Caring Chorus 

Desert Voices celebrates 20 years of bringing the GLBT community and straight allies together with music

Is it a sign of gay-rights progress that Arizona and California voters have denied homosexuals the right to marry?

It's progress if you consider that 20 years ago, the issue would not even have been placed on a statewide ballot. Now, it's an inescapable question, because--whether social conservatives like it or not--gays and lesbians are part of the American mainstream. They're so mainstream, in fact, that they're integrating their institutions: You no longer have to be gay to sing in a gay chorus.

Desert Voices is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season. It started out as a social activity for uncloseted Tucson gays and lesbians who didn't have many options beyond the bar scene. Today, it's a serious chorus that includes gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members, and is even about 30 percent straight.

"It's still one of the few places where gay men and lesbians and people who support us can come together," says Kelly Kurtz, who was present when the group was formed in October 1988. "Back in the day, I'd just come out, and I didn't know how to get in touch with other gay and lesbian people until I heard about this."

Twenty years later, Desert Voices is much more than a social club. "Everybody in the chorus is like my family," she says, but beyond that, "we're very committed to the music now, going to extra rehearsals and working on the music at home."

Anna Anderson, who has also been with the group since the beginning, says, "For me, what comes first is the music. The message is a bonus, and (so is the feeling of) family."

Yet the feeling of family, or at least unconditional acceptance, is what keeps other members coming back. Kirsten Cummins, who has sung with the group off and on since 2001, says, "As a bisexual, I'm welcome here, which is not necessarily the case with other groups." (In some lesbian circles, she says, bisexual women are regarded as traitors.) "Here, I can just be; I don't have to explain myself."

Retiree Bill Webber is one of Desert Voices' straight members. He joined 10 years ago, after having been involved with a similar group at Cornell. "In Ithaca, my wife and I had been surrogate parents to people who'd been rejected by their own families," he says. In turn, here in Tucson, he got tremendous support from his fellow singers when his wife died four years ago; members of the group even sang at her memorial service.

Chris Tackett has been Desert Voices' artistic director for five years, and before that, he worked with the group as an accompanist, composer and arranger. Asked which is more important to Desert Voices now--inclusiveness or music--he says, "I've been thinking a lot about this lately. While the inclusiveness is extremely important to us, we are first and foremost a performing choral group. We express everything we do, including our inclusiveness, through our singing."

Even so, Tackett says all that's required to get into the chorus is "a modicum of musical ability" and a willingness to work and take part in the group's activities.

"We're very active," he says, "and it's important to be active in not just the GLBT community, but also in a lot of the other caring communities in town." So besides singing at AIDS-awareness and gay-pride events, the group has contributed its services to the likes of Habitat for Humanity and the anti-domestic-violence Brewster Center. "We do outreach to be a nonthreatening face of the local GLBT community," he says. "We don't reach out to the GLBT community so much as we come from it and reach out into the broader community."

Outreach is fine, but bringing audiences into the concerts is becoming more of a challenge. "We've been struggling a lot with what every gay performing-arts group has gone through," Tackett says. "Twenty years ago, it was enough to say, 'The gay chorus is singing,' and you could be guaranteed an audience; people would come out from curiosity alone. As time has worn on, in a post-Will and Grace world (in which gays and lesbians are more widely accepted), it's not enough just to be gay. People are coming because they enjoy the music, not just because it's a GLBT chorus."

This weekend, Desert Voices will present a holiday concert called Down the Chimney, featuring seasonal favorites, novelties and a new work written and co-performed by local singer-songwriter Namoli Brennet. As usual, there will be a fair amount of comic material--"We all tend to look at the world in a unique way," Tackett says--and that will be reflected in a bit of patter as well as the selections themselves.

Looking ahead, the group will present a rather spicy cabaret show in February, and a grand finale in April that will include works Desert Voices has commissioned and co-commissioned over the past two decades.

New music, even if it isn't avant-garde, can be hard to sing, simply because it's unfamiliar. Tackett and his singers are confident that these days, they're up to the musical challenge.

Says choir member Mark Rosenbaum, "Now we feel excitement about the unknown instead of fear of the unknown."

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