By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Two guys wearing bathrobes and fuzzy purple slippers storm onto the stage. Standing on mauve carpet, a choir sings beneath a stained-glass Jesus. Stage right is a red AIDS ribbon; stage left, a dove flies across a pink triangle. A Christmas tree in the corner is covered in butterflies, stars and shamrocks.
How can you have a lavender Christmas when your mother comes to town? sings a fuzzy-slippered man. Up go the ornaments and boughs of holly, and the calendars all come down.
The other guy sighs. Commiserating, he sings, Even though you say, "Mom, no thanks," she keeps on trying to set you up with girls. And no matter where you try to hide them, she's bound to find your heels and pearls.
A woman walks onto the stage, her arms draped in sequined dresses, blond wigs and feather boas. "Honey," she asks. "What's this all about?"
The men look at each other, shrug and sing, Today would be a lot more merry if I could say, "I'm a sugarplum fairy!"The couple turns toward the choir behind them; one grabs the other's butt.
This is Christmas 2001 at Bering Memorial United Methodist Church, and on stage is the fabulous Gay Men's Chorus of Houston presenting its 23rd holiday extravaganza.
It may not be many people's idea of a traditional Christmas, but it's standing room only at the church.
James Knapp has Nathan Lane eyebrows and a diamond-shaped goatee. Conducting with the intensity of a cartoon maestro, he always breaks into a postrun sweat. James reminds singers to take their vitamins and says he knows their performance is going to be good -- but he wants it to be fabulous. "I want it to be special because youare special," he says at rehearsal a month before the Christmas concert.
The choir rehearses year-round, presenting winter, spring and summer shows. The original -- and most popular -- performance, the Christmas pageant started in 1979 when carolers gathered around the tree at Mary's leather bar. Set free, their inner showgirls refused to be silenced, and the choir was created. The San Francisco Gay Men's Choir had just toured the country, and gay choirs were forming nationwide. The next winter, about 80 men wearing white tuxedos took the Tower Theater's stage for the Montrose Singers' first official concert.
During the mid-1980s, the choir was hit by the AIDS epidemic, and more than half the members died. "We were singing at memorial services every couple of weeks," says Rex Gillit, a member of the choir's board. At one point the choir was nothing more than an a cappella group with six members rehearsing in the director's living room.
In 1992 the choir changed its name to the Gay Men's Chorus of Houston. "There was a substantial debate," Rex says. "Several guys were concerned that putting the G-word in the name would scare away potential members. We had been very closeted as the Montrose Singers. No chorus in Texas had the word gay in its name. It was a very daring thing to do."
Membership tripled, and the next year concerts sold out.
Over the next few years, directors came and left; membership diminished with each departure. Members complained that the choir wasn't fun anymore, the music was religious, serious and sad. "There was a haze over people," says member Warren Morales. "People didn't talk. You came and you sang and you went home." The artistic director stepped down and more members deserted. The gay men's choirs in Dallas, San Francisco and Seattle all have more than 200 singing members. In June, Houston had 20.
James has added 30 new voices since becoming artistic director this summer. He wrote letters to past members and called people who had shown up for a rehearsal or two and asked them to return to kick off the Christmas season. He titled the show "Jubilation" and planned a program mixing outrageous comedy, campy skits and haunting melodies.
James placed an ad in Houston Voice, posted flyers at local colleges and invited everyone who might be interested to three cocktail parties at his house. "I cooked up a storm," James says. He served homemade hummus, salmon mousse and baba ghanoush. Revamping the choir, James eliminated auditions, inviting everyone to join whether they sang in show choirs or showers. He also admitted women.
James has experience building choirs; in seven years at the Sugar Land First United Methodist Church, he went from 40 to 125 regular singers. Under his direction, the group toured throughout the United States, Europe and the Soviet Union.
Over the last ten years, James watched the Gay Men's Chorus perform but never considered joining because he wasn't out at work. He turned down dates with parishioners' daughters and said he was a loner, not interested in dating -- even though he lived with a man.
Three years ago James became the choral director at a large church in Houston. Before they made an offer, James told the search committee that he was gay. Committee members assured him that his sexuality didn't matter and that the church welcomed him.
Apparently they didn't inform the pastor. On James's first day, the pastor asked him his sexual preference and fired him.