St. John’s Gay Men’s Chorus is going places

Its first season opened barely a year ago, and already the St. John’s Gay Men’s Chorus is putting this province on the map.

The Gay Men’s Chorus is a community chorus for LGBTQ men and allies, explains Yohei Sakai, the group’s founder and director. “We don’t do auditions – everyone is welcome,” he emphasizes.

Sakai is a graduate student in music at Memorial University, and is originally from Japan. He had been part of gay men’s choruses in his native Japan as well as in Mexico when he moved to this province to continue his studies.

“When I came here, Spectrum [Queer Choir] was already here but I noticed that not many gay men were singing, and for me gay men should sing. So I [knew] I had to do something.”

After putting out a call on social media, the chorus launched its first season in April 2017, and it now numbers ten participants. At first it was difficult to recruit people, but since the fall there’s been growing interest, Sakai says.

“Many people were quite positive about it, which was surprising because St. John’s is not a big city, and I have encountered people who are not so comfortable with the idea of LGBTQ stuff, but we have been receiving really positive reactions. There have been some negative comments at the beginning, but without me saying much there have been people defending us, which was good to see. And there have been straight people coming to our choir, which makes me happy.”

Renou Benteau is a recent recruit to the chorus. He joined two months ago.

“I heard about it through my straight friend Jim, who’s been a member of the choir for a while,” Benteau says. “He just happened to mention off-hand that he was part of a choir, and I had always said that being a member of a choir was on my bucket list. I don’t even sing in the shower, I can barely remember the lyrics to any songs because I’m too embarrassed to try and sing them myself, so that represented a very new exciting opportunity for me. Jim had told me how open it was, how relaxed it was, so I just jumped in there.”

“The great thing about a choir is there’s so many other voices. So you’re not embarrassed about other people hearing you, and you also can’t even hear yourself much of the time…it seemed like a nice way to ease into singing for me.”

Benteau grew up in St. John’s, and says that the presence of a gay men’s chorus is something he wouldn’t have expected to see when he was growing up here.

“It was a bit of a foreign idea to me. I had never combined those two notions together in my head,” he says. “To me that’s kind of a metropolitan thing. I expected to see that in Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal, moreso, but I was definitely surprised when I saw it here, and I was very glad as well. Because it’s a tiny city, and we’re at the edge of the world, so to see that this has managed to happen here is really inspiring, and gives hope for the other edges of the world.”

Sakai says he’s impressed with the number of community choirs that exist in this city—many of them widely renowned, such as the Newman Sound Men’s Choir. But he says that creating social space for gay men—or any marginalized group—is still really important.

“I’m trying to open up a space, saying ‘singing is cool’, just come and try. It goes with our purpose of creating social space for gay men or LGBTQ queer men, who sometimes or often feel social pressure and oppressed. This is a place where people can be who they are and just enjoy singing. Having said that, I’m also trying to get the best I can out of us…I want them to experience the joy of making music.”

Renou Benteau and Yohei Sakai

For Benteau, knowing that a singing group is asserting an inclusive identity helps to overcome some of the other fears that public performance can cause.

“Just the idea of joining a choir in the first place demands a lot of courage if you’ve never been into it before, and so if you add on top of that the courage that you need to assert your sexual identity, that starts being several obstacles. So knowing that at least your identity will be accepted makes you stronger to surmount those other performance-related or artistic obstacles.”

Sakai says that for gay men seeking to socialize with other gay men, there are few social spaces outside of bars and clubs. The Chorus provides a different social space, and one that also helps to transcend the generational dynamics that can manifest in the downtown scene.

“One thing I really like is the connection between different generations of gay men,” he says. “We have [young men], we have members who are retired. I wouldn’t have met people of that generation if I didn’t start this choir. The experience of each generation is so different. Now for young people, we have the Internet, and it’s so easy to meet other gay men, but [older generations] experienced completely different things. It’s a great thing to have connections between different generations and know how it has been in Newfoundland.”

Intergenerational socialization has also been an important part of the experience for Benteau.

“It’s true that our society, the way I experience it anyway, is becoming a lot more divided generationally outside the family, and even inside the family, and I think among gay men in particular there’s perhaps a sexual ambiguity between the generations sometimes that creates a bit of suspicion that constitutes an obstacle for interaction. So it definitely seems important to have this unambiguous space where we can create together, between generations. That’s pretty amazing.”

While the province has a strong history of queer advocacy organizations, most of these are political or educational in nature. Forming an arts-based group like a queer choir also constitutes a form of activism, Sakai acknowledges.

“I don’t consider myself an activist, but I’m very aware of the fact that what we’re doing is activism. The simple fact of gay men gathering together and singing together is a social message. But my personal purpose through this group is to create a bridge between the LGBTQ and the society. I want this group to be a positive space. There are things we want to say, maybe there are things we want to attack, but I want this group specifically to be a place where we can start conversation, and people can get closer. So I’m trying to include songs that have messages, but positive messages.”

Sakai says the chorus actively engages with gay tropes. In their upcoming performances this summer, they’ll be doing a Disney princess medley.

“I thought that would be so hilarious,” laughs Sakai. “Let’s play with the gender stereotype, and the gay stereotype, but let’s own it. That’s the idea. I think it is part of activism, but we want to be positive and always try to create a bridge between different types of communities.”

Benteau also sees the chorus as a way to take control of stereotypes.

“There’s kind of this stereotype—I have dated a lot of gay men who really enjoy singing, who really enjoy expressing themselves with their voices. And there’s a stereotype too where gay men have more melodic speaking intonations. So now we’re putting that to work, we’re owning it. It’s not just this implicit cultural stereotype that is floating in the air somewhere, but we’re really bringing it to the forefront and learning to make it into an art, to reflect upon it together, to talk about it together, to work on it together. It’s nice because when you’re just walking around town, the LGBT institutions that you tend to see tend to be drag shows or bars or pride festivals, and those are wonderful celebrations, but there’s also something interesting in saying that as LGBT individuals or as LGBT allies, we have some kind of common experience that makes it important to us to come together and work on something.”

From Springdale to Calgary

The refusal of Springdale’s municipal government to allow a group of high school students to paint a crosswalk rainbow colours has brought negative attention to the province in recent weeks, but it’s also sparked a tremendous outpouring of support and solidarity from organizations supporting the Springdale students who are fighting for their rights. Spectrum Queer Choir recorded a video of the choir performing Milck’s ‘Quiet.’ This past weekend, the Gay Men’s Chorus decided to do the same. They recorded a performance of the ‘Peace Song’, written by Greg Gilpin. In less than a day, it had been shared with thousands.

“While we are living in [St. John’s], we feel that there are many things going well,” says Sakai. “But we have to remember there are places where we are not reaching out well yet. The incident in Springdale was very representative of that. But it showed us how much work we have yet to do.”

This summer, the St. John’s Gay Men’s Chorus will be participating in Unison Festival 2018. It’s a national LGBTQ choral festival that happens once every four years. This is the first time a group will be representing Newfoundland and Labrador in the prestigious event.

At first, Sakai and the group thought that participating in the Festival was a bit of a pipe dream.

“The group was so new, we didn’t have money, so I wasn’t sure if it was possible. But when I heard it was once every four years, like the Olympics, I said ‘w’e should go!’” Sakai recounts.

The group started a GoFundMe page, and was overwhelmed by the response. Other groups around the country came together to support them—from the Calgary Men’s Chorus and the Vancouver Men’s Chorus to local groups such as Terri Andrews’ TaDa! Events and individual donors, they’ve raised thousands of dollars.

Thanks to the strong outpouring of support, the ten-member chorus will be heading to Calgary on May 17. The group has three songs they’ll be performing—including a rendition of ‘Heave Away!’—and will be participating in a range of other festival events.

Having achieved one milestone, the Chorus is now setting new goals. In addition to planning a series of Pride events this summer, Sakai is looking to reach out to communities outside of St. John’s to set up concerts, but he’s also excited about the idea of creating a high school outreach project. Drawing on the example of gay men’s choruses in the United States, he’d like to bring the chorus to high schools for concerts and so that members can talk with students about their experiences.

“This is another dream, but I’ve learned that it’s important to talk about dreams, because this dream [the Unison Festival] became a reality,” he says. “The incident in Springdale resonated with me so much because it shows how much it’s needed. So I hope this happens in the pretty near future.”

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