The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus concert at St. Ignatius Church on Friday, Oct. 26 was a long-time coming. Not only was this the group’s 40th anniversary concert, celebrating four decades of raising awareness for LGBTQ rights, but the event also served as a reconciliation between the St. Ignatius Church and the chorus group.
The Gay Men’s Chorus, the first openly gay chorus in the world, was founded in 1978 in support of Harvey Milk and his platform challenging discriminatory policies and encouraging gay people to come out. The group’s influence has reached far beyond city limits, with their first national tour in late 1981 inspiring other choruses to establish themselves in cities around the U.S. and Canada.
In 1981, just prior to their tour, the chorus was invited to perform at St. Ignatius. However, a few weeks before they were scheduled to perform, the concert was cancelled by John Quinn, the Archbishop of San Francisco at the time. Quinn worried that the event would be misinterpreted as the Catholic Church condoning homosexuality, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. In court, it was ruled by San Francisco Superior Court Justice Ira Brown that the University’s Jesuits were within their rights to prohibit the chorus from performing at St. Ignatius.
Now, 37 years later, the Gay Men’s Chorus was invited back to perform their long-lost concert.
Father Bonfiglio, pastor of the St. Ignatius Parish, invited the Gay Men’s Chorus to perform at the church, although at the time, he was not aware of the history between the two groups. “I didn’t know what happened back in 1981 [when we scheduled this event], so there’s not a lot of virtue there, I suppose,” he told the Chronicle.
Before the chorus performed, Father Bonfiglio opened the concert by expressing his heartfelt wish for reconciliation between the two groups. “God is rejoicing tonight,” he said. “What made this glorious building sacred is the people who have come through those doors… and I believe in the next few hours what these gentlemen will do will make St. Ignatius Church a bit more sacred, and I thank you for that.”
Chris Verdugo, the executive director of the Chorus, also gave opening remarks. “I want to thank all the Jesuit priests who are here tonight, not only for opening your doors to this awe-inspiring church, but for opening your hearts and for really creating a moment of reconciliation; for building a bridge, [and] a moment in which we can heal.”
While the concert was a celebration of the Gay Men’s Chorus’ last 40 years of breaking barriers and effecting change, it was also a memorial to the many people who had been lost over those decades. In addition to first tenor, second tenor, baritone and bass, the choir has a “fifth section,” made up of the hundreds of people the choir has lost over the years, many during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. Several of the songs performed were in reference to this loss, such as “When We No Longer Touch,” a requiem that served as a tribute to the memories of the lives lost as well as an expression of the pain felt by the entire community.
Not only did attendees reflect on the past, but they also spoke of hope for the future. The concert was Jason Riggs’ first time performing with the singing group. He said he is hopeful about the relationship between the chorus and the Church.
Father Bonfiglio also expressed a desire for a lasting relationship between the two groups moving forward. “I sincerely hope that our working together these last months to prepare for tonight have been the first steps in a deeply desired reconciliation and toward a genuinely desired relationship between our remarkable Catholic Parish and [their] remarkable gay chorus,” he said.
Hayley Burcher contributed to the reporting of this story.