In Honor of National Coming Out Month: “Queering the Gospel Sound: A Tribute to LGBTQ Gospel Musicians”by Jennifer Wong on Oct, 11 2012
When I walked LA AIDS Walk a few years ago, I was confronted face-to-face with the heartbreaking reality of hatred. I crossed protestors with giant signs reading phrases like “HOMOSEX IS SIN,” unwavering in their mission to stifle something as natural as the love between two people. Instances like this have since stood out to me and reinforced a rather unfair idea in my head that homophobia is always coupled with strict religion. I knew there were exceptions to this association, but until I attended this gospel concert, I didn’t realize to what an extent that exception reached.
Yesterday on October 10th, the UC Berkeley Gospel Chorus reconciled this idea of homophobic church in their noon concert through their music and the personal stories of special guest performers who were both religious and of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, and intersex community (LGBTQI).
It all started with an opening reflection from the director of the choir, Dr. D. Mark Wilson. He immediately addressed a confusion I (and I’m sure many others) had with the title of the program— what is “queering”?
Briefly, he recounted its history, noting 1959 as a pivotal time when LGBTQI people began to come together and express themselves through gospel music. And there it began: the “queering” of the world. It initially sounds like “queering” is a verb we can just enact, but Dr. Wilson, an openly gay man himself, more precisely explained “queering” as a process of “spoiling the order,” and “disrupting heteronormality” through acts like performance or business, “so the voices of those that have been silenced will be heard.”
And heard they most definitely were.
Special guest Reverend Lynice Pinkard, an openly lesbian woman, followed the introductory reflection by extending Dr. Wilson’s definition of “queering” to all aspects of life. She declared that “queering” is not just for those of the LGBTQI community, but for anyone going through a struggle against the norm—people overcoming addiction, gender discrimination, and any type of politic that oppresses its people. “When we stand in mass and resist, we are queering,” Reverend Pinkard concluded. Her testimony was then followed by a powerfully inspiring rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” for which the Reverend sang as soloist.
After this testimony there were a series of beautiful gospel songs. Although I wasn’t familiar with any of them, they were still spectacularly performed and enjoyable.
“Total Praise” featured special guest Arthur Barker who joined the choir in their song with American Sign Language, originally choreographed by Maurice Beard. His signing of the lyrics was so visually dynamic that it felt more like a dance in sync with the song rather than a translation of the words. Here, I found myself watching his rhythmically captivating gestures more than I paid attention to the chorus of students that were the ones actually singing.
Equally entertaining was the director of the show, Dr. Wilson himself. Not once did he stand stationary in one place, but instead filled the stage with his jolly spirit and unforgettably animated movement as he conducted the talent of the UC Berkeley Gospel Chorus. Everything they sang was both powerful in their strong voices and in their message of acceptance. The volume of their compelling talent was moving to say the least, both figuratively in their insight and especially literally. Every single person was moved. We were encouraged to clap along and even sway our bodies with the music. Even though I attended the concert alone, I felt no discomfort thanks to the welcoming atmosphere — so I danced around in the audience to my own pleasing. Judgement did not exist in Hertz Hall with these performers.
This whole event that brought together students and adults of all walks of life and experiences reached its peak in its double finale songs: “Yes, I know Jesus,” and “Jesus is the Light.” At this point, Dr. Wilson invited us to stand up from our seats and embrace a “happy spirit.” I found this distinction from the usual “holy spirit” to be much more inclusive to everyone present and greatly admired his choice of words throughout the whole concert.
As it ended, I tried the best an English major could do to come up with one word that could summarize the whole experience, but my vocabulary just couldn’t measure up to the magnitude of what I was feeling. Thankfully, I can now borrow a word from the director of the gospel to describe it all:
To conclude the concert, as the choir hit their final notes, Dr. Wilson instructed every person in Hertz to turn to the person beside them. With his guidance, we faced each other, shook hands and said with a most genuine smile “Neighbor, you’ve been queered.” And there it was, the perfect word— it’s the dissolving of a wall built with the same bricks of hatred I witnessed long ago at the sight of AIDS Walk LA’s protestors; it’s a process we continue as we recognize the importance of National Coming Out Day. It’s the change we feel when we as a culture look at how far we’ve come in self-acceptance, and it’s an aspiration we work towards in becoming a community of all-inclusive love; it’s an inspiration. It’s queering.
The next free noon concerts in Hertz Hall are:
Friday, October 12th
UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra
Brahms: Symphony No. 4
Wednesday, October 17
Elliott Carter: Sonata for Cello and Piano; Tre Duetti for Violin and Piano
Leighton Fong, cello; April Paik, violin; Karen Rosenak, piano
And if you’re interested in experiencing the power of UC Berkeley Gospel Choir’s talent, I highly recommend going to their next performance:
Saturday, November 10, 8pm
“Love Songs for the Night”
$5 admission with your Cal ID.