LGBTQ Health in harmony

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Out Health photo of the Gay Chorus on the field
Out Health photo of the Gay Chorus on the field

Out Health

A choir, a band, or an orchestra can create beautiful music. They can unite people through being a member, attending as audience, socializing at rehearsals or performances, creating new music by working with composers, and bonding members together as a family. They can also promote good health.

Mental health improves just by being together with others in a common musical venture, and that improvement can intensify if it is an LGBTQ musical group, where members can be in a supportive, open environment that may not be found at work or at home. Physical health improves with singers or wind instrument players because the slowing and lengthening of the breath promotes a lower blood pressure and a slower heart rate.

According to Frontiers in Psychology, “One reason for this may be that singing demands a slower than normal respiration, which may in turn affect heart activity. Coupling of heart rate variability (HRV) to respiration is called Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). This coupling has a subjective as well as a biologically soothing effect, and it is beneficial for cardiovascular function.”

An article in The Conversation helps deepen our understanding of this by saying, “The physiological benefits of singing, and music more generally, have long been explored. Music making exercises the brain as well as the body, but singing is particularly beneficial for improving breathing, posture, and muscle tension. Listening to and participating in music has been shown to be effective in pain relief, too, probably due to the release of neurochemicals such as β-endorphin (a natural painkiller responsible for the “high” experienced after intense exercise).” They go on to say, “there’s also some evidence to suggest that music can play a role in sustaining a healthy immune system, by reducing the stress hormone cortisol and boosting the Immunoglobin A antibody.”

I directed the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus for 12 years. I know that at any rehearsal, or at any performance, you could have asked anyone in the choir if they felt better after it than they felt before it, and almost all the time you would have gotten a resounding, “Yes!”

There are times when even singing with friends can’t undo a bad day but those times are rare. Standing in front of a group of gay men, and in the later years, men and women, I could be my total self, relaxed and open, as could the singers in the choir. That has a powerful effect on physical and mental health.

I spoke with a long-time colleague, Eric Peterson, former director of the Big Apple Corps Band, and current performer in the Queer Urban Orchestra, both in New York City. Among the benefits of participation in those groups that he noted were an increase in good breathing, improving the ability to concentrate and focus, not having to put up a façade because of being in an organization that is supportive and inclusive of gay people, and helping develop good posture and abdominal tone. He summed it up by saying, “You can relax in the bath of being in a gay space.”

I also spoke to Charles Beale, former director of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, Vice President of the Board of Directors of GALA Choruses (Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses), and founder of the Global Alliance of Queer Choirs. He assured me that I was not alone in feeling that being involved in a gay chorus, as compared to any other type of chorus, was more intimate. There is an immediate and commonly felt closeness and intimacy that is much harder to find and develop without the connection of being gay, where we might have had to, at some point in life, hide many aspects of who we are, and may have suffered shame, or maltreatment, for being gay. He said, “It’s a convergence. We all come together, often in spite of ourselves.”

I couldn’t write on this topic without visiting my old friends at the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus (NJGMC). I spoke with one of only a couple of men who have been involved with the group from the beginning, Richard Alagona.

“You can be yourself, open up,” He said of being in a gay choir. “You can talk to people about work, or about family and you know it will stay there. Thirty years ago, when we started, that might have been the only place you could do that. Even then, the chorus was in the closet. We changed the name, came out of the closet, lost a few members, but we are better off. More connected. More healthy. Less lonely. I wouldn’t have come out without the Chorus.”

Singing is powerful. Sound is healing. Companionship is curative. Breath is foundational.

Some of my most fond and compelling musical memories are with the NJGMC. Nothing can replicate the feeling of performing at a GALA Choruses Conference with an audience full of thousands of other gay chorus singers, fully and audibly supporting everyone who went on stage. Walking the streets of the host city, where 90 percent of the people I would encounter would be gay, and gay singers at that, I could imagine what it might feel like to be straight. But I wouldn’t trade being a musician, a singer, or being gay for anything.

And I know I’m healthier for it.