Jason & DeMarco, The Fresno Gay Men’s Chorus, and guest speakers ranging from city council members to local political organizers from the gay community joined an audience of roughly 200 people to commemorate National Coming Out Day at the Tower Theatre last Thursday evening. The musical portion of the program opened with the chorus, followed by Chrisitian singer-songwriting duo Jason & deMarco. The program ended with a finale number featuring Jason & deMarco, with the chorus providing backing vocals. The end of the event was greeted with an enthusiastic, standing ovation from the audience.
The event, organized by The Fresno Gay Men’s Chorus, was hosted by G.S.A. Central Valley Program Coordinator Robin McGehee and was kicked off with supportive speeches made by council members Cynthia Sterling and Blong Xiong, as well as PFLAG President Edie Ninnis.
The Fresno Gay Men’s Chorus decided to bring Jasofn & deMarco to Fresno after performing with them on Coming Out Day last year in Visalia. Fresno Gay Men’s Chorus Secretary Steve Mevert explained the members of the chorus felt a real connection with Jason & deMarco on an artistic and personal level and wanted to bring their act to a larger venue. "We just realized they were the most talented, warm people with an amazing message to offer", said Mervert. "We helped bring their documentary to Reel Pride and then worked from there to raise money to bring them back for Coming Out Day at the Tower Theatre". Funding for the event was provided by C.C.A., Community Link, local bars – The Red Lantern, The Den, and the Déjà Vu nightclub, as well as other local businesses and private donors. However, most of the money was expected to come in via ticket sales. The event venue could have seated up to 700 attendees, but only filled just over a quarter of the seating. "We knew it was a big risk for us, and we’re just hoping we break even," said Fresno Gay Men’s Chorus Musical Director Richard Adamson. "We weren’t as concerned with making a profit as we were with creating a wonderful Coming Out Day event for the community. It’s an important day for all of us."
This sentiment was echoed throughout the event on Thursday night. Performers, organizers and attendees acknowledged that this is a day when the personal truly meets the political. It’s a day when many are reminded of their own personal experiences with coming out. Some stories are funny, some sad, some bittersweet.
Richard Adamson relayed his coming out story a little wistfully due his parents never really accepting who he was. "Any of us who have lived a double life know how difficult it is to be in the closet to any degree. Yet, the longer you go on like that, the harder it becomes to change," explained Adamson. "I didn’t come out until I was 40. I lost a job over it and my parents passed away never quite accepting it. It was endured, but never resolved. Still, it does take a burden off your shoulders whenever you decide to do it."
Vice-President Ron Fletcher described his coming out process as "more gradual" and noted that public events such as this contributed to him becoming increasingly comfortable with his identity. "Back in the 80’s, I knew who I was," said Fletcher, "but I was understated about it and never went to gay events. Finally, I decided to go to Fresno’s first pride parade, drove up and thought, ‘these guys are just like me’. Then I noticed the Klan was there with their robes, their signs and their hatred, and I thought, ‘I have to get out of here!’ As I was driving away it occurred to me, this is why I had come in the first place, to fight against that kind of hatred in myself and in others. I realized they were the intruders, not me. I turned around, stayed at the event and never looked back. It was a real turning point for me. Events like this still matter. I don’t want to see any kid out there be beaten, banished, excommunicated or killed. Until that stops happening, these events are still relevant."
Adamson agreed and said, "I hope that one day we won’t need Coming Out Day, but I happen to be a member of the Episcopal Church and we’re tearing ourselves apart right now because we’ve just selected a gay bishop. Obviously, there’s still a need. As long as there is discrimination and inequality, there’s still a platform for these issues."
Steve Mevert, Secretary of the Fresno Gay Men’s Choir, counts himself lucky for never having to deal with any particularly traumatic event due to his sexuality. "People always handled it so much better than I would have expected. I’ve almost felt I’ve lived a charmed life in this respect. I’m a male nurse, a profession that happens to be open to gay men. I’ve been in two stable long term relationships and I’ve rarely heard or felt the anti-gay message personally. A big part of this was my family; they were never against it."
Mevert adds, "I’ve still grown over the years, getting more comfortable with who I am. I think we all do. Coming out is a continual process. Every time you change jobs, go to a new school, a new church, meet new people who may or may not accept you, you have to face those fears and make that decision all over again. "
Both members of the Christian singer-songwriting duo Jason & deMarco, whose full names are Jason Warner and Marco DeCiccio, have their own stories to tell. They are life partners and began performing together a year after they were introduced by a mutual friend in 2001. Both have extensive musical training and performance backgrounds. Warner grew up Pentecostal and toured with a popular Christian music group, Truth and Sound, before being "kicked out" after coming out in 1998 which prompted him to pursue a solo career. DeCiccio graduated with a degree in music and performed traditional Italian as well as country music before joining efforts with Warner professionally.
Since Jason & deMarco’s inception, the duo has had their share of challenges and triumphs. They have toured globally. At times, they were greeted with crowds of enamored fans. At other times, they were confronted by groups of protesters. In 2005 they were banned from performing at an AIDS benefit in Singapore. In 2006, they went on unhindered to perform at a chain of high profile events and earn the #1 spot on MTV/LOGO’s The Click List Top 10 Countdown program for 7 consecutive weeks for their video, "This Is Love". At the end of the year they received the award for #1 video from the LOGO viewers for The Click List Top 10 Countdown’s Best of 2006.
In addition to large venues, they still play churches, colleges and small theatres. Jason reflected on their Tower Theatre audience insisting, "It’s not the size of the crowd that matters, but the energy of the crowd, and this was awesome. You could tell they [the audience] were here for the cause. This is a very important day, not just for this community but all communities, in learning not just tolerance, but true affirmation and true acceptance. People need to know that there are safe spaces that family, friends and loved ones can come out and know that they won’t be kicked out or rejected, but that they’ll be loved through this process and that we can all agree to disagree and respect each other through that journey." At this, deMarco smiled and added simply, "Amen!"
Both musicians also shared stories of their own personal journeys on the way to coming out. Jason grew up on a farm and recalls the early signs of his sexual orientation his family strangely overlooked. "I’d go out to this abandoned barn by our farm, roller skates in one arm, leg warmers in the other and I would roller skate for hours listening to Olivia Newton John’s Xanadu. I think my parents thought I was in love with Olivia Newton John. Little did they know I wanted to be Olivia Newton John. Years later, I wondered how could they not know when I was roller skating to Olivia, kissing the wall pretending it was Sonny? It’s just so nice to be able to be here tonight and say that I am truly reconciled."
After meeting Jason, deMarco came out to his traditional Italian grandmother with great trepidation and joyful results. "Out of nowhere she asked me, ‘So, do you think one day you’ll find a nice girl and get married?’ I said, ‘I don’t think so nona’. Then she asked, ‘Well, what about Jason. You think one day Jason will find a girl and get married?’ I said, ‘I don’t think so nona.’ We cried together that afternoon." He added laughing, "At first she thought that I just had spent too much with Jason and that I’d just gotten confused. She also got around to telling me that she understands because when she spends too much time with her friend Julie, she kind of has these similar thoughts…which I thought was a little weird. She eventually came around and we had a wonderful few years before she passed on."
Regardless of the fact that this event was far from sold out, the performers, organizers and audience members expressed that this did nothing to devalue their experience. Audience member and music major Derrol Keith said, "I smiled, I laughed and that’s what I want from music. I want to feel something in myself, and when I listened to this music, I definitely related to it."
G.S.A. Regional Coordinator Robin McGehee was also impressed by the event and the musicianship of the performers and speculated on why the turn-out might have been less than expected. "I think there are a lot of factors at work,"she said. "We saw this at Reel Pride. Sometimes the gay community gets a little complacent. There are all these things going on, and they just forget or don’t have the time to support everything. There was the Fresno Fair and a number of other events this week and people’s calendars just get overloaded."
Organizers and members of the Fresno Gay Men’s Chorus were also upbeat despite the fear that the event may have put them in the red. "I was really pleased with the concert. I just wish there had been a bigger crowd," stated Adamson. Yet, he explains his chorus is used to taking risks to make a difference artistically and politically. "We just love to perform. We actually performed on a float at the Clovis Rodeo Parade. On the side of the float we hung a sign with the name of our show at the time, The Country Cowboy Chorus and on the very back we hung another sign that listed us as Fresno Gay Men’s Chorus. It was just funny. You’d see people smiling and clapping as we’d go by and then (gasp). We had some pretty sour looking ladies by the time the float passed and they saw who we were, but other people would cheer and clap louder. In general, it was more of a positive response than anything."
Adamson adds that he hopes that with increased volunteership, the Fresno Gay Men’s Chorus will be able to bring bigger and better performances to Fresno with each coming year.
Chorus member Ron Fletcher explains, "We are not discriminatory. We welcome men and women of all ages and orientations. We need non-singing as much as singing volunteers. Right now we’re trying to do all of it ourselves. We perform in straight and gay venues. We usually do theme oriented shows like the 2007show, The Country Cowboy Chorus or our upcoming 2008 show, Gay for Days. We have 11 singers, but would like to grow to around 30 members. We’re are also looking for volunteers in areas like planning, marketing, tech, fundraising and other general areas of volunteership."
To find out more about additional Fresno Gay Men’s Chorus events, how to join the chorus, offer volunteership or financial contributions, please visit their website: www. fresnogaymenschorus.org.