The Time the Boston Gay Men's Chorus Risked Their Lives in the Middle East

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“They want to know if you are willing to perform as the Boston Men’s Chorus?”

I was surprised when I received this text, which was sent to me several hours into a tense negotiation between executives from the tour company organizing the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus trip to the Middle East and representatives of the Istanbul venue we were contracted to perform at in just six weeks’ time. In hindsight, of course, I should not have been.

Our plans to sing at the Zorlu Performance Center in Istanbul last June received major attention in media outlets across Turkey three months before our scheduled arrival. Conservative Islamist papers described us as “perverts,” and thousands of people signed a Change.org petition calling on Zorlu’s owners to cancel our show because it would take place on the 10th day of Ramadan. Zorlu responded by suspending ticket sales to our show.

My reply was short and to the point: “No.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but the refusal to take “gay” out of our name was the first of many forceful, though not always easy, decisions that resulted in the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus’s improbable ― but historic ― performance in Istanbul.

Last week, the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus published the final video from our June trip, during which we performed six times over 10 days in Ein Gedi, Jersusalem, Tel Aviv, and Istanbul. This 11th and final video is the story of how and why our original Istanbul concert was canceled and what it took to put on the performance that ultimately took place before 5,000 people at Bosphorus University. With on-camera interviews featuring, among others, U.S. Consulate General to Istanbul Charles Hunter, whose intervention ensured our safety while in Turkey, the video is, as we like to say in the entertainment business, a “must-see.”

The process of editing it nearly three months after the concert took place provided an opportunity for reflection on what we accomplished, and how we did it.

First lesson? Actions speak louder than words. In all of the media interviews that we did leading up to the showdown with Zorlu executives, we were asked over and over again what the point was of identifying ourselves as gay. Implicit in the question was the assumption that we were putting sex before art and being needlessly salacious. We patiently explained that in the United States, choral music performed by gay men was a 35-year-old tradition steeped in the civil rights movement. I don’t even want to think of the message we would have sent to Istanbul’s small but passionate LGBTI community if we had agreed to take the stage as the Boston Men’s Chorus, let alone the message we’d send to our members and supporters.

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Second lesson? Hope for the best, but work like hell to make it happen. When Zorlu executives abruptly canceled our concert with less than five weeks to go, we had no idea where we would find another venue with a stage big enough to hold our 110 singers. We had no flexibility on our June 27 performance date, and thanks to the controversy, we were expecting large crowds, further exacerbating what was quickly turning into a security nightmare. With approval from university officials, the LGBTI student group at Bosphorus University offered us outdoor space. It wasn’t the best option for us acoustically, but it could accommodate the date ― and large crowds.

Performing under less than ideal conditions is not new for the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. During our tour of Eastern Europe in 2005, we sang in Poland in spite of vocal protests from extremists that drew headlines around the world. Even with this history, I can assure you that saying that you abide by a set of principles to create musical experiences that “inspire change” is one thing. Adhering to them in a foreign country where a majority of the population not only doesn’t believe you deserve basic rights, but has been served up several months’ worth of sensational stories detailing your pending arrival and describing you as “perverted,” is quite another. Even more so when Twitter is ablaze the 48 hours before your entry into the country with tweets by radicals promising you, among other things, an “Islamist welcome” illustrated with an emoticon of a bull’s-eye.

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We were committed to performing. But we weren’t going to be stupid about it. We hired private security for our time in Turkey. And before flying out of Israel, we spoke directly with Consulate General Hunter about the threats, which escalated online daily as our concert date approached. Hunter and his security director assured us that U.S. authorities were aware of and monitoring the threats. He also told us that he had informed the national Turkish government and municipal authorities in Istanbul that he would be attending our concert and sitting in the front row. The consul also sent a formal notice to the Turkish government on our behalf.

Last lesson? When you stand on principle it might be lonely at first. But you quickly meet amazing allies. Istanbul has a passionate community of LGBTI activists who protested on our behalf outside the Zorlu Performance Center ― no small thing in a country which largely bans public political expressions.

As a result, we were able to perform in Istanbul. More than 5,000 people jammed into the performance space: students decked out in rainbow garb; families with children; hipster singles; middle-aged couples. They danced in the aisles, cheered, and reveled in what was, ultimately, a rare expression of LGBT culture in a Muslim country, proving once again that stories of love, pride, and acceptance ― communicated through song ― resonate despite cultural and language barriers.

CRAIG COOGAN
CRAIG COOGAN is executive director of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus.

 

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