When the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles first debuted nearly four decades ago, the ensemble's impact was more than musical. The 240-member group acts as both an "arts and advocacy organization," says executive director Chris Verdugo, and has since the beginning.
"Our concerts, as much as they are entertainment, we pride ourselves on them also being outreach to our audience members — portraying positive role models of gay men," says Verdugo, who began as a singer with the chorus in 2006.
That mission will be on display when GMCLA performs songs made famous by some favorite female performers at Glendale's Alex Theatre on April 9 and 10. The group will pay tribute to the likes of Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and Beyonce, among many others.
"Bette, Babs & Beyonce" will also include Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" and songs connected to Madonna, Tina Turner, Cher, Cyndi Lauper, Britney Spears, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross, Miley Cyrus, Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland.
The role of the Gay Men's Chorus has evolved over time as same-sex issues have evolved. Its mere existence made a strong statement in its earliest days, but the group has also grown very active in taking a message of hope and inclusion to the Los Angeles area and across the country.
"The impact that it had in 1979 and 1980 certainly isn't the impact it has now because of the gains that we have made," says Verdugo. "We use the arts to advocate and we have for 37 years now. Our focus right now is with our outreach in middle schools and high schools in Los Angeles County. We meet with students twice a month.
"We are able to offer a music education as well as engage them in a deeper conversation about the issues around bullying or any other LGBT issues that might arise."
While there are now gay choruses in other cities across the U.S., the GMCLA's home base of Los Angeles presents opportunities few others can match. The group heard from many young people who were encouraged by the chorus' high profile appearance on the Oscars in 2013.
"We are afforded the ability to be on TV shows — to be in front of very influential people to carry our message even further. It allows us to reach a wider audience."
On the road, the group targets communities where a recent suicide may have occurred, or where a "religious freedom bill" has passed, as in Indianapolis, where the group visited two months ago. The GMCLA arrives in a town to perform and speak with young people around a variety of social concerns — "around obesity, around color, sex, whatever it is."
Verdugo notes that several current members of the chorus also come from small towns spread across the country, and can from firsthand experience speak to a "it gets better" message.
"Young people are seeing this message that we've come this far in LGBT equality and we can get married," says Verdugo, now in his fourth season as executive director. "However, that doesn't always translate into feeling safe at school."
What: Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles performs "Bette, Babs & Beyonce"
Where: Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd, Glendale
When: April 9 and 10
More info: www.gmcla.org, (818) 243-2539
Steve Appleford, email@example.com