On the road to Tyler with the Turtle Creek Chorale

Gay men’s chorus went to East Texas prepared for protest, but instead found a warm welcome

DAVID TAFFET  |  taffet@dallasvoice.com

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NEW IN TOWN | Members of the Turtle Creek Chorale get off the bus in Tyler for their concert at First Presbyterian Church. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

TYLER — After their trip to Spain last summer, Turtle Creek Chorale Artistic Director Jonathan Palant invited me to join them on their next trip. With expenses approved, I was ready. Little did I know that the group’s next tour would be a bus trip to Tyler.

On Saturday, Dec. 11, I accompanied the chorale members as they traveled to East Texas for an out-of-town tryout of their upcoming holiday concert.  One chorale member on the bus assured me, “It’s just like Spain — except nothing like it at all.”

Controversy surrounded the Tyler trip since the church that was originally to host the concert rescinded the invitation. That happened after several large donors threatened to pull their support, causing Marvin Methodist Church to inform the chorale they were no longer welcome to perform there.

But nearby First Presbyterian Church stepped in and welcomed the group to perform a concert as part of that church’s December music and fine arts series.

On Saturday afternoon, Dec. 11, the Chorale left from Cathedral of Hope at 2:30 p.m. in two buses. Several members drove separately.

The group started off for Tyler with at least a little nervousness. Demonstrators had protested the performance of The Laramie Project in Tyler over the summer.

The play about Matthew Shepard recalled a similar incident that occurred in Tyler in 1993 when Nicholas West was kidnapped and murdered in Bergfeld Park. On World AIDS Day this year, a plaque was unveiled in the park memorializing West’s death. That mere placing of a marker to remember a murder also stirred controversy in this East Texas city.

And the demonstrators had threatened to return to protest Saturday night’s chorale performance. Singers said that threat was on their minds as they drove to East Texas that afternoon. In its 31-year history, the chorale has never been protested.

When the buses pulled up to the church right off of Broadway, Tyler’s main street, only church staff greeted the chorale. No protesters in sight.

Chorale members retrieved their garment bags from under the buses, filed into the church, laid their concert attire down over the pews and quickly gathered at the pulpit to begin blocking and rehearsing.

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GETTING READY | The Turtle Creek Chorale rehearses at First Presbyterian Church in Tyler before their performance there Saturday. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

Several songs got full run-throughs. The singers’ entrance and exit from the pulpit-turned-stage was quickly improvised. Small groups like Encore, soloists, a drum group and a tambourine quartet figured out how they would make their way from various positions among the chorus to front and off-center on the main floor.

Betelehemu, a Nigerian Christmas song, required foot motion and hand gestures during the performance. A few members weren’t coordinating their motions. Palant suggested those singers only do the hand gestures. A second run-through of the song went smoother.

At 6 p.m., the church served dinner in the Fellowship Hall. By 6:50 p.m., most of the singers were upstairs in the classrooms, changing into their tuxedos.

I checked the sidewalks around the church. Still no protesters.

The pews were already filling up.

At 7:10 p.m., everyone met in the chapel behind the main sanctuary. Don Jones, who signs every concert for the hearing-impaired, rehearsed the group’s signing of Silent Night.

Then Palant reviewed what he called stage etiquette.

“Jackets unbuttoned,” he said.

Someone joked that was because Palant could no longer button his.

“Never applaud our own singers,” Palant said. “Smile.”

Don’t wipe tears. Emotion is good. Wiping is distracting. Place hands down when jazz hands aren’t required.

For the chorale, no gesture, no motion, no entrance on stage goes unrehearsed.

Before leaving the chapel, everyone joined hands for a pre-performance chorale ritual: Palant said the Jewish prayer of thanks that marks special occasions called Shehechianu.

He said the prayer was a favorite of his in his own tradition and it became a chorale tradition in his second season. Members embraced it and several explained its beauty to me.

Palant told the singers that this concert was an example of “the power of harmony to tear down walls.”

Some audience members had arriving early because of a mix-up in the newspaper. The Patriot Singers and Chorale of UT Tyler were scheduled at 6 p.m. the following night. The newspaper switched the Dallas group and UT’s appearances.

When told who tonight’s performers were, one couple left. Another several shrugged and decide to stay anyway.

By 7:30 p.m., the sanctuary was standing room only. Although no protesters showed up outside the church, the audience was as aware of the controversy as the chorale.

Cecily Luft is a board member of the church. She said that two weeks earlier, the chapel where the chorale was now gathered was the site of a World AIDS Day service and the dedication ceremony for the Nicholas West plaque.

Rabbi Neal Katz from Tyler’s Congregation Beth El and the Rev. Stuart Baskin, First Presbyterian’s pastor, conducted the service, said Luft. Sheriff Lupe Valdez also spoke at the event in the church.

Luft said that when Music Director Donald Duncan told the board about what happened at the Methodist church down the street, they unanimously voted to invite the chorale to perform there.

“Gay” never entered the discussion, she said.

“This is the most gay-friendly church in Tyler,” Luft said. “It just was never an issue.”

Then she boasted, “And we have the best acoustics in Tyler.”

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READY TO TAKE THE STAGE | Turtle Creek Chorale members dressed for performance wait to begin their concert at First Presbyterian Church in Tyler. (David Taffet/Dallas Voice)

The acoustics were magnificent in the church and the chorale sounded best from the choir loft or balcony at the rear of the church.

After the chorale filed into the sanctuary and sang its first number, Deck the Halls, Duncan welcomed the group to Tyler.

“Despite the controversy surrounding your venue, we are very glad you are here,” he said. “As you can see by the crowd, a whole lot of people in Tyler are welcoming you, too, and you are welcome back anytime.”

His remarks were interrupted by applause several times.

Later in the concert, Palant introduced several people, including the group Tyler Area Gays, which filled several rows and had done much of the publicity for the event. Loud applause from the crowd greeted Tyler’s gay group.

Duncan acknowledged NPR reporter Wade Goodwin, who was there working on a piece about the chorale for Public Radio.

The audience took Palant’s jokes in good humor, including calling Tyler “the bastion of liberalism,” although his question, “Are there any Latin scholars here?” met silence followed by uneasy laughter.

Throughout the show, the applause was warm, but Betelehemu brought a number of audience members to their feet. If any of the swaying on stage was not coordinated, no one noticed.

After the concert, CD sales were brisk.

One audience member filing out of the church made a point of saying, “We’re Methodists and we loved it,” indicating that not everyone at Marvin Methodist agreed with that church’s decision to uninvite the group.

On the return bus trip to Dallas, everyone was excited about the day.

“I thought it was a great performance,” said chorale member Kevin Hodges. “I told a woman who said ‘thank you’ that it’s a joy for us.”

“I was choking back tears,” said singer Gene Olvera. “Invigorating,” added Darrin Humphrey, another chorale member.

“To me, it’s the sort of thing that made me stay in the chorale 17 years,” said C. E. Bunkley. “There’s purpose to it.”

Palant told the riders in his bus that he wants to do another out-of-town performance next year in another city that might not be completely welcoming.

He said that unlike many other gay men’s choruses around the country, the chorale gets out of the gay ghetto: “That’s part of our mission.”

“It was fun,” said chorale President Dean Baugh. “Up until the point I looked out and people were crying.”

“I was very proud,” said singer Hank Henley.

On the return bus ride, chorale members discussed the lack of protesters. Several suggested that as much as some might have been offended by the chorale’s appearance in town, maybe that group has more shame than Fred Phelps’ notorious Westboro clan and just wouldn’t protest a church.

Palant commented on the energy he felt from both the audience and his group. “As a performer, you perform with your dukes up,” he said. “You puff up your chest and it influences the performance. Tonight was a good example. They fed off our energy and we fed off theirs. We wanted to give them more.”

He said he consciously did not bring up the controversy of the location but was glad that Duncan had.

“I wanted to make an issue of it earlier on,” said Stephen Tosha, the chorale’s senior executive director. He said he wanted the chorale to move more in that direction.

But singer DiMarcus Williams summed up why most of the members of the chorale devote so much time and energy and why they spend so much of their own money to continue performing with the group.

“It was nice to be performing in front of such a welcoming and receptive audience,” said Williams.

Turtle Creek Chorale Holiday Concert, Meyerson Symphony Center, 2301 Flora St. Dec. 20 and 22 at 8 p.m. $30–$67. TurtleCreek.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 17, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

WATCH: E. Texas TV, radio stations ask whether homosexuality will be downfall of America

This is absolutely unbelievable. Wait a second, no it’s not, it’s just East Texas.

The NBC affiliate in Tyler, KETK, along with a local radio station, KTBB, asked viewers and listeners this morning, “Will the acceptance of homosexuality be the downfall of this country?”

Based on their “news report,” it sounds like the stations definitely feel that it will be.

UPDATE: We spoke with some folks at KTBB, and they said we’d have to talk to the owner, Paul Gleiser. Unfortunately, Gleiser is working out of his Dallas studio today and won’t be available, they said. In the meantime, you can call the switchboard at the station, at 903-593-2519. They said the host of the program, Garth Meier, likely will be back in this afternoon. We’ve also left a message KETK. The main number for the TV station is 903-581-5656.

—  John Wright

Navy ensign from East Texas fights anti-gay harassment by superiors

No charges in recent death threat against Steve Crowston, who filed complaint after receiving ‘Romo’s bitch’ call sign from squadron

John Wright  |  Online Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

COWBOYS FAN  |  Dallas Cowboys fan and Navy Ensign Steve Crowston is fighting what he says has been anti-gay harassment by his colleagues and commanders. Crowston, who won’t discuss his sexual orientation, was given the call sign “Romo’s Bitch” by those in his squadron. It was one of several call signs suggested by his colleagues. Others included “Fagmeister” and “Gay Boy.”
COWBOYS FAN | Dallas Cowboys fan and Navy Ensign Steve Crowston is fighting what he says has been anti-gay harassment by his colleagues and commanders. Crowston, who won’t discuss his sexual orientation, was given the call sign “Romo’s Bitch” by those in his squadron. It was one of several call signs suggested by his colleagues. Others included “Fagmeister” and “Gay Boy.”

Navy Ensign Steve Crowston, the East Texas native who’s made headlines of late with claims of anti-gay harassment by his military superiors, says he learned this week that federal authorities don’t plan to file charges against a Dallas man who made a possible death threat against him on the Internet in August.

Crowston, 36, said the Navy Criminal Investigative Service informed him Tuesday, Sept. 7 that federal authorities in Texas don’t plan to pursue the case. The unidentified Dallas-based suspect reportedly made the threat in response to media coverage of Crowston’s harassment allegations, which are currently being investigated by the Navy Inspector General.

The suspect, using the name “Flugelman,” posted a photo of a naked man tied to a “Tree of Woe” on a Naval Aviation-themed website called AirWarriors.com. The caption read, “Send Fagmiester back to the Goatlocker. We’ll take care of him/her/it.”

The “Tree of Woe” is an apparent reference to a tree the lead character was to be crucified on in the film “Conan the Barbarian;” “goatlocker” refers to the fraternity of Navy chiefs; and “Fagmeister” was among the anti-gay call signs members of Crowston’s squadron recommended for him during a meeting in August 2009, prompting the harassment allegations.

“The guy obviously has issues with people who are perceived to be gay,” Crowston said of the man who made the threat. “My big concern was the safety of my family back there [in Texas].”

Crowston said he plans to take up the matter with the office of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas didn’t return a phone call seeking comment about the investigation into the threat.

Crowston, who refuses to disclose his sexual orientation, told Dallas Voice he grew up in East Texas and lived in Mesquite for a few years before joining the Navy in the mid-1990s. Currently based in Virginia Beach, Va., Crowston plans to return to Dallas when he retires from the military in four years.

Crowston is an avid fan of the Dallas Cowboys, which led to his being given the call sign “Romo’s bitch” in a vote by members of Strike Fighter Squadron 136 last year.

But Crowston said “Romo’s bitch” isn’t what bothered him; it was the other call signs that had been recommended and written on a white board in the meeting room, which included “Gay Boy,” “Fagmeister” and “Cowgirl.”

Those who voted on Crowston’s call sign included the squadron’s commanding and executive officers.

Crowston’s case has drawn attention in particular to the problem of offensive and inappropriate call signs, which can be used in official military correspondence and tend to follow someone throughout their career.

Crowston, who’d recently lost a friend to suicide following harassment in the Navy, took his concerns about the call sign incident to his superiors.

He said they retaliated by launching investigations of him and giving him his worst performance review in 16 years in the Navy. He said he endured months of harassment before filing a complaint in February.

The Naval Inspector General’s Office initially found Crowston’s complaint to be unsubstantiated. But Crowston has taken his fight to the Pentagon and Congress, alleging that the investigator was biased because she knew one of the commanding officers he’d named.

Last month, the Navy Inspector General announced it was reopening the case and launching an investigation into how it was initially handled.

“What I’m doing is I’m standing up for my rights, and I’m hoping it will make a difference for myself and others in the military,” Crowston said.

He pointed to the case of Army infantryman Barry Winchell, who was murdered by a fellow soldier in 1999 pursuant to anti-gay harassment.

“The law says ‘don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t harass and don’t pursue,’” Crowston said. “Why is it that we have senior leadership in the Navy still to this day violating the ‘don’t harass’ policy?”

Servicemembers who are gay or perceived to be gay usually don’t report harassment because they fear being outed under DADT, Crowston said.

Aaron Tax, legal director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, agreed.

“It’s very difficult under ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ to safely report harassment and not run afoul of the law, and I think a case like this highlights that,” said Tax, adding that SLDN has been monitoring Crowston’s case.

SLDN is a group dedicated to ending discrimination and harassment against military personnel affected by DADT.

Tax said legislation to repeal DADT originally included a provision that would have banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in the military.

But this provision isn’t contained in the version that passed the House earlier this year, which is expected to be voted on by the Senate later this month.

“Even with repeal of ‘don’t ask don’t tell,’ there will still be a need for strong leadership and comprehensive training to make sure people are not harassed on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation,” Tax said. “What we’re hoping is that President Obama will step up to the plate, and should we get repeal passed by Congress this year, that he will step up to the plate and sign an executive order that once and for all eliminates discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the military.”

Crowston, meanwhile, is awaiting the outcome of the Inspector General’s investigation and plans to continue his battle.

“I’m not going to back down,” he said. “I’m concerned about my safety of course, but I’m going to live my life. To be an activist you’ve got to take a stand. This isn’t about just me.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 10, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

‘There is no day but today’

By Trinity Wheeler, director, “The Laramie Project”

If one, definitive lesson has lingered with me since working with “Rent,” it is that of the lyric, “No day but today.”

This message in mind, I knew it was time — though, well overdue — for “The Laramie Project” in East Texas. When invited to direct a show in my chiefly conservative hometown of Tyler — which experienced a hate crime nearly identical to Matthew Shepard’s, five years before his murder in Laramie, Wyo. — I could have very easily chosen “Steel Magnolias,” “Harvey,” or any other tried-and-true, community-theater staple.

But I didn’t want a crowd pleaser. I wanted to present a production that would allow the audience to consider the views of others, and reconsider their own. To invite debate, discussion, and to open a dialogue — the seeds of progress.

The response I received in coming out was nowhere near positive or pleasant. If this was the reaction of my own family, how would the community respond to a work in which the topic of homosexuality is unabashedly broached?

I went out on a limb in choosing this show, and was very aware of the chance the bough could break, and down would come baby. But the number of East Texans who voiced their support for this production after protests from members of the theater board proved to be unexpectedly staggering.

The show is no stranger to controversy, though I don’t believe any of us imagined we would face opposition long before we even began rehearsals, especially from those who once fully supported the project. But the cast, crew, and community banded together to brave the storm, and I believe we are all the more resolute because of it, having formed a brand of bond unique to such an experience, which may not have happened otherwise.

And that is exactly what this show is about. A community coming together in the wake of adverse events. I have hope for this production, and for Tyler and East Texas. I hold to hope for tomorrow, but, for now, there is no day but today.

—  Dallasvoice

Production of 'The Laramie Project' planned for Tyler appears to be in jeopardy once more

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A few weeks ago we reported that the Tyler Civic Theatre’s board had voted a second time to allow a production of “The Laramie Project” at the theater in June. The second vote came after some members of the board, which had unanimously approved the production in March, received letters from citizens objecting to the play. After “The Laramie Project” was removed from the theater’s Web site, about 100 supporters rallied outside the theater while the board took its second vote. Now, despite that vote, it appears as though the production may be in jeopardy once more. Here’s an update I received Friday from Troy Carlyle, chair of Project TAG (Tyler Area Gays):

We’re having ongoing concerns with the [Tyler] Civic Theater, including the facts that they’ve waited 2 ½ weeks to put anything about the play back onto their website, removed it from the front page (now you have to click a link), removed the TAG (Tyler Area Gays) logo, and even removed the word “gay”! Further, they’re considering reneging on their agreement that TAG would share in the proceeds (even though we are underwriting the play and they are receiving half of the sale of each $20 ticket). And I haven’t mentioned concerns we’ve already resolved, such as interference with cast selection, and the fact that “The Laramie Project” was removed from the TCT website in the first place.

—  John Wright

Anti-gay fears threaten production of 'The Laramie Project' planned for East Texas

Another day, another example of anti-gay bigotry threatening artistic expression in Texas. Actually, this is the second one today, but who’s counting?

Troy Carlyle, chair of Tyler Area Gays (Project TAG), reports that a production of “The Laramie Project” — a play about the hate crime murder of Matthew Shepard — is now in jeopardy due to homophobic backlash in the East Texas city.

According to a press release from Carlyle, the Board of Directors at the Tyler Civic Theatre voted unanimously in March to approve the production of “The Laramie Project.” Auditions have been held and actors assembled. The production, a joint venture between Project TAG and the theater, is scheduled to open on June 17 and play for three performances.

But in response to “letters of concern to the theater from Tyler citizens,” some board members are withdrawing their support, and a second vote reportedly will be taken April 13. Director Trinity Wheeler was among those made aware Thursday that one of the board members called the theater’s Web master and had him remove the production information from the Web site.

“The goal of ‘The Laramie Project’ is to promote thoughtful discussion and give audiences the opportunity to hear from a wide variety of Laramie residents and those most associated with the murder of Matthew Shepard. The move by these board members to cancel the production is ironic, since it demonstrates the need for the exact kind of education that is provided in the play,” Wheeler said. “I grew up in Tyler and am very excited to bring this production to East Texas. The play examines crimes of hate. The Tyler community experienced a hate crime in 1993 with the murder of Nicholas West, the gay man that was taken from Bergfeld park and shot numerous times. ‘The Laramie Project’ is about a community coming together and healing as a group in the same way Tyler did after the West murder. The James Byrd, Jr. murder in Jasper is another example of senseless hate and a community coming together to heal.”

Even if the Tyler Civil Theatre won’t stage it, Wheeler vowed that the show will go on. He says there’s a lot of excitement about the production, and a week-old Facebook page already has 322 fans.

“On June 17, there will be a production of ‘The Laramie Project’ in Tyler. We are currently regrouping with the cast, staff and Project TAG. I would still like to present this production at Tyler Civic Theatre because this is the theatre where I grew up. With that said, a cancellation decision by the Board of Directors will not stop this production. The opinions of a few people in the community have made cowards of a select number of board members and by withdrawing their unanimous approval of this production they are allowing the opinions of a few to affect the community as a whole. People want this production to happen.”

The Facebook page is encouraging supporters of the play to gather outside the board meeting at 5:30 p.m. next Tuesday and to e-mail their concerns to the theater at info@tylercivictheatre.com.

—  John Wright