Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Who's afraid of a choir master?


SF Gay Men's Chorus conductor Kathleen McGuire moves on

Kathleen McGuire conducts the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. Photo: San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus
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When Kathleen McGuire conducts the last of a trio of Christmas Eve concerts at the Castro Theatre this month, she will put the finishing flourish on a decade-long tenure as the first female conductor of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus. She's going out with a bang. McGuire promises that the program, A Soulful Celebration, will rock.

"Lots of gospel-style music," she said one recent afternoon as she hurried to get ready for a rehearsal. "My first major appearance with SFGMC was the holiday concert in 2000, so these concerts are a fitting way to end. It will be very uplifting. The chorus will totally lift the roof!"

McGuire is stepping down in order to "take a leap of faith to follow my heart." In September, she became the director of Singers of the Street (S.O.S.), a community choir for people living on the margins of society, especially the homeless.

"S.O.S. is something I've been thinking about for a couple of years," McGuire says.  She credits a visit to the Choir of Hope and Inspiration, an Australian community chorus for the homeless and disadvantaged, with giving her the idea to mount a similar project in this country. "I am passionate about trying to help those who are marginalized in our society."

For the next few weeks, however, McGuire will concentrate her energies on preparing her swansong with SFGMC. Asked what her legacy will be, McGuire is quick to note that she was instrumental in "bringing SFGMS back into the community." She points to the outreach program she launched in 2001, which took the chorus into venues where it had not previously appeared, including schools, women's organizations, churches, the Special Olympics, the Gospel Academy Awards Ceremony and the California Freedom Tour. Under her leadership, the chorus has raised almost $500,000 for charities. "It has become the most important thing that SFGMC does," she declares.

McGuire had been conducting a mixed gay and lesbian chorus at the University of Colorado when, in 1999, she began scouting out professional jobs. Her partner at the time pleaded with her not to try for another conductorship with a gay chorus, because it was "such difficult, challenging work." But when McGuire learned of the position with SFGMC, she decided to apply. "Just to mess with them. I mean, it was a male bastion. I really didn't think in my wildest dreams they would look at me seriously. Even when I was down to one of the last three candidates, I thought they were paying lip service." She smiles. "I was wrong."

McGuire's first years as director engendered some attrition and even outright hostility among a cohort of disgruntled members. There is no rancor in her voice as she recalls this rocky honeymoon, calling it "the usual stuff you get with transition."

McGuire weathered the storm and quickly established herself as a conductor not only of intelligence, taste and high standards, but one also known for her ability to win over audiences. Her motto: Who's afraid of a choir?

"People often say to me, 'This chorus has been here 30 years. Why do you still exist? The laws are changing. It's so much easier than it used to be.' But as long as we don't have equal rights, we still have much to sing about. And when we do get equal rights, we can sing in celebration of our successes. LGBT choruses provide an important family for those who participate. I think that will always be the case."

A self-declared "tomboy from Day One," McGuire grew up in Melbourne, Australia, into a family she characterizes as not especially musical. In college, she majored in music composition. By her senior year, she had "some inkling" that she might be gay, but not until she happened by chance to see the 1985 film Desert Hearts, based on the Jane Rule nove

Conductor Kathleen McGuire. Photo: Steven Underhill
l, did McGuire "snap out of whatever I was in." The next year, after a car accident nearly took her life, she "suddenly had this strong feeling that I have to stop lying to myself. And within a week I'd had an experience with a woman."

During the next several years, McGuire continued her musical studies in Australia. As scholarly-minded as she is (McGuire has published articles on various topics in classical music, including one on t empo problems in Arnold Schoenberg's Kammersymphonie No. 1), she is not above jamming in a gospel band or playing bass guitar and singing back-up in a rock band, an experience she says was "a great fit for what I do now."

She moved to the States in 1995 to pursue a relationship with a woman she met on When their relationship didn't work out, McGuire decided to stay on in the US, where the opportunities for conductorships seemed better. She recalls going for an interview at the University of Colorado on the day that the US Supreme Court struck down Colorado's notorious Amendment 2, which had denied homosexuals protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"I was walking around campus that day thinking, 'What's going on? Everyone looks so gay!'" Making her way to the main student square, she came upon a rally where the news was just being announced. It was the day before her birthday. McGuire thought, "Wow, I guess this thing's going to work out here."

McGuire is fond of saying that she "came to America as a conductor and became an activist." She acknowledges that there can be a professional stigma attached to heading up a gay musical group, but quickly adds that once she started to embrace "the activism piece of it," she started to enjoy the position even more.

She mentions a conducting colleague who "felt envious of me because when we make music, our being there has changed somebody's life – it's beyond music. The change that we make is seeing somebody say, 'Wow, now I can come out to my grandmother.' Before we go on stage, I say, 'Tonight you will change somebody's life.'"

McGuire's enthusiasm for the nexus of music and activism has extended to many other projects. She is the founder of the GLAM Youth Show Choir, a chorus for LBGTQ youth and their supportive peers; she conducts the all-female Community Women's Orchestra; she has been in the 545-mile AIDS/LifeCycle ride. In 2006, she served as Community Grand Marshal for the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade and Celebration.

McGuire confesses to feeling "bittersweet" about stepping down as director of the Gay Men's Chorus. "SFGMC is my family. On the other hand, I'm looking forward to a change." That will include putting more energy into securing grants, recruiting more singers, and getting support from City Hall for the fledgling S.O.S. choir. McGuire will also continue to conduct the Oakland-based Community Women's Orchestra, and undertake "plenty of arranging," including a major project with Seattle Women's Chorus.

In recalling her visit to the Choir of Hope and Inspiration, McGuire notes how welcoming those homeless men and women were, "people who previously I had been afraid of. I'll never forget how I felt that day. It was a huge turnaround for me. The power of song is huge."

Philip Gambone's latest book is Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans (U. Wisconsin Press).

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