing of New York, now 13, a young drag enthusiast whose antics have gone viral many times over the years. And he certainly cannot be alone.
"Literally my new favorite song! Thank you so much San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus!!," he wrote on his Facebook page. "This sounds like an anthem for when I am supported by the community when I am bullied for being a LGBTQ youth."
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