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WHEN YOU KNEW: Heartland Men’s Chorus program confronts tough topics about gay awareness, bullying, and more

The Heartland Men’s Chorus has an uncanny knack for picking timely, even “hot” topics for their programs. In 2003 they performed The Few, the Proud, a multimedia concert that told stories about gays and lesbians in the armed forces throughout American history – literally the same week that we entered into the Iraq war.  All God’s Children dealt with issues of being gay and remaining connected to faith or religion.And Justice For All was a program about the Civil Rights movement, women’s suffrage, and other courageous movements. “We just told the story of the fight for freedom,” said HMC artistic director and conductorJoseph Nadeau, who has led Our Town’s 100-plus-voice gay men’s chorus since 1998. “Which is basically the same story that everybody has: that someone is being denied some sort of civil rights. As Martin Luther King said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

On March 24th and 25th at the Folly Theater the chorus will be at it again, tackling injustice with their latest “musical documentary”When I Knew, an exploration of the terrifying process of “coming out,” using music, narration and multimedia. Guest narrator isDan Savage, syndicated columnist and pundit who founded the It Gets Better Project to fight bullying and prevent suicide among LGBT youth – which by many accounts has reached crisis levels. The March 25th concert also includes a pre-concert (1:30-3:30) panel discussion featuring Dan, Joel Bolling (UMKC LGBTQIA Coordinator), SuEllen Fried (BullySafeUSA), Bailee Webb (a high school student recently featured in The Kansas City Star), and Dan Weddle (UMKC Law Professor). And on Friday the Chorus performs its 2001 Oliver Button is a Sissy for elementary school children as part of the Folly Kids’ Series. Based on a Tomie DePaola children’s book, this 30-minute musical also teaches tolerance of “differentness” and ties in nicely with the anti-bullying theme of the concert. NBC Action News reporter and Chorus member Chris Hernandez will narrate.

“You see horrible things happening these days,” says Joe, who has himself taught in public schools. “You know, kids shooting people in schools, people getting bullied and taking their lives.” Indeed, the It Gets Better Project was inspired partly by the suicide of 15-year-old Billy Lucas, who was bullied for his perceived sexual orientation. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimates that between 30 and 40% of LGBT youth have attempted suicide. Many of them are driven to it by persistent bullying. Joe says we all need to work hard to get the message to kids that “we want you to love yourself, and we want you to be around so that you can celebrate your uniqueness when you get older.”

SuEllen of the Kansas-based BullySafeUSA, founded in 2002, has worked with more than 85,000 students in 36 states through conferences, workshops, school presentations and training institutes, and has co-authored several publications on bullying. “If we just listen, really really listen to the kids, they have a lot of great ideas. And they have a lot of concerns and they have a lot of angst about what is going on, and we just have to get in there talking to them as a group.” It is SuEllen’s firm belief that the young people themselves have to engage in the process. “We can pass all the legislation and make all the policies we want, but until the kids take ownership of what they’re doing and confront it, the problem will not change.” One thing she discovered early on is that “there is so much information and stuff stewing inside these children’s heads and hearts, and by the end of the sessions their commitment is so mobilizing – not just toward attitude change but toward behavior change.”

Of course bullying is an issue for society as a whole, says HMC board chair Kathy Dunn, “but unfortunately gay members of our society have a strong history of being the victims of bullying. … And the Chorus wanted to join forces with national leaders on this.” She said she finds it sad that we are still debating this issue in this day and age, and that kids are often bearing the brunt of the discourse. “It makes me sad. … “I’ve found that the gay community consists of incredibly talented, incredibly community-minded people, skillful corporate leaders – they are some of the best people I have ever known. And to have all this junk still swirling around people of good hearts and good spirits – we are just really missing out on a productive community of people if we keep them on the outside.”

Nearly every gay person remembers it: the day you first realized you were different. You might not have known exactly the nature of the difference, or what it might mean for your future. It wasn’t necessarily sexual. But you felt it, even if you might not have wanted to accept it. And you knew you hadn’t “chosen” it. When I Knew will come as a familiar phrase for all of those who went through that process, and Joe says that actual coming out stories from chorus members will be woven into the narrative of the concert – along with both serious and fun songs that are pertinent to the stories (Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” “Some Day My Prince Will Come, “Sixteen Candles”) and some numbers especially commissioned for the program. “I asked them tell me what your story is, when did you know when you were different,” Joe says. The chorus also had audience members submit stories. “So this comes not only from the angle of ‘when I knew I was different,’ it’s about a parent knowing about their son, or a daughter of a HMC member who struggled and finally came to accepting her father.”

Joe says we have made some progress. “We’re doing a lot of things right. When I was born in 1970 homosexuality was listed as a psychiatric disorder, and so my parents and my parents’ generation … kind of have this deep-seated feeling that it is a disorder. Just like with the struggle for women’s rights and the struggle for racial equality, we’ve seen that it doesn’t happen overnight. But it’s a group of people who have been treated inequitably. And things are not going to get better until they are.”

When I Knew is on March 24th at 8 p.m. and on the 25th at 4 p.m., both at the Folly Theater. For tickets go to hmckc.org or call 816-931-3338. To read more about SuEllen’s organization go to BullySafeUSA.com. To see Dan’s extensive video project go to youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.


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