Shining out of the closet

By Li Lin Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-11 18:13:01

Members of the Shining Jazzy Chorus, the Chinese mainland's only LGBT performing group, practice at rehearsal. Photo: Courtesy of Wang Ruoyu

Members of the Shining Jazzy Chorus, the Chinese mainland's only LGBT performing group, practice at rehearsal. Photo: Courtesy of Wang Ruoyu

Despite their simple attire of white shirts and black trousers and performing on an undecorated stage, there was nothing plain about voices of singers in the Shining Jazzy Chorus (SJC) during a recent recital to celebrate their fifth anniversary.

Founded in October 2008 in Beijing, the SJC is the Chinese mainland's only public performing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) choir. It is also the first Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses member choir in Asia and one of the co-founders of Proud Voices Asia, an online association of LGBT choruses.

Hitting the right notes

The SJC's logo, a six-color star comprised of two triangular prisms, symbolizes the ensemble's mission to shine light on LGBT people to improve public awareness about their rights, said Wang Ruoyu, the choir's publicity officer.

"None of us has a professional musical background," said Fey (pseudonym), 31, the art director of the SJC. "Although the choir has been around for five years, we still don't have any original songs. But we are considering making our own songs."

The choir's repertoire is exclusively comprised of uplifting songs, including "Up the Half-Moon Goes," "Wait for You till Dawn" and "Happy Together" from the 1997 Wong Kar-wai film of the same name.

Although the vast majority of the choir's singers are LGBT, their target audience is not restricted based on sexuality.

"We are a harmonious and free organization full of positive energy, which is passed on to everyone in a very subtle way," Fey said.

"People feel free in our choir, and just follow their hearts to the music. No one forces anyone to do anything. If you are swept up by our enthusiasm, you can devote yourself to singing and pursuing the choir's overall development."

As a group, Fey said the SJC has received friendly reception in China including support and encouragement from audiences. Aside from donations from individuals and NGOs, the choir has also been given a fixed location to rehearse courtesy of the Beijing branch of the German Chamber of Commerce since the end of 2012.

While describing China as a "tolerant" country, Fey said the SJC receives proportionally more support from foreign chambers of commerce and cultural attachés of embassies.

"We can tell from our audiences' eyes that they are sincere, friendly and willing to help, but we can imagine what would happen if we asked a State-owned company for a free place to rehearse," said Fey.

Singing behind masks

During public performances, not everyone in the choir is eager to bask in the spotlight. Some singers wear a mask to protect their identity "because they are not yet out of the closet," said Wang.

"Some singers work in government departments, some at State-owned enterprises and others are teachers. Many of these professions are not tolerant of homosexuality, and if [employers] find out that they are gay they risk being fired," said Wang.

Despite some having to hide their identity in public, many singers in the SJC are eager to contribute to the LGBT community to advance its cause, said Wang.

"Our hope is that through our singing we can encourage society to be fair and open enough so that everyone can take off their masks," he said.

The choir has members from other countries including Italy, the US and the Philippines. They also enjoy strong ties with overseas LGBT choirs including the Seattle Gay Choir, whose song "Dear Dad" inspired Wang to come out of closet to his father.

A photo taken by gay couple photographer Wei Jinghao. Photo: Courtesy of Wei Jinghao

A photo taken by gay couple photographer Wei Jinghao. Photo: Courtesy of Wei Jinghao

Heterosexual comrades

However, not everyone in the choir is homosexual. Jeff (pseudonym), a heterosexual aspiring singer who has attended three rehearsals with the choir, said he found out about the group after seeing a post on social networking website

"They are quite friendly and nice, and really interested in singing," Jeff said of the choir members. "But I kind of feel excluded perhaps because I'm straight and just attend rehearsals there for fun."

Jeff is far from the only heterosexual interested in the LGBT-related arts. Wei Jinghao, a 17-year-old who studies graphic design, has already achieved fame as a photographer of gay couples. Even if same-sex marriage isn't legal in China, this hasn't stopped business from booming for the young shutterbug.

"In a way, I rather understand LGBT people even though I am straight," said Wei. "As someone from a rural area of Shanxi Province, I was marginalized when I first came to Beijing because I could not speak Putonghua fluently. I think LGBT people must experience similar emotions when they are discriminated against by heterosexuals."

Wei recalls one of the most memorable portrait shoots he was involved with was for a gay AIDS patient named Liu Jiulong.

"He took several costumes with him when he came to me. He wanted to be photographed wearing his favorite clothes, even if this meant only wearing underwear. He wanted to be seen like that," said Wei.

"I was deeply moved. I made him dance and captured the moment. His body language was really beautiful and amazing."

One of Wei's biggest influences in his life is his foster father Yang Lide, a Taiwan composer who has written many love songs and is affectionately dubbed Mandopop's "godfather of gay love songs."

Yang, who is openly gay, told Metropolitan that "art has its own voice for minority groups" that can help them to express their emotions.

"If a group of people is isolated and driven to the margins of society, they must have a lot to say. They must be eager to be seen and heard. A good way is to turn to art for help in this area," he said.

"No matter whether this art is expressed through pictures or through music, it is helpful [for LGBT people] to gain wider recognition and understanding from society."

Yang and Wei visited 10 cities in 2013 with the NGO Rainbow China, an LGBT rights advocacy group. During their tour, Yang shared his experiences in writing love songs and Wei took more than 20,000 photos, some of which were made into posters for the NGO.


The Shining Jazz Chorus performs at a recital celebrating their fifth anniversary. Photos: Courtesy of Wang Ruoyu

The Shining Jazz Chorus performs at a recital celebrating their fifth anniversary. Photos: Courtesy of Wang Ruoyu

Attitudes about coming out

Wei spoke to Metropolitan from Hong Kong on the sidelines of a gay pride parade earlier this month. Coming out of closet and pursuing happiness is a rite of passage all gay people should be able to make with confidence, said Wei.

"Art can make LGBT people braver. My photos are very good examples. My customers send photos to their families and friends, or post them to the Internet for encouragement and support," said Wei, who took photos of the SJC's fifth anniversary recital.

While Wei encourages gay people to be open about their sexuality, the SJC has adopted a different stance.

Despite being the only openly gay artistic group in Beijing, the choir's leaders believe coming out of the closet is a personal choice that shouldn't be made a public crusade.

"We just take everything as it comes," said Fey. "We also have the same attitude towards society. Our approach is to just let them see and hear us, even if they see us through tinted glasses and hear us for the purpose of entertainment."

Fei said currently the LGBT community has been "pushed into the eye of a discrimination storm" due to negative stereotypes.

A recent example of this emerged last month, said Fey, when a proposed ban of HIV-infected people from bathhouses exacerbated deep-rooted bias against and fear of those living with the disease in China.

"We won't give up. If [audiences] wear tinted glasses, so be it. We will see if they take them off after they hear us perform," said Fey. "We know it is hard to alter stereotypes and we may not know the results of our efforts, but we have tried and will keep trying."

The SJC is confident about growing in the future, especially by recruiting more women, lesbian and heterosexual, to help bolster its soprano ranks.

Yang Lide said that he and Wei plan to compose a song called "Love Together" and launch a chain of cafés called Rainbow Café that can serve as a support network for the LGBT community.

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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