In 1989, there wasn’t much happening in Charlotte — not in the LGBT social scene anyway. Dan Kirsch had just moved to Charlotte from Philadelphia. Other than the bars, a few events here and there and a couple politically-minded affairs, there wasn’t much opportunity for LGBT people to come together and celebrate the community.
“It was small. It was closeted,” Kirsch recollects of the community at the time.
Back in Philadelphia, Kirsch had been involved with that city’s gay men’s chorus. He’d first gotten involved needing a social outlet.
“I was working in a suburb of Philadelphia, doing arts management as my career,” he says. “I went, auditioned and was accepted and it was just a transformative final coming out stage and an experience to be with open people and kind of shut the fear of coming out of the closet.”
Kirsch envisioned a similar group for his newfound home in the Queen City. In the fall of 1989, he attended a game night held by a local LGBT group. There, he found a few other folks interested in the idea.
“If you start a chorus, we’ll be there the first night,” Kirsch recalls the folks saying.
Celebrate with One Voice Chorus
One Voice Chorus will host a series of concerts from March 14-21. On March 28, they’ll host their 25th Anniversary Silver Celebration at the Levine Museum of the New South. For more information on the events, see our event calendar online at goqnotes.com/calendar/ or visit onevoicechorus.com for more details and ticket purchases.
A few weeks later, One Voice Chorus — celebrating its 25th anniversary this year — held its first rehearsal.
“Somewhere between 25 to 30 people showed up that first night,” Kirsch says. “We sang and word got out and it kept growing over the next year.”
The turn out surprised Kirsch, and he says many others were astonished, too.
“Everybody was surprised,” he says. “I was new to the community, so I didn’t have any real expectations, but everybody else had been living there for a while. Everybody was surprised that many people came out.”
From the get-go, One Voice was a co-ed chorus. Kirsch and his fellow choristers wanted the group to be a place where all were welcome — a place where other people could have the same kind of transformative experience he had in Philadelphia.
Kirsch’s original vision for the group has remained true throughout the years — attracting dozens of singers each year and keeping longtime singers engaged.
Liz Fitzgerald is one of them. She’s been involved for nearly half of the chorus’ existence now, and for the last four years, she’s served on the group’s board of directors. She’s also serving on the chorus’ 25th anniversary committee.
Like Kirsch, Fitzgerald was a newcomer to Charlotte when she first got involved.
“I had sung with another GALA [an international association of gay and lesbian choruses] chorus before I moved to Charlotte,” Fitzgerald says. “One of my good friends was coming out. She wanted a way to connect with other people, but didn’t want to go by herself, so she invited me along for the ride.”
As a straight ally, Fitzgerald sees her involvement as a means of support and social justice work.
“I believe change doesn’t happen without broad, widespread support,” she says. “When you’re talking about securing the rights for a group in the minority, that means that you have to have allies that can do the work alongside to help create the change that’s needed for everyone.”
Fitzgerald had long been involved in feminist movements, working on issues like domestic violence. She knows that the rights she now has a woman is the result of support from others in the LGBT community.
“It’s my turn to give back in the same way,” she says. “It requires that kind of community support to be able to see the change that we want for everyone.”
And change is part of One Voice’s mission, Fitzgerald stresses.
From it’s early inception, that change might have simply been providing a safe, affirming space for those in the LGBT community. She points out that many people had their first coming out experiences with the chorus. Some, she said, were able to bring their parents or friends to concerts.
“The chorus was really able to serve as a place where people could see that they had community,” she says. “It gave people a place where they could be out when otherwise they couldn’t.”
In the early days, concert program books were full of folks who went by their initials or only by their first names. As the LGBT community has grown, that has changed, but the chorus’ drive for a better, more affirming community for all hasn’t. Today, the chorus reaches out to the broader community, bringing messages of hope, healing, welcome and inclusion.
“More and more, it’s not just about having our close friends and family come to chorus performances to be able to share in those experiences with them, but the chorus being able to go out into the community and engage others in that experience, that we’re all in this together,” Fitzgerald says. “There’s a commonality in our hearts and a need for love and relationships that transcends however we identify.”
One Voice Chorus’ 25th anniversary concerts this month will themselves represent that mission of outreach. The group will perform in Charlotte, as well as in Charleston, S.C., Fitzgerald says, which hasn’t had an LGBT chorus for quite some time. They’ll also perform in Wadesboro and Gastonia. The chorus wants to extend support for the LGBT community in some of Charlotte’s outlying towns and communities.
“It matters because our fate is connected,” Fitzgerald says. “That’s where we see our work in the next 25 years — not just serving Charlotte, but extending out into some of our surrounding communities.”
Both Fitzgerald and Kirsch see a lot of personal and community meaning in the chorus’ landmark anniversary this year.
For Kirsch, it’s a sign of a dedicated and passionate community.
“It comes down to individuals,” says Kirsch, who worked with the group for a couple years before moving on to other community endeavors in the early ‘90s. “It’s kind of right time, right place and then the people with the passion to get it through the beginning stages and maturing stages.”
The anniversary also marks a local LGBT community that, more and more, seems to be coming into its own.
“One Voice Chorus is one of several organizations that will be celebrating their 25th anniversaries. We’re at the leading edge of that,” says Fitzgerald, noting other long-standing groups, like Time Out Youth and the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network, that will soon celebrate similar milestones.
Fitzgerald finds it encouraging that so many of the groups founded in the late 1980s and 1990s are still around serving the LGBT community today.
Above and beyond the historic anniversary, Fitzgerald thinks the true value and meaning of the chorus will always be personal — from those who still find the courage to come out through their experiences with the chorus to others who simply need an artistic and creative outlet in an affirming space. For herself, the chorus gives her the space to make a difference while enjoying the art of music.
“Singing with the chorus is just a fantastic coming together of my passion for being involved in social justice work and my love for the arts, singing and being part of creating music,” she says. “I get to do those two things at the same time and that’s a fantastic experience.” : :