Marcos Bretón

Opinion: Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus celebrates 30 years with new acceptance

Brian Rath, center, and the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus sing “Dancing Queen” in the 2013 Gay Pride Parade in downtown Sacramento.
Brian Rath, center, and the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus sing “Dancing Queen” in the 2013 Gay Pride Parade in downtown Sacramento. Sacramento Bee

What’s in a name? For the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus, the answer is everything.

The name signifies acceptance. It says: We aren’t afraid, and we’re not hiding who we are anymore.

The name means that Sacramento is no longer a place where overt homophobia causes its targets to retreat behind closed doors.

It was much different 30 years ago, when the Sacramento Men’s Chorus was founded in a state capital full of secrets and dangers.

The members of this fledgling group were largely successful figures in the community – lobbyists, lawyers, school principals, teachers, businessmen and community leaders.

“I had just moved to Sacramento and had just come out of the closet when I joined,” said Mike Tentis, a chorus member since 1988. “It was a way to connect with people that didn’t involve hanging out at the bars.”

The singing group was also a refuge, a support system – especially in its early years.

“Our community was so hushed back then,” Tentis said. “Teachers were afraid they would be fired if their schools knew they were gay.”

Consequently, the name of the group – Sacramento Men’s Chorus – reflected lives spent hiding in plain sight. The name omitted a great unspoken word that would have identified the singers in a way that wasn’t really being done in the 1980s – still years before “coming out” became a movement.

In the early years, the men’s chorus featured between 25 and 40 singers.

And when the group performed before audiences back then, the singers stood in straight lines. They kept their eyes looking out front. Joy came through the music, but it was restrained joy, cautious joy.

“I always remember those early conversations in my living room. We needed to nourish and support each other in that atmosphere of fear,” said Dennis Mangers, a founding member of the Sacramento Men’s Chorus.

In another time, Mangers might have gone down in history as the first openly gay state legislator in California. But when he was elected to the state Assembly from Orange County and moved to Sacramento in 1976, he wasn’t out in the open. It was illegal to be gay in California until 1976, when an anti-sodomy law was finally repealed.

It would be nearly 20 years after Mangers was elected before Sheila Kuehl became the first openly gay state legislator in 1994 – and it would be 26 years before Mark Leno and John Laird became the first openly gay men elected to the Legislature in 2002.

It wasn’t until 2002 – in the 17th year of the Sacramento Men’s Chorus – that the California Legislative LGBT Caucus was formed.

“It used to be possible to discriminate against gay people through employment and housing,” Mangers said. “You could lose your job if you were gay, and locally there were no protections at the county, city or state level until one by one that changed.”

It wasn’t until 2000 that California first included sexual orientation as a basis for employment discrimination claims.

In 2004, the state included gender bias as a form of unlawful employment discrimination. That same year, hate-crime laws were expanded to include crimes against people based on their orientation or gender.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Men’s Chorus continued to grow. The group became more expressive. The singers began to move in choreographed rhythm. Though California passed Proposition 8 in 2008, an initiative that sought to ban same-sex marriage, the tide was turning.

Public attitudes about same-sex marriage were changing. In a public wedding ceremony before Proposition 8 was passed, Mangers wed his longtime love – and had long since been open about who he is. He left the chorus a while ago, entrusting it to a new generation of singers.

Meanwhile, veteran members of the chorus like Tentis grew wistful with time – overjoyed at their growing acceptance in Sacramento but mourning the loss of people who didn’t live long enough to see it.

At Friday’s grand celebration of 30 years of the Men’s Chorus at the Memorial Auditorium, the images of members who died of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s were shown as the chorus sang.

“We lost 50 members,” Tentis said. “I lost 30 close, personal friends. It was such a devastating time. There is just a giant hole of peers my age who are just gone.

“The chorus is like a memory holder, a memory keeper. We’re keeping alive memories of friends we have lost.”

Younger members of the chorus, Tentis said, are living their lives not knowing anyone who has died of AIDS because of drugs that turned death sentences into a chronic disease.

Who could have imagined that in 1985? Who could have imagined that same-sex marriage could be on the verge of being the law of he land? Who could have imagined that openly gay leaders could be elected in Sacramento for the best reason of all – because they were the best candidates?

Who could have imagined that in February, the chorus – now 62 members strong, including three married straight men – could wow a crowd at a Kings game in Sleep Train Arena while belting out “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

“Most of us stayed for the game, and I kept waiting for snide comments, but it didn’t happen,” Tentis said. “ I just had people come up to me and say, ‘Great job.’ ”

When the group was introduced at the Kings game, it was with the name it adopted in 2006 – the name with one added word that symbolized acceptance and evolution.

“I would describe our community as confident now. Ebullient,” Tentis said.

The singers swelled with pride while the announcer at Sleep Train Arena presented them to the cheers of the crowd: “Ladies and gentlemen, performing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ the Sacramento Gay Men’s Chorus.”

Call The Bee’s Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096.