Review: 'Music Triumphs Homophobia' Traces the Journeys of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday January 19, 2023

Review: 'Music Triumphs Homophobia' Traces the Journeys of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus

Music is a universal language that can supersede words and help bridge shouting matches like the one that discourse in America has devolved into. For the nation's LGBTQ+ choruses - there are more than 200 at this point - that musical language has fostered understanding and helped drive change for more than four decades.

It's often been, and remains, an uphill battle, but in "Music Triumphs Homophobia," a documentary about the performance tours of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus written and directed by Craig Coogan and Michael Willer, hope and progress take center stage, along with members of the 41-year-old BGMC and the staff who guide the group's mission and its creative process. Until recently, Coogan was the executive director of the BGMC; Willer has long served the chorus as its videographer.

Specifically, the film recounts how the chorus engages in outreach both local and global. From performing at an area Catholic college once notorious for its institutional homophobia to challenging, joyful tours in LGBTQ+-unfriendly places like Poland, Turkey, and South Africa, the chorus, as seen here, exemplifies its core message that music is a means to empathy and acceptance, and a balm to the deep, raw wounds that prejudice inflicts on all sides. In press material for the film, current Executive Director Sarah Schoffner points to one of the film's most moving passages: "As Matthews Motsoeneng of South Africa's Mzansi Gay Choir says in the film, 'Homophobia makes you or breaks you,'" Schoffner notes, going on to complete the quote: "'Don't choose the breaking part, choose the making part.'"

Significantly, the film unfolds to a backdrop of music - everything from Katy Perry's "Firework" to Steven Schwartz's heartbreaking "Testimony," to the tender lullaby "Everything Possible," by Rev. Fred Small, which is something of a signature song for the BGMC. Clips of the chorus in concert are interspersed throughout: Singing, dancing, and radiating both the excitement of song and a full spectrum of deep emotion. The chorus shows us that the point of the film isn't "Queer joy in the face of adversity" so much as "Queer joy no matter what."

Full disclosure: This reviewer was a member of the BGMC for nine years, and participated in some of the concerts and other events that the film depicts.

Among the doc's more dramatic moments is a concert in Istanbul that was hastily rescheduled (rescued, basically) by students at Bosphorus University after Turkey's President Erdoǧan, facing re-election at the time and pandering to conservative elements, got the permit for the concert pulled. Instead of taking to the stage in a state-of-the-art concert hall, the BGMC sang and danced on an outdoor stage in a parking lot... and it made no difference to the audience that showed up to enjoy the music and demonstrate their support.

Such are the challenges that the chorus has faced, and transcended, time after time. The film recounts how protestors and threats menaced the concert in Wroclaw, Poland, in 2005, yet the show drew a crowd of supporters who showed their good will and shared in the joy and pride that the group brought to the stage. In 2018, the chorus ventured to South Africa, a country where anti-LGBTQ+ animus and violence persist despite the rights of sexual minorities being enshrined in its constitution; audiences there literally danced in the aisles.

Not every adventure has a happy ending, though. The BGMC intended to join a local group for a Pride march in Istanbul, only for police to show up moments before the start of the march and declare the event canceled. Many of those who'd planned to march took to the streets anyway, facing water hoses, tear gas, and arrests, as the doc shows in dramatic footage and interviews. The summer of 2015, as one interviewee notes, was the "tipping point" at which Turkey slid into authoritarianism (still an all-too-possible outcome for the fate of America's own democracy).

At other moments, the film shines a light on subtler, and perhaps more damaging, forms of oppression. Singer Ed Lemay recalls in an on-camera interview how, during his time in seminary, he confessed to having a crush on a fellow seminarian, only to be advised to pursue one-night stands with women in order to "straighten me out."

Indeed, the needless clash between faith traditions and the LGBTQ+ community plays a pivotal part in the film's overarching narrative, and Coogan and Willer allow the question to be addressed with the complexity it merits. Music director Reuben Reynolds III, recalling the searing anti-gay hatred he encountered as a youth in his former church, declares that his religion now lies with the service he provides to the chorus, while non-binary singer Alex Kapitan allows that "Faith can be just as much a tool for liberation as it can be for hate and violence."

Perhaps the most valuable service the BGMC, and other LGBTQ+ choruses, provide to the community at large are its outreach performances. The BGMC recently sang at the inauguration of Massachusetts Governor Maura Healy (as they did for the inauguration of former governor Charlie Baker), but on a more profound level, the group gives concerts several times each year to local schools, demonstrating to vulnerable, often embattled, LGBTQ+ youth that authenticity does not mean unhappiness and failure in adulthood. At a time when right-wing politicians shamelessly treat LGBTQ+ children (especially transgender children) as little more than red meat, that visibility matters more than ever, as a few younger chorus members - themselves students at the schools the chorus has visited in years past - attest.

It's been said that all art "aspires to be music," but this documentary shows that music, more than any other art, embodies and enables life. In the case of LGBTQ+ people, whether in the U.S. or globally, the music made by choruses such as the BGMC can help make the difference between hope and despair, or even life and death.

"Music Triumphs Homophobia" streams on Amazon starting Jan. 19.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.