Oakland Gay Men's Chorus celebrates 20 years

This year the Oakland Gay Men's Chorus will celebrate 20 years, and after two decades the chorus says its mission is simple. It wants to give voice through song to a community where everyone matters.

This is a group that is passionate about singing, but it's more than that. It's about family, about support and inclusivity and how those themes define the chorus today and will help shape the chorus of tomorrow.

At a recent practice, KTVU's Claudine Wong sat down with artistic director, Dr. William Sauerland, who says "literally everyone just calls me Billy because that feels appropriate, I'm a Billy through and through."    

Billy has been the artistic director of this chorus for the last four years, and he will tell you what special place it has become.

"It's going to sound cliché because I think you hear this a lot," says Sauerland "but it's home for me. It's thing that feels most like home."

It doesn't take long to figure out that not everyone in this chorus is from Oakland, they are not all gay and they are not all men 

"I'm obviously not a gay man," laughs tenor Alegra Figeroid, "I am lesbian, I consider myself to be a woman but they don't seem to mind."

James Berglund is the membership chair and says everyone is welcome. "We were down to 25 people three or four years ago, and I put a little note out on meet up and all of a sudden we had 30 new members and we doubled our chorus in one day." Berglund explains. "We have predominantly gay men, we have a young lesbian, we have several trans members, we have some straight guys, we have a little bit of everything and no-one cares," he continues. 

What they do care about is each other. Baritone Lawrence Turner says he found a home here when he moved to the Bay Area ten years ago.  

"It was hard at the time," explains Turner, "it was ten years ago and people really didn't know what to do with a single dad with tweens who wanted to be a part of a singing or be a part of a gay community group that wasn't thing at that point. I had open arms with 50 men that said please bring your family and be part of our chorus."

So many have a story about what brought them here. For some, it is difficult to put into words. John Chastain had just joined the choir when the unthinkable happened.

"This was Christmas day 2015," says Chastain, "and I was shot early in the morning 7 times and it was devastating and I had my hip replaced and when I was in the hospital the guys I barely knew came to visit they sang in my hospital room and they kept coming to visit and they kept saying come back when you can."

In the darkest time of his life, this choir provided a light, through song and friendship. It would take a year before he would perform again, and even then it wasn't easy.

He still needs to sit during practices and performances but he says here he also found something that medicine couldn't provide. "During what happened to me it was clear that there was hatred to me," says Chastain, "because I was a gay man and I don't want to talk about it but it was very challenging for me and I needed a place where I felt safe. Where I could heal and where I could not just survive but thrive."

It is that ability to thrive that Billy says will be what defines the future for this chorus. As they lift their voice in song, they celebrate this place, this family. This home and what it all stands for.

"To say something proudly and say something with passion to say this is who we are this we exist and this is why we should be treated as equals," says Sauerland, "and even though 20 years a lot has happened in that time there is still so much more to do so many minds and hearts to change in this world and that's what we will continue to do."

So the 20th anniversary concert called "Pride of the East Bay," which features the Oakland Youth Chorus will be on Saturday, May 18 at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley at 8 pm. There will be another concert on Sunday, May 19 on 5pm at the First Presbyterian Church of Alameda.  Tickets are available at OaklandGMC.org/tickets.