A Lavender Christmas

The Gay Menís Chorus of Houston sings out for Santa Claus and the baby Jesus

When he interviewed this spring, James said he would conduct the gay men's choir with his head held high.

He was voted in unanimously.

James threw three cocktail parties to try to build choir membership.
Deron Neblett
James threw three cocktail parties to try to build choir membership.
Carolers at a leather bar created the choir, which first performed in 1980.
Courtesy Gay Men's Choir
Carolers at a leather bar created the choir, which first performed in 1980.

Mike Wiggins isn't out at work, and members of his church choir in Clear Lake don't know he's gay, but he said his name could be printed because it's getting harder and harder for him to hide. He's 40, a good-looking guy, not married -- but he wears a wedding ring and always talks about his "friend" Steve.

Like Mike, many members aren't out anywhere but at rehearsals. Not everyone's name is printed in the program. Before joining the choir, David Opheim says, he went to gay bars to feel normal and safe. Living in Katy, he didn't feel comfortable kissing his husband on the street. But bars are dark and loud, and David's not looking for a beer-soaked encounter.

Randy Mitschke says the Lutheran choir he sang in lacked a feeling of comfort and camaraderie. "These guys, I can relate to," he says. "All the guys in this choir have been through the same experiences I have." Everyone's story is a variation on the same theme of fear and loss and love. At some point they've all come out of the closet or hidden inside. They share experiences like taking a boyfriend home for Christmas and worrying about Dad's reaction. "You don't have the same problems straight people do," he says.

Board member Ryan Raser says he could have joined any men's club or choir, but straight men wouldn't have been able to help him deal with his brother telling him he's going to hell, and his fears of finally telling his mother he's gay. His choir friends have become his family. This year 70 people attended the choir's ninth annual Thanksgiving potluck dinner.

Before he joined, Walter Tompkins says, he had never been around a group of openly gay people. Raised Baptist in Lufkin, Walter never took long looks at other men, or let guys sit on his lap in public.

Walter served in the navy, got married when he was 22, and within a year had a blond baby boy. He didn't come out of the closet until Christmas three years ago. His wife had always known he was gay; Sue stayed with him because she loved him, and because she was sick. A diabetic with several other serious medical conditions, she soon lost both legs and an eye. "I was her shoulder and she was mine," Walter says.

He met Michael Howland, a nurse, on the Internet; Michael made the three-hour drive from Houston every weekend to help Walter care for his dying wife. Sue made Michael promise to take care of Walter and their son, Cody, after she was gone. She had her first heart operation in February; in May, she didn't live through her second.

When Sue died, her mother wanted Walter to sign over his parental rights, because she didn't want her nine-year-old grandson to have two dads. Walter refused. This summer, he and Cody moved in with Michael, and Walter immediately joined the choir. Despite his mother-in-law's protests, he brings his son to practice, where the boy gets hundreds of hugs.

Christmas is the hardest time of the year, Tom Case says, because it was the happiest time of year. Christmas was his partner's favorite holiday; they spent hours decorating, shopping and throwing fabulous dinner parties. But two years ago his lover died of complications from AIDS. Caring for his partner, Tom, a 55-year-old court clerk, had let his friendships dwindle.

Rehearsals for the Christmas concert started Labor Day. "It killed off any possibility of empty time, empty space," says Dewayne Ross, who joined after his father died Christmas Eve two years ago.

Rehearsals feel like 12-step meetings. When a new member is announced everyone applauds and the director jumps up and down. But unlike standard support groups, they don't spend hours analyzing and agonizing over nonmusical problems. If someone wants to talk, they do, but no one is forced to stand up and share. Mostly, they sing, dance, laugh and forget about their troubles.

"This is a breath of life for me in my week," says Warren Morales. "I get to come here and be alive."

The youngest of ten children, Warren came out to his family by sending invitations to his wedding. All nine brothers and sisters came. Warren's partner was HIV-positive when they met, and they started a fitness center together before he got sick. They spent Christmas in the hospital last year, and he hasn't been the same since, Warren says. He's stopped eating and has lost more than 50 pounds. "He struggles," Warren says. "Every day is a struggle."

Before rehearsal one night, Warren's partner was too weak to stand in the shower and had to sit down. Feeling overwhelmed, Warren went to rehearsal. Another man noticed Warren was hurting, hugged him and held him while he cried.

Rehearsals feel like three-hour Will & Grace episodes. Gay jokes are piled on top of each other as guys trash the choreography, pinching each other's nipples and "accidentally" grabbing each other's crotches.

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