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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus Celebrates 20 Years of Song

 Dayton Gay Men's Chorus
Max Spang
Catapult Creative

For 20 years, The Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus has been entertaining audiences. Now they are giving back with a free concert celebrating their anniversary. Culture Couch Producer David Seitz tells their story.

Twenty years ago, Fred Poland put an ad in the local paper. He recently came out and wanted to sing with other gay men. And a group of men showed up to a church parking lot in Dayton. Jerry Kenney, a host at WYSO, was one of those men.

Kenney said, “It was actually a pretty frightening experience to show up for something you had no idea where it was going. Many people weren’t completely out of the closet yet, so we were all in various stages of that process. I think we were actually locked out of the church. Nobody could find the keys. There was kind of an initial bonding over that.”

Fred Poland recruited an accompanist and an artistic director to lead the group but he never intended for them to perform in public — it was just to sing. A few months later, the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus invited the new group to sing at their next concert.

Founding Member Fred Poland
StoryCorps Archive
Fred Poland started a gay men's chorus in Dayton, Ohio, with no intention of performing in public. But a few months later, the Cincinnati Men's Chorus invited them to sing at their next concert.

"We were all dressed in black pants and white shirts and $1 ties that I bought at Mendelson’s, so we all looked alike and we were greeted, when they opened the doors, to a standing ovation," Poland remembered. "It was amazing!”

Kenney revealed none of the men had performed in public identifying themselves as gay and often referred to themselves in the years after as "The Frightened 15."

For the first few years, the group sang as part of the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus concerts. Fred Poland said the rehearsals created a safe space for friendship outside the few gay bars in Dayton.

“We’ve had guys who have come out after joining the chorus or have come out to their grandparents, who have never done anything gay before in public or have, we’ve had a couple of guys meet their spouses in the chorus," Kenney said. "It’s kind of like a big family.”

As their popularity grew, the chorus was asked to sing at events. The Ohio Boys’ Choir Festival invited them. Then the festival withdrew their invitation with no explanation.

“So some members really wanted to fight,” Kenney said. “Other members just wanted to sit back and sing. Emails started going from our members directly to the leadership of the boys’s chorus organization. And as president of our chorus, I had to stand up and say, 'No, you don’t speak for the organization. If you’ve got something to say, we’ll discuss it as a group.' ”

Every year the chorus has a Pride concert and a Christmas show. They have added a production designer and more glitz. They performed an ABBA concert. They sang a commissioned work about the life of gay activist Harvey Milk.

 Dayton Gay Men's Chorus Christmas show
Max Spang, Catapult Creative

Before every concert, the chorus holds hands and forms a circle backstage. They ask each other this question as described by Poland: 'Is there anybody special here tonight that you want to just tell us about or give us a shout about?' And there’s usually somebody who will say, 'This is the first time my grandparents have ever seen me doing something like this — see me sing with the gay men’s chorus or seen me sing out in public this way.'

Kenney said, “Music is therapy for most of the performers, so pay a psychiatrist an amount of money for a couple hours or go sing with the gay men’s chorus. I mean I think there was a lot of healing taking place within those practices and within those concerts.”

 Dayton Gay Men's Chorus surprise proposal (2017)
Barbara Synder
Dayton Gay Men's Chorus surprise proposal in 2017.

Daniel Brewer agreed. He joined the chorus a year ago, and he met his partner there. He also loves the festive and fabulous side of the chorus. Recently, they held a benefit sing-along of the movie musical Mama Mia. He described the evening: “You know people were dressed in boas and dancing in the aisles and throwing dollar bills in the air that had Meryl Streep’s face on them, and just having a really good time, and letting loose.” (laughs)

Brewer believes the visibility of the chorus matters even more today.

“Because you never know who is watching you when you have a public stage like that," Brewer said. “So you really always hope that you can give a positive example, and I do think we do that.”

The Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus will sing favorite songs from their 20 years in a free concert at the Dayton Masonic Center this Saturday.

For details, see the Dayton Gay Men’s Chorus website.

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community and Ohio Arts Council.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

David Seitz learned his audio writing skills in the third Community Voices class. Since then he has produced many stories on music, theater, dance, and visual art for Cultural Couch. Some of these stories have won awards from the Public Media Journalists Association and the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors. He is deeply grateful that most of his stories address social justice issues in a variety of art forms, whether it be trans gender singing, the musical story of activist Bayard Rustin, or men performing Hamilton in prison.