Near the end of last month's three-concert run at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, members of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles paused to share some quiet time and recognize those who contributed to the shows' success.
The tribute session took an unexpected turn when one of the group's newest singers raised his hand to speak. "I want to thank everyone for welcoming me," said tenor Chris Yraola, a 24-year-old music teacher from Eagle Rock. "It means a lot because, No. 1, I'm a little shy. And, No. 2, well, I'm a straight guy."
For a second, there was silence — "It was definitely a surprise," Yraola recalls — and then applause broke out. Some people hugged him. Some told him how proud they were. And someone yelled, "Jordan, your cachet just went down by half!" to Jordan Bell, a second-year bass who had been known as the ensemble's only openly straight singer.
"It was an important moment," says executive director Thom Lynch, one that he believes represents the evolution of his 32-year-old chorus specifically and of gay choruses in general. "There was a point in the early '80s when just having a group of gay men standing and singing was political and made a statement. These days, groups like ours are committed to making spectacular music — which attracts a wider range of singers and audiences. It's not that the political isn't there. But now, the way to make that statement is to be as good as we can be."
Bell, a 24-year-old marketing manager from upstate New York, studied voice and belonged to a men's ensemble in college. When he moved to Los Angeles in 2009, he was happy to discover the 220 plus-member chorus, which has released more than a dozen CDs and toured internationally.
"Immediately, one question popped into my head," Bell says. "Was I allowed to join?" He emailed "a sort of sheepish" query and received "a welcoming response" from the membership president. "He did ask if I'd feel comfortable if people assumed I was gay. I had thought about it, and I knew it was not going to weird me out."
What he didn't know, Bell says, was what it would be like to be straight in a gay group. He also wondered how the other singers would react when they learned he wasn't gay. The answer came during the chorus' annual retreat in Malibu early last year, a few weeks after he joined. One night, people were sharing coming-out stories and someone asked Bell about his experiences. At first, he tried to avoid the question. Then, he says, "I decided to be honest and said, 'I never came out because I'm straight.' ... The guy said, 'Wow, you're straight,' but said it a little too loudly and a crowd gathered." The next day, Bell says, "guys were still coming up to me to say it was really cool and show their concern."
"Since then, they've gotten to know me for my personality and treat me like part of the family, understanding my differences of orientation, asking about my dating life."
Bell has had no trouble fitting in, says Peter Johnson, a former membership president and Bell's "big brother." (A chorus veteran is assigned to each newcomer.) "Jordan's so comfortable in his own skin. He even had a solo within his first couple of concerts."
"When he arrived, we didn't make an announcement or anything," Johnson says, noting that, over the years, members have identified themselves in various ways, including one "who was transitioning from man to woman." Anyone who meets the audition musical standards is eligible for admission, he says.
Outside the chorus, Bell says, "many friends got why I'm doing this right away, although some people back where I grew up didn't fully understand. But I stood my ground. I told them just because you're in a gay chorus doesn't mean you're gay. I'm here because it's an outstanding chorus."
The past year "opened my eyes" to a lot of things, Bell says, including "these guys' sense of caring and commitment" to the chorus and causes such as anti-bullying. "I joined for musical reasons, but I stayed for the community experience."
Yraola, who teaches at Notre Dame Academy in West Los Angeles, has been in the ensemble since February. He loves choral music — he also sings in another group and conducts four more — which is one reason his family, friends and fiancée have embraced his decision to join. A few members knew he was straight before the thank-you session, he says, "but I never made it a big deal. I spoke up because I felt so welcome."
"The majority of our singers have felt excluded their whole lives, so they want these guys to feel accepted," Lynch says. "There's also a lot of pride that a straight person wants to be with us."
He says it's coincidental, but appropriate, that the ensemble is releasing its iTunes album "GMCLAlive" on Tuesday. "The tagline is 'Let your true colors shine.' It's about accepting each other and standing with each other and being who you are."