For longtime fans of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, he was one singer they likely recognized in the sea of performers onstage: the white-haired gentleman with the kind face who looked like he could have been the grandfather to those next to him.
As the years passed, the gentleman began to sit on a stool instead of stand on the risers. More recently he had begun wearing an eye patch — a sign his Parkinson’s disease had advanced — though that simply made his beloved presence easier to spot from the audience. Yes, he was still singing.
That gentleman was Dick Sommers — gay rights advocate, one of the first members of the Gay Men’s Chorus when he joined in 1979 and the group’s eldest singing member when he died Feb. 11 of complications from Parkinson’s disease in a Valley Village assisted living facility, longtime friend Edward Salm said. Sommers was 82.
Sommers was in the first class of deacons of the Metropolitan Community Church, which started in 1968 and is known for its outreach to the LGBTQ community. He founded the first LGBTQ organization of Kaiser Permanente employees, contributed to the gay news magazine the Advocate and was a member of the pioneering gay-rights organization the Mattachine Society.
He was a member of the Gay Men’s Medicine Circle, a Southern California group that seeks well-being through spiritual practice and shamanism. Sommers also founded the Pat Rocco fan club for enthusiasts of the gay filmmaker and helped found the first L.A. Pride parade.
“Dick’s influence was wide and varied when it came to some critical things involving our gay history and our rights movement,” said Salm, who met Sommers at GMCLA in 1986 and helped care for him near the end of his life. “He was always fighting for things when things needed to be fought for.”
Despite his advocacy, Sommers was a quiet, gentle man, his friends said. He didn’t like to be the center of attention. He was a deeply spiritual person and found the most joy in his church and with the GMCLA, where he never missed a rehearsal and was known for passing out valentines to every member of the chorus, even after membership soared to more than 200.
The church and the chorus defined much of Sommers’ life, said Bob Doggett, who shared a home with Sommers from 1969 to 2004. Doggett said Sommers lent the MCC $10,000 in 1970 for a down payment on one of its first churches.
Sommers, Doggett said, was “extremely sweet and very kind to all of his friends. He would do anything for anyone.”
Sommers was born June 3, 1936, in Walnut Creek, Calif. He moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and worked as a computer programmer at System Development Corp. in Santa Monica, one of the first computer software companies working for the U.S. military.
Sommers was briefly stripped of his government security clearance after System Development discovered he was gay, said his friend Gil Dawson.
Dawson was an Air Force lieutenant developing software for tracking stations that monitored military satellites. When Dawson was assigned to a remote station in the Indian Ocean, he enlisted Sommers to forward his mail in large bundles. One day Dawson was ill and unable to meet the plane that delivered his mail. His letters, which contained evidence of his sexuality and Sommers’ return address, were opened by an Air Force captain.
Dawson was court-martialed and eventually received an honorable discharge from the military. He and Sommers were stripped of their security clearance and subsequently enlisted the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union to get it restored.
“We were secretive on the job on a government level, and our being gay was hidden. That’s the way we lived back then, in the late ’60s, and that was nothing unusual,” recalled Dawson. “Every gay person I knew did the same thing.”
Sommers went on to work as a technical design specialist for Kaiser Permanente, where he remained employed until his retirement in 2003.
As his Parkinson’s advanced, Sommers still made it to GMCLA rehearsals, said Sommers’ friend and fellow Gay Men’s Medicine Circle member Brie Cooper, who would often drive him there. Sommers performed in his last concert in summer 2016. Even after he no longer could sing, he and Cooper would attend the concerts, arriving in Sommers’ red Cadillac Seville.
When Sommers’ health faded, nearly 40 chorus members arrived at his hospital bedside to sing with him.
“They assembled over a keyboard, and it was the most beautiful thing,” Dawson recalled. “I was in charge of passing out hankies.”