Saturday’s Blount Pride event will take place at a private business (The Bird and The Book, on East Broadway Avenue in Maryville), but if protesters turn out to disrupt the event, members of the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus will be ready.
They won’t engage in physical altercations. They won’t do anything except perhaps lift up their voices in song, as their counterparts in the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington did two years ago when similar protesters attempted to disrupt Knox Pride festivities.
“It is everybody’s right to have their voice heard, and that’s one of the main tenets of the gay choral movement, because for so long, our voices were not heard,” Kyle Schellinger, president of the board of directors for the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus, told The Daily Times this week. “By the same token, people who are opposed to a Pride event or who are opposed to anything also have the right to have their voices heard. The thing we really try to instill in all of our members and with our actions in the community, is that we live in a country where everybody deserves that right.
“But when it gets to a point where at a Pride event, there is someone spewing horrible hatred, it is also our right to drown out what they’re saying. We never want to do it in a way that would upset someone, and we always want to handle those instances with as much respect as possible. But we know that music has power, that people’s voices have power, and we’re trying to show, whether on stage at one of our concerts or with a group of protesters, that power that the human voice can have.
“When music is involved, it reaches a different place for people — and everybody has that power,” he added. “It’s not limited to a straight chorus or a gay chorus, because it’s something everybody has, and we try, with everything we sing, to put the most loving and positive spin on humanity that we can.”
The Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus was founded in 2012 by Bleu Copas, a former U.S. Army linguist who was discharged under the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. For its first concert, 14 singers were present; when the chorus kicks off its new season in October, five times that number will be a part of the choir. The organization has taken part in the Knoxville Pridefest celebration since its inception, and in 2016, the group was asked to sing at the second inauguration of Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero. In the past year, the ensemble has reached out beyond the boundaries of Knoxville, taking part in inaugural Pride celebrations like last year’s event in the Tri-Cities and Saturday’s Blount Pride festival.
“When you go to any of these things, it’s not just gay people who are there — it’s gay people, straight people, all the members of the LGBTQ community, people who are allies, people who maybe in the past would not have felt comfortable being a part of a Pride celebration or coming to a concert by the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus,” Schellinger said.
The cutter/draper for the Clarence Brown Theatre on the University of Tennessee campus since 2008 (he’s responsible for costumes for all of the theater’s productions), he started singing with the chorus in 2013, has been on the board for four years and is in his second year as president. The biggest surprise for those who haven’t been to a performance by the organization, he added, is that it’s a professional choral society with high standards for musicality but broad acceptance of everything else.
“We have straight members, we have trans members, we have all different kinds of people,” he said. “We are the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus, and the reason ‘gay’ is in our title is because it goes back to being visible. It’s so important that people see that word and see us and then see us as full people and not just as walking stereotypes or something that they can’t relate to.
“Music is something everybody relates to. Whether they feel the emotions of the words or the music or just in their bodies with the vibrations that a musical group can project … and then seeing a group of people on stage who identify under the banner of the Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus … it really gives people pause if they aren’t coming to one of our regular shows.”
The season kicks off Oct. 11 for a National Coming Out Day performance (with guest singer Levi Kreis) at The Bijou Theatre, and the group’s annual holiday show will take place in December. The spring show will be a preview of a national performance the organization will give in July 2020 in Minneapolis for the GALA (Gay And Lesbian Association of Choruses) Festival. Titled “In the Living Years,” is a nod to various voices from the LGBTQ+ community, Schellinger said, and like every show, it will open hearts, minds and ears.
“People who come to see us for the first time come expecting one thing, and then they leave going, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s beyond what I expected!’” he said. “It’s really wonderful to see how much Knoxville and East Tennessee have embraced us as a performance group and as part of the community at large.”