Sincerity and Irony in the "Gay Music" of GALA Choruses

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Source

Journal of American Culture


The Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses, better known as GALA Choruses, is an umbrella organization which represents and supports most of the gay and lesbian‐affiliated choral ensembles in the United States and abroad. Currently, more than 150 community choirs in the United States and Canada are members of GALA (pronounced “gay‐la”). These choirs, which are located in big cities and small towns across the continent, collectively include tens of thousands of singers. Together with their audiences, GALA choirs involve millions of people in thousands of performances every year. Although the majority of these choirs are all‐male, in which an overwhelming percentage of the singers self‐identify as gay, GALA Choruses also includes women's groups, in which typically about fifty percent of the choristers are lesbians, and mixed groups of men and women, again in which most of the singers self‐identify as GLBT. The largest of these choirs include hundreds of choristers, are led by artistic directors with doctorates in music, and successfully solicit millions of dollars in individual and corporate donations. They perform for large audiences in important venues across the country, including at the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.

GALA ensembles—most often called “choruses”—identify themselves as part of a gay and lesbian choral movement. The movement arose in the mid‐1970s, when the first lesbian feminist chorus, the Anna Crusis Women's Choir, was formed in Philadelphia. Shortly thereafter, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus was founded. Within its first decade, the movement sparked the creation of dozens of choruses (GALA Choruses, “History”). Participation in the movement continues to grow; GALA's quadrennial Festival, held in Denver, Colorado in July 2012, attracted more than six thousand attendees. Despite their significance in American life during the past four decades, GALA choruses have been the subject of remarkably few scholarly studies. Paul Attinello's seminal book chapter, published in 1994, was based on survey data collected from the members of America's five largest gay male choruses. In his chapter, Attinello outlined several avenues for future research on gay and lesbian choruses, among them, a need to examine the songs created and performed by these groups (324). Since then, two scholar‐practitioners have produced dissertations which focus on one specific aspect of the repertoire, the commissioned works written—usually by gay and lesbian composers—for one or more GALA ensembles (Coyle, Significant Male Voice Repertory; Mensel). Such commissioned pieces do indeed form an important part of the repertoire of GALA choruses. However, all GALA choruses sing a wide range of pieces beyond the music they commission, and a comprehensive analysis of the broad repertoire of GALA choruses has yet to be published.

In this article, I offer a framework for understanding the entirety of the GALA repertoire. It consists of three large categories, which I identify as community songs, contrafacta, and commissioned pieces. GALA Choruses insiders routinely describe selections from all three of these categories as “gay music.” This repertoire provides a window on “gay culture” and allows us to examine one vibrant component of that culture. Some of the most influential scholars in queer studies have asserted that gay culture is linked to the camp aesthetic. I will argue that the breadth of the GALA repertoire shows that gay and lesbian singers do indeed value campy songs and claim them as their own “gay music” (indeed, a number of them used the term “campy” to explain to me what they meant by “gay songs”), but that their understanding of “gay music” extends beyond camp to serious songs presented with deep sincerity.

Inclusive pages





John Wiley & Sons





Peer Reviewed