They came. They sang. They wore pink cowboy hats
When the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus embarked on its Freedom Tour into the heart of Proposition 8 territory over the weekend, there were concerns. Would red-state towns like Redding and Chico turn out to see gay men in tuxedos singing "Over the Rainbow"? Would there be protests, threats or fear-mongering from Shasta County's fundamentalist community?
But chorus artistic director and conductor Kathleen McGuire asked: "Who is afraid of a choir?"
Make no mistake, this isn't a tour. It's a groundbreaking political action. In the upcoming months, they'll visit Bakersfield, Fresno and Tracy, all strongholds for Prop. 8, the measure that banned same-sex marriage. They hope their music will help personalize the fight for gays to marry.
It is more than a small gamble. They could face protests, fights or even worse - complete indifference.
"When the tickets didn't sell at first, I thought, 'Oh God, no one is going to show up,' " said Amy Andrews, a welfare worker in Redding, who helped arrange the show at the 1,000-plus-seat Cascade Theatre. "And then tickets just took off. I have never been prouder of my hometown."
Saturday's show was a sellout. So was Sunday's 450-seat event in Chico, where they received a standing ovation.
Looking for answers
Rednecks in those towns can sneer - singers said they experienced a few catcalls - but the 90 unapologetic gay men, many sporting wedding rings, came to town asking tough questions. They performed "William's Song," the true story of a high school boy who was beat up because of his sexuality. And when they sing the chorus - "Why does it take five great big guys to beat up one little queer?" - they expect some answers.
This weekend, they proved harder to ignore than the local cowboys may have expected.
There were several conservative Christians in the audience. They said they were there supporting a friend or family member, but I defy them to say they weren't moved.
Because once it was established that the chorus wasn't decked out in feather boas or leather chaps, it was impossible not to notice that they looked like our sons, our brothers and our fathers. And that is the real message of this tour. At some point, every man onstage sat down with his family to tell them he was gay.
That moment still moves many of the men. Marc Savitt says he was 40 when he told his mother. He told her it wasn't anything he chose, or anything she did, but he hoped she would love him for what he is, rather than what she wishes he was.
There's a song in the program that says that. Savitt cries every time - and keeps singing.
The Rev. Jeff Frost from All Saints Episcopal attended Saturday. He's adamant that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.
"But," he said Saturday, "I struggle with it a little bit."
The chorus didn't expect a total transformation.
As for the area's small, quiet gay community, they seemed blown away. Bill McPhetridge, a gay man in his late 60s, moved to the area in 1988. Was he surprised at the turnout?
"Redding really does have a lot of rednecks," he said.
When the guys put on their glitter-trimmed pink Stetsons and hoedowned to "If You Were Gay," let's just say the Redding Rodeo may never again have quite the same vibe.
The night brought political statements, dead-perfect harmonies, standout soloists and a rip-roaring gospel version of "Oh Happy Day" - featuring choir-robed Sanford Smith - that lifted the crowd right out of their seats.
The performance also brought a sucker punch of emotion for just about everyone.
A stranger threw her arms around baritone Brian Jung.
"Until now," she said, "we felt like the only parents in Shasta County with a gay child."
Standing at the bar across the street from the theater, Denise Wallace was knocking back vodka with friends. When I asked the short, feisty 60-year-old with a voice with the timbre of a chain saw if she was going to the concert, she initially replied with an answer unfit for print. And then elaborated.
"I grew up a lesbian in Shasta County," she said. "When I was 26, I got a job at the paper company. And every day when I went to work, 'Denise is a queer' was written everywhere. It was awful. First I was hurt, but now I'm pissed."
An hour later during the concert, Wallace's tough talk gave way to unapologetic tears.
Launching the tour in Redding was no mistake. In 1999, the town was the site of an infamous hate crime when brothers Matthew and Tyler Williams murdered a well-known gay couple, Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder. Mathew committed suicide in prison. Tyler is serving a 60-year prison term.
But it was also a homecoming for choir member Bud Dillon. Dillon admitted he had a spell Saturday night when he mouthed the words, too choked up to sing.
"I didn't know what gay was when I was in high school," Dillon said. "I had a horse, a western saddle and cowboy boots. I just knew I was different. I didn't come out until I was 30."
Nearly 100 people came to support him. He admits many don't support his lifestyle. His grandfather was a Seventh-day Adventist minister, and he says "90 percent of my relatives are Christians ... right-wing Christians. But they are still good people."
Among those at the Redding show was Patrick Henry Jones, the mayor and a gun shop owner. Jones admitted, "If you'd asked me a couple of months ago if I would be here, I would have said probably not."
But prodded by Frank Treadway, cultural coordinator of the Shasta Arts Council, Jones attended and presented the chorus with a proclamation. Treadway said that after convincing the mayor to come, he suggested he bring his wife.
"I'm not married," Jones said. "Never have been."
"So," Treadway asked, "does that mean you're available?"