It appeared we were headed toward two terrible storms at once.
A deluge from the Kansas Plains barreled east down Interstate 70, while directly in its path a busload of more than 40 out and proud gay men (plus a Star reporter and photographer) headed west to the headquarters of the most vocal anti-gay hate group on the planet.
It’s the Friday of Fourth of July weekend, and Kansas City’s Heartland Men’s Chorus is road-tripping to Denver for the 16th quadrennial GALA (Gay and Lesbian Association) Choruses Festival. Hundreds of choruses from around the world will perform for thousands at sold-out concerts.
On their way, the chorus members will stop for quick mini-concerts at the Deines Cultural Center in Russell and on the steps of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene. But not before a stop in Topeka to stand strong in the face of the Westboro Baptist Church.
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It’s been 19 days since the deadliest mass shooting in American history. One that saw a 29-year-old man, prescribing largely to the same doctrine of hate as the members of Westboro Baptist, storm into an Orlando nightclub and slaughter 49 members and friends of the LGBT community and wound 53 others.
Like the Pulse nightclub, the Heartland Men’s Chorus is fashioned as a safe space and a source of strength for the local LGBT community. For three decades the chorus has served as a haven for men, and a few women, searching for a sense of community, love and tolerance they couldn’t find elsewhere, a space where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people could celebrate their humanity through the power of song. For the chorus, this is more than just singing. It’s activism. It’s singtivism.
“This is our effort to do more outreach to smaller towns in Kansas,” says Cliff Schiappa, the chorus’s development director. “We figured, especially with the current political climate in Kansas, that what we do with our voices can truly change folks one person at a time. One heart at a time.”
“I’m a little nervous.”
Baritone Lou Harris fidgets with the handles of his travel bag at his feet on the 54-passenger coach bus rolling toward Topeka and Westboro, along with a few more carloads of chorus members. His voice is light but carries a slight Midwestern drawl that pays homage to his St. Joseph roots. “I don’t really like conflict,” he says.
This is interesting because Harris, now a computer programmer and administrative aide, was once a Marine.
He enlisted in 1987 and spent years as a Korean linguist before being deployed during Operation Desert Storm. Two years later Harris was discharged when his superiors discovered he was gay. He says he’s “deprogrammed” all of his Marine training and sensibilities but still vividly remembers the uneasiness that comes from trying to conceal your true identity. It’s why he knows that although today might be tough, it’s necessary:
“It’s good to reaffirm to the people in these towns that there’s other people like them,” he says. “Being from a small town you think, ‘Is there anybody else that feels like I do?’ This just helps to remind people they’re not alone.”
For more than two decades of his marriage, Mike De Voe, in fact, felt very much alone. Both De Voe and his wife knew he “struggled with same-sex attraction” but believed God would eventually “change him.”
It never happened.
“For 21 years I was married and for 21 years I lived with almost constant feelings of failure,” De Voe tells me from his seat at the back of the bus. “I lived with constant feelings of being out of place and constant feelings of needing to hide myself.” It wasn’t until the spring of 2014 while driving along Bannister Road that De Voe remembers having an epiphany: “I said to myself, ‘I like being gay.’ ”
Shortly after, while his wife and children were out of town, De Voe went to his first Heartland concert. He told himself it was to support his friend Dustin Cates, who had recently been announced as the chorus’s new artistic director. But he knew it was more:
“I looked around the auditorium and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my new community.’ And I started crying because I realized what the next step was.” Within a few weeks De Voe would come out to his wife and kids and join the choir.
Men from all walks of life have sought and found a kind of refuge with the chorus. There’s Mario, a Filipino immigrant who still hides his sexuality from his co-workers in St. Joe but drives to Kansas City each week for practice. Or Travis, who makes a 3 1/2 -hour trek from the tiny town of Barnard, Kan., (population: 70) to be around the chorus. There’s Anthony the reclusive dog trainer who says his time with the chorus is a much needed social outlet, pretty much his “only opportunity to talk to people.” There are men who have credited the chorus with saving their lives and others who credit it with enriching their lives.
“Community, community, community,” De Voe says. “The love is so immediate and so passionate. It’s the best aspect of this chorus.”
Around the corner from the Topeka Zoo, not far from the city’s historic Gage Park, sits a different kind of community. On one side of Southwest 12th Street, just off of Southwest Gage Boulevard, sits a huddle of houses the Westboro Baptist Church purchased and turned into a kind of makeshift compound. Each house is painted a drab off-white with dark-brown trim.
A banner hangs across the top of the largest house, displaying the organization’s website: godhatesamerica.com. The homes are surrounded by an iron fence, manicured shrubs and random signs of hate and homophobia so crude they cannot be printed here. An announcement board looms at the compound’s edge praising God for sending the Orlando shooter. “Those signs weren’t there yesterday,” a local resident tells me.
Directly across the street sits Westboro Baptist’s biggest troll, the now world-famous Equality House. Owned by the global human rights and environmental peace organization Planting Peace, the house is painted the colors of the rainbow to honor the gay pride flag. Next door is a recently acquired Planting Peace property painted light blue, pink and white — the colors of the the transgender pride flag.
“Nowhere else in the United States is freedom of speech being expressed so visibly than on this street right here,” says Aaron Jackson, the owner of the two houses and co-founder of Planting Peace. The lawn of the Equality House, facing Westboro, is where the chorus will perform its Topeka mini concert. Equality House has hosted a gay wedding and a drag show there, and allowed a 5-year-old to sell “Pink Lemonade for Peace” on its grounds as well.
“Any time people can see others being highly visible, and in this case literally vocal, I think it’s a great thing and a great testament,” Jackson says. “You need all types and stripes to combat the anti-LGBT movement or any anti-social justice movement going on in the world.”
Surrounded by about 40 onlookers and members of the press (and zero members of Westboro), the chorus performs a 15-minute Fourth of July concert: the national anthem, “America the Beautiful” and “Home on the Range,” closing out with an emotional rendition of the gay rights anthem, “Singing for Our Lives.” Midway through the number, Cates (also the conductor) invites onlookers to repeat after him and join along for the remaining verses:
“We are a gentle, angry people and we are singing, singing for our lives … We are a land of many colors and we are singing, singing for our lives … We are gay and straight together and we are singing, singing for our lives.”
“Singing for Our Lives” was written by activist Holly Near in 1978 at the memorial for slain gay politician Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Near became so moved at the sight of the 40,000 mourners marching in solidarity that she scribbled the lyrics on a napkin and, backed by the newly formed San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, conducted an impromptu performance on the spot.
After the concert, the Heartland chorus mingles a bit with the spectators before boarding the bus for Abilene under clear skies and no sign of anyone affiliated with Westboro. It doesn’t matter. The goal was to stand, not to fight.
“Just by showing up in force, we make a difference,” Schiappa tells me as we travel the 90 minutes to Abilene. “We had 65 guys there. In small towns people don’t even know 65 gay people. They’ve probably never seen a group that large of gay people. That itself can change their hearts and minds.”
We arrive at the Eisenhower museum to a crowd more than double the one in Topeka. The stereotype may be that the farther west you go in Kansas the more intolerance you face, but that isn’t holding up. Of the nearly 100 spectators, clothed in cowboy hats, comfy clothes and Kansas kindness, the praise and support are nearly universal.
“What’s ‘normal,’ you know?” asks Abilene resident Jo Schwartz after watching the chorus’s performance on the steps of the museum.
As chorus members chat with the audience, Schwartz mentions a local kid who at one time was embarrassed to tell her she had “two moms.” So Schwartz told her she had two moms, too. “In reality, one was my real mom and one was my stepmom,” she tells me. “But that kid took it as different. Having someone else say, ‘I’ve got two moms’ made it not such a big deal. We need more ‘it’s normal.’ I don’t see today as a group of gay guys. I see this as a group of people that came to sing.”
The day ends another 90 minutes west in Russell, a town known for its oil, gluten and wheat industry and, especially, former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole. The streets are wide and paved with brick, leading to a bevy of nondescript storefronts that haven’t been paid any cosmetic attention in quite awhile.
After performing at the cultural center to another appreciative crowd, the chorus heads to the home of former Republican state Rep. J. Basil Dannebohm who, upon hearing the chorus would be in town, decided to open his home for a welcoming cookout.
“This dinner is just a token of my appreciation for their message of love in a world that so desperately needs it,” Dannebohm says.
Dannebohm wants to present an alternative to the ultra-conservative Kansas governor. “I think there are definitely misconceptions that the further west you go or the fact that you have an “R” behind your name that perhaps there is this level of intolerance,” Dannebohm says. “That may be true among some, but there is a very large group that simply doesn’t agree with that.”
While the members of the chorus, local politicians and their gay and straight supporters relax over hot dogs, hamburgers, beer and wine in Dannebohm’s backyard, three middle-aged men stand to the side and acknowledge just how far the chorus has come — and not just the 250 miles down I-70.
Randy Hite, Charles “Chuck” Comstock, and Stephen Johnson are three of the original members. It’s been 30 years since, at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the men helped found Heartland Men’s Chorus as an outlet that was distinct from the sexually charged gay bar scene, but also a source of love and tolerance and a lightning rod for change.
“We sing for a purpose,” Comstock says. “We sing because it’s important.”
Hite, a music educator and gay activist, says he values the activist powers the chorus can wield:
“There’s two ways I think (the activism) happens,” he tells me: “when we sing and change people’s perspectives, and when we sing and change ourselves internally. It’s a form of soft activism. It’s not very in-your-face or aggressive, but it is activism.”
The sun begins to wane as the day draws to an end. Somehow the chorus has managed to evade both the weather and Westboro stormfronts. What could have been a day marred by gray and gloom ends with a pinkish-orange glow.
“When you do it right, you’ll have to give a piece of your soul away,” Stephen Johnson says to me after a brief moment of silence. He chokes back tears: “You don’t lose your soul, but you have to be willing to open yourself up. To say, ‘This is our family, and we invite you to be a part of it.’ ”